Silly science? Evolution does not favour the selfish

Silly season is upon us.

Two Michigan University researchers claim that evolution will not sustain a “selfish gene” but will eventually select for cooperation.

Why am I not in the least bit convinced?

If either selfishness or cooperation was genetically determined, and if survival was dependent upon such a choice, then one or the other should have become extinct a long time ago.  The silliness of this work lies first in the assumption that a behavioural characteristic – even if crucial for survival – is merely determined by genetics.  Second, evolution never selects for excellence – whether in superlative selfishness or for unstinting cooperation. It represents the minimum of behavioural traits needed to survive till reproduction.

Evolution couldn’t care less if individuals are selfish or cooperative. It only results from those individuals sufficiently selfish or sufficiently cooperative for survival until reproduction. 

Of course the Daily Mail manages to put it in a remarkably silly headline:

Selfish people ‘will eventually die out’ because evolution favours cooperation

The paper is published in Nature Communications.

Christoph Adami, Arend Hintze. Evolutionary instability of zero-determinant strategies demonstrates that winning is not everythingNature Communications, 2013; 4 DOI:10.1038/ncomms3193

The accompanying press release trumpets

Evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean 

Two Michigan State University evolutionary biologists offer new evidence that evolution doesn’t favor the selfish, disproving a theory popularized in 2012.

“We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean,” said lead author Christoph Adami, MSU professor of microbiology and molecular genetics. “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 paper appears in the current issue of Nature Communications and focuses on game theory, which is used in biology, economics, political science and other disciplines. Much of the last 30 years of research has focused on how cooperation came to be, since it’s found in many forms of life, from single-cell organisms to people.

In 2012, a scientific paper unveiled a newly discovered strategy – called zero-determinant – that gave selfish players a guaranteed way to beat cooperative players.

“The paper caused quite a stir,” said Adami, who co-authored the paper with Arend Hintze, molecular and microbiology research associate. “The main result appeared to be completely new, despite 30 years of intense research in this area.”

Adami and Hintze had their doubts about whether following a zero determinant strategy (ZD) would essentially eliminate cooperation and create a world full of selfish beings. So they 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 an evolutionary setting, with populations of strategies, you need extra information to distinguish each other,” Adami said.

So ZD strategies only worked if players knew who their opponents were and adapted their strategies accordingly. A ZD player would play one way against another ZD player and a different way against a cooperative player.

“The only way ZD strategists could survive would be if they could recognize their opponents,” Hintze 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.” 

Game theory for an individual game or even for a succession of games is one thing but evolution does not care how selfish or how cooperative an individual is.

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