Does Evolution Punish or Favor the Selfish?

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Last year, a new theory outlining how evolution favors selfish people made headlines. But in the end, it’s teamwork and communication that win out, evolutionary biologists argue in a new paper in the journal Nature Communications.

“We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean,” lead author Christoph Adami, Michigan State University professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, said in a press release. ”For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.”

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The researchers believe the theory holds true in all organisms, and even plan to experiment on yeast cells, the Daily Mail reports.

For the current paper, they used game theory to run high-powered computing to test the previous theory that favors being selfish (known as zero determinant strategy). The results showed that zero determinant strategy could work in the short-term if the player knew their opponents and were able to exploit their weaknesses. But once those players were eliminated, the theory broke down.

“The only way ZD strategists could survive would be if they could recognize their opponents,” co-author Arend Hintze, molecular and microbiology research associate, 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.”

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For example, the researchers studied a hypothetical scenario in which police offer a deal to two people who have been arrested. They’re allowed to go free if you tell on the other person, but if both talk, they each get a three-month prison sentence. If neither talks, they each get a month based on a lesser offense. If the prisoners are allowed to talk to each other, they usually cooperate and get the one-month sentence. If they’re not, they usually tell on the other person.

“Communication is critical for cooperation; we think communication is the reason cooperation occurs,” Adami told the Daily Mail.

Image: iStockphoto

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