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Paper: Evolution Favors Cooperation Over Selfishness 245

Posted by Soulskill
from the can't-we-all-just-get-along dept.
Beeftopia writes "Conventional wisdom has suggested selfishness is most beneficial evolutionary strategy for humans, while cooperation is suboptimal. This dovetailed with a political undercurrent dating back more than a century, starting with social Darwinism. A new paper in the journal Nature Communications casts doubt on this school of thought. The paper shows that while selfishness is optimal in the short term, it fails in the long term. Cooperation is seen as the most effective long term human evolutionary strategy."
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Paper: Evolution Favors Cooperation Over Selfishness

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 02, 2013 @02:15PM (#44459775)

    Cooperation is seen as the most effective long term human evolutionary strategy.

    Bands - tribes - of folks had to cooperate to hunt, gather food, fight off invaders, etc ....

    And I am pretty sure Scientific American has had articles on this for quite a few years.

    Conventional wisdom has suggested selfishness is most beneficial evolutionary strategy for humans,....

    Maybe if you're reading 19th century papers ...

    • by shutdown -p now (807394) on Friday August 02, 2013 @02:40PM (#44460119) Journal

      This is not new on evolution scale, either. Ethologists have been studying the evolution of altruism for decades now, with a lot of papers published along the same lines. There are even some mathematical models that can compute the most efficient group size for cooperation (animals/people then form groups of that size and cooperate, while competing between groups), which correspond well to real world.

    • Selfishness might still be the most beneficial strategy for humans, in the societies we've built that not only foster but massively reward selfishness.

      • by rtb61 (674572)

        Unfortunately there is considerable evidence of whole collapsed societies the root cause of which is selfishness and the me now versus long term mutually sustainable outcome. Likely greed and selfishness had no reality in science as a social human survivability trait (as a species) but was purely propaganda based as a means by which those destructive individuals could continue to prey upon the rest of human society as parasites. It is when that parasitical life style becomes more extreme and destructive, t

    • by nmos (25822)

      It doesn't even really make sense to talk about selfishness and cooperation as opposites. Cooperation is an activity while selfishness is a motivation. Most human interaction is cooperation motivated by selfishness.

    • The interesting thing in this paper is how they've modeled it mathematically. Sure, you had some intuition that cooperation works, and even some evidence, but have you ever modeled it mathematically? That's why this paper is interesting.
  • by ls671 (1122017) on Friday August 02, 2013 @02:15PM (#44459783) Homepage

    Cooperation wins big time. Look at ants and bees. Only use selfishness with subject unwilling to cooperate and still, I have a hard time doing it sometimes...

    • by cascadingstylesheet (140919) on Friday August 02, 2013 @02:18PM (#44459813)

      Cooperation wins big time.

      Yep. Look at the effectiveness of, say, police forces and armies over individual armed men.

      The radio is one of the deadliest, most precise weapons ever invented. Because it facilitates cooperation.

      • by hedwards (940851)

        No, the radio is one of the most deadly innovations because it facilitates coordination. Coordinating 5 people can result in far more damage than hundreds cooperating, assuming the right tactics.

        • by cascadingstylesheet (140919) on Friday August 02, 2013 @02:45PM (#44460189)

          No, the radio is one of the most deadly innovations because it facilitates coordination. Coordinating 5 people can result in far more damage than hundreds cooperating, assuming the right tactics.

          You win the most pedantic comment of the year award!

          No, I win the most didactic comment of the year award.

        • by DM9290 (797337)

          No, the radio is one of the most deadly innovations because it facilitates coordination. Coordinating 5 people can result in far more damage than hundreds cooperating, assuming the right tactics.

          the twinkie is the deadliest innovation. 1 selfish uncoordinated person with a twinkie can defeat an any finite number of co-ordinated selfish people armed with radios, even if they use the right tactics, assuming that twinkies always win every battle.

    • Cooperation wins big time. Look at ants and bees. Only use selfishness with subject unwilling to cooperate and still, I have a hard time doing it sometimes...

      Ants and bees are poor examples, being clones, not genetically diverse individuals.

      Generally speaking, a small percentage of cheaters will always thrive in a cooperating group, so the selfish individuals will be suppressed, but never completely extinguished.

      • by ls671 (1122017)

        Ants and bees are poor examples, being clones, not genetically diverse individuals.

        Very interesting point! I didn't think of that.

        I still believe in cooperation although ;-)

      • by dryeo (100693)

        As the AC said, ants and bees are mostly sisters with a few males who only have the job of fertilizing the queen. No more genetically identical then any sisters. Probably varies with the species whether one male or several impregnate the queen.

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      In an ant colony the queen wins while all the others lose. It only works because ants aren't sentient.

  • Volunteer or else! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Impy the Impiuos Imp (442658) on Friday August 02, 2013 @02:17PM (#44459805) Journal

    Voluntary cooperation.

    Economists, in their cavalier way, often ignore or minimize this trumpeting their politics.

    • by nmos (25822)

      If it isn't voluntary then it really isn't cooperation, it's force.

  • here in NYC i see this all the time. a lot of the newer immigrants the adult kids live with parents. kids with trust funds have lots of money to pay the rent in nice apartments and have lots of cash to spare.
    meanwhile all the independent minded people spend all their money on rent and living expenses and have nothing for the future
    then later in life the leeches get help from the old people to buy property and get further ahead in life than the perpetual renters
    the native americans did this too. they had hug

    • and in my case i'm not 40 and have almost 50% equity in my home due to living with parents a long time ago and saving some money for a down payment

      Hmm, seems to me I paid my house off when I was about 40. May have been a few years later - 40 was a long time ago for me....

      • by alen (225700)

        did you live close to the one of the top schools in your area?

        home values are proportional to the quality of the zoned school

        • Assuming we're talking elementary/high schools, then we picked the place for access to a good elementary school specifically, and secondarily for a good high school.

          If, on the other hand, you're talking University, then nope, didn't even consider the issue.

      • May have been a few years later - 40 was a long time ago for me....

        ... which was likely a very, very different economy than it is today, depending on how long "a long time ago" really was.

        That's what burns my ass when older people (not necessarily you) brag about how they went to college and paid it off with a minimum wage job back in the 1960's, when you could pay for a year's tuition with 3 week's pay; meanwhile accusing today's generation of being bad with money for not being able to do the same, even though these days it would be damn near impossible to pay for a semes

        • Again, not saying that's what you've done here, but your post gave me the opportunity to bitch.

          By all means, bitch!

          As to specifics, 40 was late last century for me, and the real secret to paying my house off so early was that I didn't buy the most expensive house I could afford, I bought the house I needed for my family. Which meant I could make a decent down payment upfront, finance it over 15 years (instead of the usual 30), and double up on payments regularly.

          Yeah, I had less to spend every month

          • Hey, good for you, buddy.

            Way to do things right and not be a dick about it. World needs more people like that.

        • That's what burns my ass when older people (not necessarily you) brag about how they went to college and paid it off with a minimum wage job back in the 1960's, when you could pay for a year's tuition with 3 week's pay; meanwhile accusing today's generation of being bad with money for not being able to do the same, even though these days it would be damn near impossible to pay for a semester's worth of education on 6 months pay at minimum wage.

          When I was a lad, and went to college, I lived in a cardboard box by the side of the road . . .

          • That's what burns my ass when older people (not necessarily you) brag about how they went to college and paid it off with a minimum wage job back in the 1960's, when you could pay for a year's tuition with 3 week's pay; meanwhile accusing today's generation of being bad with money for not being able to do the same, even though these days it would be damn near impossible to pay for a semester's worth of education on 6 months pay at minimum wage.

            When I was a lad, and went to college, I lived in a van, down by the river!!!

            Aah, much better.

            Man, how I miss that fat-ass cokehead's comic stylings.

  • An important thesis, though not a totally new one: Robert Wright's "Nonzero" and Matt Riddley's "Origins of Virtue" make related cases. Fantastic books for those interested in the origins and nature of co-operation.
  • Hoarding of goods used to mean cooperation. But add to that interchange of hoarded goods and make it virtual so it can be infinitely accumulated and give it its own meaning instead of "goods, just a lot of them", and selfishness becomes an emergent behaviour, specially if that meaning is shared by the other members of your species. We as civilizaiton acquired a few very destructive memes and will be hard to get rid of them.
  • Mutual Aid (Score:5, Insightful)

    by astro (20275) on Friday August 02, 2013 @02:30PM (#44459975) Homepage

    Petr Kropotkin wrote a series of essays in the late 1800s that became the book "Mutual Aid". It lays out in beautiful and exquisite detail the premise here, that co-operation is a primary factor in evolution, rather than simple dominance, as he felt Darwin suggested. It is truly a masterpiece work and I highly recommend that anyone interested in the subject read it.

    Kropotkin went on to become (very much posthumously) one of the most-read and best regarded philosophers of the Anarchist political movement; his politics were largely molded by his observations that are laid out in Mutual Aid.

  • One wonders if this doesn't help to explain both the perennial popularity of libertarianism and the ongoing lack of a viable libertarian state.
    • by aminorex (141494)

      The U.S. is a pretty good example of a libertarian state, from 1787 to 1860, albeit with slaves.

  • by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Friday August 02, 2013 @02:36PM (#44460077)

    So, essentially, they changed the rules for the Prisoner's Dilemma, and the results turned out differently.

    And then they use this to draw broad conclusions about society?

    Color me speechless...

  • by T.E.D. (34228) on Friday August 02, 2013 @02:39PM (#44460115)
    If only the authors had been Slashdot readers, they could have written this same paper 10 years ago [slashdot.org].
  • by Anonymous Coward

    As a non-educated Idiot. Evolution doesn't favor one trait over the other. Instead environmental conditions favor one trait over another. So obviously in an environment with enough resources that are difficult for individuals to harness. Evolutionary pressure will favor working together. On the other hand in an environment with sparse resource that are easy for the individual to harness put difficult for groups to effectively use. It will turn the other way.

  • by Todd Knarr (15451) on Friday August 02, 2013 @02:42PM (#44460147) Homepage

    I can do more with your help than I can on my own. But to get your help, I'm going to have to cooperate with you and offer you my help in return. So it's not really a choice between selfishness and cooperation. It's a choice between selfishness and stupidity. Do I be stupid, reject your help and limit myself to only what I can accomplish without help? Or do I be selfish, cooperate with you and reap the gains of having your help?

    It's the same thing as you see with a mortgage. If you're greedy you forgo the immediate benefits and make a large down-payment because long-term you'll gain a lot more in reduced interest payments. If you're stupid or desperate you'll make the minimum down-payment and keep the money in your pocket right now, but pay several times what you "saved" in increased interest payments.

    • by slew (2918)

      As with many simplistic analysis, people often ignore risk and time-value analysis.

      If getting a person's help in the future requires you to offer your own help today to that other person, you must normalize the cost you have to pay today to that person with the value of that help you might received in the future tempered with uncertainty (since you risk not getting that help in the future).

      This is similar to a mortgage. The downpayment you make today is an opportunity cost that you pay today with the value

      • by Todd Knarr (15451)

        On the other hand, in that selling-early calculation you omit the part where I get that larger down-payment back. If I sell early, I may not gain the interest savings on the balance of the time but if I added $50K to the down-payment I have $50K more equity that I get back from the sale because that's $50K of financing I don't have to pay off out of the proceeds of the sale. That effectively reduces the risk in that scenario.

        And yes, the driving force behind it is that people remember how you acted. If you

    • by asylumx (881307)

      If you're stupid or desperate you'll make the minimum down-payment and keep the money in your pocket right now, but pay several times what you "saved" in increased interest payments.

      A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.

    • Personal selfishness makes sense for personal risks/threats.
      Extra-group risks/threats necessitate interpersonal cooperation while rationalizing own-group selfishness.
      Extra-tribal risks/threats necessitate inter-group cooperation while rationalizing own-tribe selfishness.
      Extra-regional risks/threats necessitate inter-tribal cooperation while rationalizing own-region selfishness.
      Extra-global/extra-terrestrial risks/threats necessitate international cooperation while rationalizing own-planet selfishness.
      and so

  • by djupedal (584558) on Friday August 02, 2013 @02:42PM (#44460151)
    Eskimo says - I loan out my knife....it comes back dull. I loan out my dog...he comes back tired and hungry. I loan out my canoe, it comes back broken. I loan out my wife...she comes back happy.
  • So, this will give me hope the bazaar (ie open source hardware|software|operating systems) will triumph, in the long run : )

  • by Archangel Michael (180766) on Friday August 02, 2013 @02:51PM (#44460261) Journal

    XOR logic fails in understanding complex systems. It could be that Selfishness is beneficial until it isn't And I'm sure that Cooperation is beneficial until it isn't. Pure "communism" has failed every place it has been attempted, even when completely voluntary. The reason is because there is no incentive in pure cooperation.

    The same lack of understanding is also available in pure selfishness. It is doomed because there are times when cooperation is required to achieve more complex goals.

    I would postulate that a mix of knowing when each is optimal would be even better, which would require more than a simple XOR operation.

    • Pure communism ever happened? Wasn't it always a selfish leader or group that exploited the rest of the people?

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        That *is* pure Communism. Karl Marx explicitly demanded a centralized, totalitarian state. Which invariably led to the development of the idea of the "vanguard" as a way excuse the exploitation of the workers by the new political class.

        It's why the Anarchists split away and became enemies of the Communists, because they abhorred the idea of the state and of violent political coercion. Many of the idealistic characteristics you attribute to Communism are actually only attributable to Anarchists. It's why Sta

      • It happened in early Colonial America, Jamestown 1607-11 (google it). It failed because those that figured out early they would get fed no matter what, stopped working. And the others who were working for those that weren't slowly figured out the same thing, stopped working. It was nearly disastrous as people nearly starved. Where there is no incentive, there is failure.

        Simple rule, if you can work, but choose not to, you don't eat. Everyone can contribute, and will get what they need, but those that work h

    • by medv4380 (1604309)
      I don't know about that. Siafu are pretty communistic, and I've yet to see them fail. Smart people get out of their way. Heck, some Siafu willingly sacrifice their limbs for their "collective". Poor sausage fly. He knew what they had planned for him, but he went to them anyways.
    • by nine-times (778537) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Friday August 02, 2013 @03:26PM (#44460665) Homepage

      Yeah, I have an aversion to anything that states, as an absolute, that evolution "favors" anything. Evolution is not a conscious force that picks sides, deciding what is good and what is bad. The only thing that evolution favors is 'that which survives', and it's heavily contextual. A trait that enables survival in one circumstance might hinder survival in another circumstance.

      Evolution doesn't judge. 'That which survives' is not inherently or morally superior to 'that which does not survive'. The 'that which survives' is not inherently better at surviving than 'that which does not survive'. It was just better at surviving in specific circumstance that it was in. Or sometimes, it might even be that it just got lucky-- it just happened to survive. Luck of the draw.

  • by rasmusbr (2186518) on Friday August 02, 2013 @03:03PM (#44460415)

    Here's nearly every newspaper article about science ever: "Until recently, scientists believed in $obviously_false_idea, but a recent study shows that..."

    The idea that cooperation has been selected for by evolution to some extent is obviously correct, because otherwise we wouldn't have social species that can't survive without cooperation. It's also nothing new, it's one of the central themes of The Selfish Gene that everyone who feigns an interest in science pretends to have read.

    I haven't read TFA, but I imagine the study was probably about some detail of how cooperation is selected for.

    • I haven't read TFA, but I imagine the study was probably about some detail of how cooperation is selected for.

      No, the study was about how if you change the fundamental assumptions of the Prisoners' Dilemma, you get different results.... ]

  • Selfish Gene (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    The benefits of cooperation and how cooperation is also a selfish act is well covered in Dawkin's book The Selfish Gene. That book is, what, thirty years old now, more? At the time it was fairly well established that cooperative behaviour would typically benefit the species and further "selfish" genes. Nothing about this story is new, it was old twenty years ago.

  • Though certainly a lot of both, evolution is more the story of cooperation than competition. Complexity requires a cooperation of sorts from quantum particles to DNA and beyond . Molecules ‘work together’ to make DNA, cells themselves are made of more primitive biological structures that banded together, organs are made of cells working together, and so on to organisms, species, ecosystems and, in a roundabout way, even the solar system itself.

    Sure, we aren’t talking about cognitive

  • Does it also hold for capitalism?

    • by TheSync (5291)

      Does it also hold for capitalism?

      Indeed, when people cooperate to ensure individual property rights, it enables people to better cooperate to engage in voluntary economic transactions that are mutually beneficial, thus enhancing the wealth of both involved in the transaction (or else they would not have engaged in the voluntary transaction), and therefore the global wealth of all.

      When government becomes selfish and wishes to take property from people, then there are problems...

    • by nmos (25822)

      That depends. Does your version of capitalism involve a third party threatening to put the participants in jail of they don't turn on each other?

  • even among scientists in the field, is that personal survival and evolution have something to do with each other. They don't. Evolution is about the propgation of the genetic line, and in the long run, when personal survival conflicts with it, evolution steamrollers it every time.

    The selfish individual may increase his personal chances of survival to a ripe old age, but his selfishness may well reduce his chances of passing his genetic line on to another generation.

  • by lexman098 (1983842) on Friday August 02, 2013 @04:12PM (#44461115)

    Dawkins pretty much said the same thing a very long time ago.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48EWLj3gIJ8 [youtube.com]

  • Evolution really comes down to no survival of the non fit so -> the optimal solution for any species is to have both selfish and cooperative behaviors (they give different advantages to a species in different environmental situations and for a species to have a strong preference for one or the other decreases the chance that both will remain in the population).

    Game theory approaches that model the optimal behavior for an individual are cute and may apply perfectly well to an individual in a specific envi

  • Human societies are about cooperating. And if they exist, that means humans cooperating in a society succeeded more than individual competing at each others. And they do exist.

    That sounds odd when said, but cooperation is more competitive than competition.

  • You mean the needs of the many really do outweigh the needs of the few, or the one? You don't fucking say...

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