The evolution of sharing

For those who want to deny any sort of higher, or deeper, quality to human existence the notion of the “selfish gene” has served admirably. This idea says that life is merely the expression of a gene’s intrinsic need to reproduce itself. It is not a particularly romantic view of life, the universe and everything and thankfully it is not universally accepted. Indeed when it comes to human behaviour selfishness has generally been believed to be not so successful which is why altruism and cooperation have been so well studied. In 2012 however, a report suggested that in fact selfishness is the most successful evolutionary strategy and much debate followed. An analysis just released however, says that selfishness may not be so useful after all.

Over the last 30 years lots of research has focused on how cooperation came to be since it is found in many forms of life, from single-cell organisms to people. To study this researchers have used “Game Theory” which is used in biology, economics, political science, and other disciplines.
In particular researchers have used a game called “the prisoner’s dilemma” as a model to study cooperation. In this game two people have committed a crime and are arrested. Police offer each person a deal: snitch on your friend and go free while the friend spends six months in jail. If both prisoners snitch, they both get three months in jail. If they both stay silent, they both get one month in jail for a lesser offense.

If the two prisoners get a chance to talk to each other, they can establish trust and are usually more likely to cooperate because then both of them only spend one month in jail. However, if they are not allowed to communicate, the best strategy is to snitch because it guarantees the snitcher doesn’t get the longer jail term.

What the prisoner’s dilemma allows scientists to study is a basic question faced by individuals competing for limited resources: do I act selfishly or do I cooperate? Cooperating would do the most good for the most individuals, but it might be tempting to be selfish and risk getting ultimate benefits for your self.

It had been found over many decades of research by many different researchers that cooperation is the best way to play the prisoner’s dilemma game and, by extension, the best way ti play life. What happened in 2012 though was that in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences researchers said they had identified a new way of playing the game called the zero determinant strategy (ZD). Using a ZD strategy a player has the unique ability to set their opponent’s payoff to a specific value, regardless of how their opponent plays the game. So a ZD strategy can force the opponent to accept an uneven deal. Either the ZD player gets more than the opponent, or the opponent gets nothing. This essentially means that selfish players should always win using a ZD strategy.

This was pretty profound stuff because it turned on its head the idea that cooperation was the most productive way to live instead saying that selfishness was the ideal evolutionary strategy.

However, the tables have again turned in this new study.

In the new study researchers 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 the end, they found that while selfish organisms might come out ahead for a short time against some non-selfish opponents, in the end selfishness is not stable in evolutionary terms.

You may not have known it, but our understanding teetered there for a while on the brink of a selfish abyss. Thankfully calmer, more cooperative, heads have prevailed and you can again lay your head on the pillow tonight secure in the knowledge that life is innately cooperative and altruistic.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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