Evolution Doesn’t Favor Meanies

Finally, a break for the good guys!

In a highly publicized paper, two MSU BEACONites, Christoph Adami and Arend Hintze, have provided some evidence that evolution doesn’t favor selfish behavior. Contrary to recent, previous studies which show selfish behavior as beneficial, Adami and Hintze “found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean. “It appears that selfishness may be a good short-term strategy in a select few cases, but is difficult to maintain over time: “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, published in Nature Communications, uses game theory as its foundation. Game theory is used not just in biology, but in a variety of disciplines including economics, political science, and even music composition. At its most basic, game theoretic models try to understand strategic decision making, or when to cooperate and when to be selfish, and under what conditions. Within biology, research over the last 30 years has investigated how and why organisms cooperate, as cooperation is found in a variety of life forms.

In 2012, a scientific paper announced a so-called new “zero-determinant” (ZD) strategy, which when implemented guaranteed selfish players would beat those that were cooperative. These results appeared novel, and created “quite a stir,” yet Adami and Hintze doubted whether following a ZD strategy would work. If followed, ZD would essentially eliminate cooperators and create a world solely inhabited by selfish beings.

To investigate the possible evolution of a selfish world, Adami and Hintze ran hundreds of thousands of games using high-powered computing. They found simply that ZD strategies can never be the product of evolution.

Although ZD strategies work well against non-ZD opponents, they don’t work well against other
selfish, ZD opponents. Selfish, ZD strategies were effective only if players knew whether they were playing a selfish or cooperative competitor. “The only way ZD strategists could survive would be if they could recognize their opponents,” Hintze said. “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.” So, in the end, being selfish only gets you so far. It’s teamwork and communication that win out evolutionarily.

This ‘nice’ article has lead to tons of press, and has set sharing records of MSUToday’s website on Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, and was found trending on Reddit. Want more? See the articles in Discovery and other popular media, or consult the article itself: Christoph Adami and Arend Hintze. Evolutionary instability of zero-determinant strategies demonstrates that winning is not everything. Nature Communications Volume 4, August 2013, doi:10.1038/ncomms3193.

[This is a repost from my work with the BEACON Buzz for October 2013]

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