A new study reveals new evidence that evolution favors cooperation over selfishness. Researchers explain that while selfishness can offer short-term success, selfish people will eventually become extinct because they will sooner or later be outnumbered by competitors who cooperate to achieve shared goals.
Image: Researchers explain that while selfishness can offer short-term success, selfish people will eventually become extinct because they will sooner or later be outnumbered by competitors who cooperate to achieve shared goals. (Photo : Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)
In the study, published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers used high-powered computing to run hundreds of thousands of games to see whether it was selfishness or selflessness that ultimately won.
"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 news 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."
The latest findings go against the widely-held "Zero Determinant" theory that says that selfish players are guaranteed to beat cooperative players.
However, researchers explained that there are so many strategies and ways of "winning" in evolution, and that it is important to be able to communicate and cooperate in order to succeed.
In the study, researchers used the prisoner's dilemma as a model to study cooperation where two people have committed a crime and are arrested. The prisoners are each offered a deal by police. If one person tells on their friend, they would go free while their friend spends six months in jail. If both prisoners snitch they both get three months in jail and if 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 on month in jail. However, if they're not allowed to communicate, the best strategy is to snitch because it guarantees the snitcher doesn't get the longer jail term.
Researchers said the game allows them to study a basic question faced by individuals competing for limited resources. Do they act selfishly or do they cooperate.
Cooperation would do the most good for the most people, but it might be tempting to be selfish and freeload by letting others do the work and take the risks.
Researchers found that zero determinant or selfish ways of beating opponents only worked if the player knew who their cooperative opponent was and beat them by taking advantage of their weaknesses.
"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 in a statement. "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."
Researchers said that communication is critical for cooperation, and that communication is the reason cooperation occurs.
It is believed that there are five independent mechanisms that foster cooperation. However, researchers note that these mechanisms are really just ways to ensure that cooperators play mostly with other cooperators and avoid all others.
Adami believes that the same set of principles apply to all organisms. He adds that he plans on testing the idea directly in yeast cells.