Evolution of cooperation

“Survival of the fittest” is the leitmotif of Natural Selection.  How does “Cooperation” fit into the picture? Martin Nowak, professor at Harvard University, gives us a list on July’s Scientific American of 5 mechanisms he has identified, that overcome natural selection’s predilection for selfish behaviour:

  1.  Direct reciprocity:  This mechanism exists in cultures where people live together, meeting usually the same people over and over.  Groups that have developed the ‘tit-for-tat’ mechanism, giving and returning favors, after many generations have evolved to being more generous, ending up by forgiving occasional mistakes (people not returning a favor or giving help)
  2. Spatial selection:  When a cooperator meets a selfish person, he will offer his help but will not have it in return, Thus, the cooperator one may not survive.  For cooperation to prevail, it’s better not to have a uniformed distributed population, as cooperators prevail better when they are grouped together.  And they become fittest as a group than the selfish ones.
  3. Kin selection: We tend to be more cooperative with persons that share our genes.  Parents are willing to give their lives for their children, and will help more a relative than a stranger, though the relationship between ‘genetically closeness’ and ‘willingness to cooperate’ is not well defined.
  4. Indirect reciprocity:  An individual will receive more help if he has a good reputation. We will be tempted to help a stranger if we know he is a good man, a giver, or an important personality for the community.
  5. Group selection:  Individuals are willing to do selfless acts for the greater good.  This is empowering natural selection at a different unit level, making ‘Survival of the fittest’ true at the group level.

These mechanisms that allow the emergence of cooperation exist in different levels, from cells to all kinds of organisms, individuals and can also be applied to groups, as a company may be.  And in his research, letting evolution go on, he noticed that even when at the beginning (after a few generations) the selfish ones prevailed, after many generations the cooperators came back and recovered a strong position.  And this process seemed to be a cyclic one…

So if cooperation is everywhere, is there a difference that explains why we humans are ahead in evolution than the other animals?  Maybe it is that we are far better with the fourth mechanism of indirect reciprocity.  We have a good use of language, we can convey who did what, and we really care about reputation.  In his article, Martin Nowak says:

My Harvard colleague Rebecca Henderson, an expert on competitive strategy  in the business world, notes that Toyota gained a competitive edge over other car manufacturers in the 1980s in part because of its reputation for treating suppliers fairly.

But if we are to survive to our planetary problems, it’s the fifth mechanism that we need to develop!  Actual planetary challenges imply putting the ‘public goods’ in front of our selfish interest.  Researchers are using games theory to analyze these ‘public goods’ scenarios,  like the classic scenario known as the Tragedy of the Commons:

…where a group of livestock farmers who share grazing land allow their animals to overgraze on the communal turf, despite knowing that they are ultimately destroying everyone’s resource, including their own.[..] If cooperators tend to defect when it comes to custodianship of communal assets, how can we ever hope to preserve the planet’s ecological capital for future generations?

Using computer simulations, the researchers have shown that people where more altruistic when they were convinced of the necessity of leaving their own needs aside.   And also, that they were more willing to do the right thing when they were watched :-))

So that’s something for our politicians to keep in mind when creating future policies to save the Earth!


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