18064Evolution Punishes Selfishness
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EVOLUTION WILL PUNISH SELFISH MEANIES
By Layne Cameron
August 2, 2013
Biologists say they have new evidence that evolution tends to favor
cooperation, not selfishness.
The findings refute a theory popularized in 2012 that suggests meanies
have the evolutionary upper hand.
“We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean,” says
lead author Christoph Adami, Michigan State University professor of
microbiology and molecular genetics. “For a short time and against a
specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead.
But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.”
The paper appears in the current issue of Nature Communications and
focuses on game theory, which is used in biology, economics, political
science, and other disciplines. Much of the last 30 years of research
has focused on how cooperation came to be, since it’s found in many
forms of life, from single-cell organisms to people.
In 2012, a scientific paper unveiled a newly discovered strategy—called
zero-determinant—that gave selfish players a guaranteed way to beat
“The paper caused quite a stir,” says Adami, who co-authored the paper
with Arend Hintze, molecular and microbiology research associate. “The
main result appeared to be completely new, despite 30 years of intense
research in this area.”
Adami and Hintze had their doubts about whether following a zero
determinant strategy (ZD) would essentially eliminate cooperation and
create a world full of selfish beings.
They used high-powered computing to run hundreds of thousands of games
and found ZD strategies can never be the product of evolution. While ZD
strategies offer advantages when they’re used against non-ZD opponents,
they don’t work well against other ZD opponents.
“In an evolutionary setting, with populations of strategies, you need
extra information to distinguish each other,” Adami says.
So ZD strategies only worked if players knew their opponents and adapted
their strategies accordingly. A ZD player would play one way against
another ZD player and a different way against a cooperative player.
“The only way ZD strategists could survive would be if they could
recognize their opponents,” Hintze says. “And even if ZD strategists
kept winning so that only ZD strategists were left, in the long run they
would have to evolve away from being ZD and become more cooperative. So
they wouldn’t be ZD strategists anymore.”
The National Science Foundation and Michigan State University supported
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