All of us -- from slime mould to MPs -- are born to cheat

Jul 24, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Organisms are genetically programmed to cheat the system and have to be policed to stop them putting their needs ahead of society and thus threatening its survival, say scientists.

University of Manchester researchers have shown that even the most-simple have complex social behaviours. Dr Chris Thompson and Dr Jason Wolf’s study of slime moulds has shown that these - which share many of their genes with humans - respond to competition, trying to get the upper hand with a variety of strategies including cheating. However the shift in behaviour is extremely complex. Individuals can cheat by promoting their own self interest or can coerce others to perform the altruistic act. Ultimately this balance may mean the species - or society - survives.

By illuminating general principles of how organisms cheat, their study could help us understand what drives - and what limits - selfish behaviour such as MPs fiddling their expenses.

Dr Thompson, of the Faculty of Life Sciences, explains: “Using slime mould allows us to look at in its most basic form. They are that just divide; there is no experience, their social behaviour is simply genetically controlled.

“However they do work together and we have now shown for the first time they do have a complex social life that involves both cheating and coercion, which ensures the survival of the species. We are now working to identify the genes behind this.

“Since humans share many of the same genes, they will behave the same way.”

The paper, published in the latest (23 July 2009) is the latest in a series that asks: why are organisms social? Why do they cooperate with one another when, according to , they should not do that? They should be fighting to get ahead.

Dr Thompson adds: “It was one of Darwin’s biggest challenges. If individuals did cheat and put themselves first all the time, the species would collapse.”

In slime mould, some amoeba make spores - thus gaining the reproductive advantage - while others make stalks and die. Making stalks is an altruistic act. So why do some make stalks, even though they do not enjoy the reproductive advantage? The trouble is that if everyone cheats, there would be no stalk, and everyone would suffer because fitness will be reduced.

Dr Thompson says: “This latest paper looks at whether organisms are cheating or just choosing the best strategy. If you use the analogy of two men in a sinking boat, with one man bailing more slowly than the other, it may be that he is cheating and allowing the other to do most of the work. Or it may be that he has a better or equally good strategy as bailing slower allows him to conserve energy and actually bail for a longer time.

“We looked at how slime moulds behaved when alone and found some were making more spores. So they were not cheating after all, they were simply following their chosen strategy.

“However we then looked at how these slime moulds behaved when they were mixed with others and found that they recognised that they were mixed with foreigners and changed their strategy: they did respond to competition.

“It is amazing how complex their ability is to recognise foreigners and shift their behaviour. Sometimes if one is making more spores then the other will make more spores in what we term self promotion. But if everyone did this, then over time you end up with no stalks - everyone is trying to make themselves better and better and better until it becomes spiteful and bloody minded. If everyone is making more spores and no stalks then the system collapses. You need policing or coercion to stop that happening. Somehow some cells are forced to make stalks.

“Now we want to know how organisms recognise foreigners and how they then force others to do something that benefits the species more than themselves.”

He adds: “Working with slime mould is fantastic. It allows us to look at social behaviour in its most basic form. We can us this to understand how organisms work together and form colonies. For example, with tooth decay is caused by colony forming bacteria, and organisms form biofilms and secrete group products to protect against antibiotics. So our findings have a wide application from the practical - why it can be difficult to stop tooth decay - to bigger issues such as evolution on the planet as we know it.

“People might wonder why bother studying slime mould but it could lead to a greater understanding of human behaviour. We know that human behaviour, at least in part, is influenced by our genes, so studying behaviour at a cellular level can improve our understanding of why some are associated with cooperation and others with conflict. Cooperation is a major driving force in evolution and understanding it is a huge challenge in biology. In society, people help each other; they work together within a social structure for a common good even if that means individual effort or sacrifice. I'm interested in finding out what keeps things fair and how cooperation is stabilized in the face of selfish cheats.”

Provided by University of Manchester (news : web)

Explore further: Philippine tarsier gets boost from Kansas research, and genetic proof of a new variety

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Study to find out why you're a slime ball

Jun 28, 2005

A University of Manchester scientist has been awarded £150,000 to study slime! But this is no ordinary slime, says biologist Chris Thompson, who believes it could unravel mysteries of evolution that even Darwin couldn't sol ...

Some cheaters can keep it in their genes

Mar 13, 2008

A new study examining social behaviour suggests certain individuals are genetically programmed to cheat and often will do... providing they can get away with it.

Cheating is easy -- for the social amoeba

Feb 13, 2008

Cheating is easy and seemingly without cost for the social amoeba known as Dictyostelium discoideum, said a team of researchers from Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University in Houston who conducted the first genome-scale ...

Fish behaviour of the highest order

Jun 22, 2006

New research, which has been published in Nature, has uncovered evidence of fish behaviour more commonly associated with humans.

Ameobas: Keeping it in the family

Nov 25, 2008

Starving "social amoebae" called Dictyostelium discoideum seek the support of "kin" when they form multi-cellular organisms made up of dead stalks and living spores, said researchers from Baylor College of Medicine and Ri ...

Recommended for you

User comments : 8

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

AceLepage
5 / 5 (1) Jul 24, 2009
The analogy cracks me up.
MPs that cheat now can excuse their behaviour as just being genetically programmed to cheat, for the good of the species. And then we get to call them slime moulds :)
earls
not rated yet Jul 24, 2009
SOUNDS LIKE SOCIALISM TO ME!!!
ormondotvos
5 / 5 (1) Jul 24, 2009
Stealing energy from others is the Prime Directive for evolved organisms, followed closely by cooperating to steal energy from others. The rest is details, but it just it what it is.
brant
5 / 5 (2) Jul 24, 2009
There is a difference between taking advantage of an opportunity and creating that opportunity at someones loss.
otto1923
not rated yet Jul 25, 2009
There are many animal behaviors which are normal and natural and yet are completely unacceptable in society. Calling them sick or evil is simply falling back into that old christian guilt ethic, instead of seeing them for what they are. Or are you a rube who still needs that sort of thing to conform? Civilizing is a gradual process of domestication. Most of us are still being paper-trained. Remove the fear of death from the human condition and the desire to snatch more than we need will drop. Remove desease-causing genes from the pool and poisons from our systems, and it will drop even more.
otto1923
not rated yet Jul 25, 2009
@earls
What's wrong with socialism?
earls
not rated yet Jul 25, 2009
It's evil? If you're not stepping over bodies to reach the top at all costs, then you're just not a patriot. </sarcasm>
otto1923
not rated yet Jul 25, 2009
That's all propaganda. You've been misinformed. Competition is clawing your way to the top and that's what democracy/capitalism is- enforced competition. Conflict as a way of life. Who needs it? Answer- rubes need it. The rod and the staff are comforting.