Cheating has long-term consequences in the evolution of cooperation

Jul 04, 2007

Freeloaders can live on the fruits of the cooperation of others, but their selfishness can have long-term consequences, reports an evolutionary biologist from The University of Texas at Austin in a new study.

“There is a historical dimension to cooperation,” says Dr. Sam Brown, the Human Frontier Science Foundation Fellow in the Section of Integrative Biology. “The act of a cooperator can continue to give benefits even after the cooperator is dead. Conversely, cheating will have consequences in the future.”

Standard models of the evolution of cooperation assume that the benefits of cooperative versus selfish behavior depend only on the current abundance of cooperators in the population.

Brown has developed a new model showing that cooperators and cheaters can co-exist in a dynamic boom and bust state in the presence of long-lasting resources, known as “durable goods.”

Durable goods can outlast their producers, and then be passed on to future generations. They include things like antibiotics produced by populations of bacteria to kill off neighboring bacteria and public parks or buildings built by humans.

In the presence of a durable good, cheaters can increase in numbers with no immediate consequences. For example, cheaters could still enjoy the shelter of an ant nest or a building for some time even if it is not being maintained.

“But freeloaders can also increase so rapidly that in a generation’s time the whole building collapses,” says Brown.

“If you have social dilemmas [where there are cooperators and cheaters] mediated by these longstanding, durable entities like buildings, ant’s nests, or biofilms in bacteria, then you introduce an instability,” he says. “It’s almost as if there is a pact with the devil, because you pay nothing now for your cheating, but you pay double tomorrow, because everyone’s cheating and the costs come home to roost.”

With environmental pollution, for example, there is a delay in costs to cheaters that pollute, particularly if the environment is in a relatively pristine condition. Cheaters gain in the short-term by increasing their resources without dire effect. But over time, more and more cheaters pollute and it can suddenly become a problem.

Brown says that this new model recognizing the ubiquity of durable goods will have diverse consequences across many fields, including ecology, economics, medicine and political science.

His next step will be to test the ideas from his models in bacterial systems.

Source: University of Texas at Austin

Explore further: Dairy farms asked to consider breeding no-horn cows

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Cheating favors extinction

Apr 30, 2013

Cooperative behaviour is widely observed in nature, but there remains the possibility that so-called 'cheaters' can exploit the system, taking without giving, with uncertain consequences for the social unit ...

Recommended for you

Dairy farms asked to consider breeding no-horn cows

18 hours ago

Food manufacturers and restaurants are taking the dairy industry by the horns on an animal welfare issue that's long bothered activists but is little known to consumers: the painful removal of budding horn ...

Italian olive tree disease stumps EU

Mar 27, 2015

EU member states are divided on how to stop the spread of a disease affecting olive trees in Italy that could result in around a million being cut down, officials said Friday.

China starts relocating endangered porpoises: Xinhua

Mar 27, 2015

Chinese authorities on Friday began relocating the country's rare finless porpoise population in a bid to revive a species threatened by pollution, overfishing and heavy traffic in their Yangtze River habitat, ...

A long-standing mystery in membrane traffic solved

Mar 27, 2015

In 2013, James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman, and Thomas C. Südhof won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries of molecular machineries for vesicle trafficking, a major transport ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.