The Athlete's Way

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Evolution Does Not Reward Selfish and Mean People

Evolutionary biology confirms that ‘nice guys’ actually finish first.

New research has found that our evolutionary biology does not reward selfish and mean people. Over the long run, cooperative ‘nice guys’ actually finish first. Michigan State University evolutionary biologists Christoph Adami and Arend Hintze have found that evolution favors cooperation and altruism over being ‘mean and selfish.’

The new study titled “Evolutionary Instability of Zero-Determinant Strategies Demonstrates That Winning Is Not Everything” was published August 1, 2013 in Nature Communications. Adami and Hintze say their research shows that exhibiting only selfish traits would have caused humans to go extinct. "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."

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Adami and Hintze’s research focuses on game theory, which is used in biology, economics, political science and other disciplines. There has been a lot of research over the past 30 years investigating how cooperation has evolved in various species. Cooperative behavior is the key to the survival for many forms of life, from single-cell organisms to people. Mutualistic cooperation is at the core of human interdependence and key to the survival of our species.

Winning Isn’t Everything

Game theory involves devising games to simulate situations of conflict or cooperation. It allows researchers to unravel complex decision-making strategies and to establish why certain types of behavior emerge among different individuals.

The MSU researchers used a model of "the prisoner’s dilemma" game, where two suspects who are interrogated in separate prison cells must decide whether or not to snitch on the other. The researchers dubbed being an informant the “mean and selfish” strategy and was influenced by a participant knowing their opponent’s previous decision and adapting their strategy accordingly.

In the prisoner’s dilemma each player is offered a ‘get out of jail’ card if they snitch on their opponent and put him or her in prison for six months. However, this scenario will only be played out if the opponent chooses not to inform. If both prisoners choose to inform (defection) they both get three months in prison, but if they both stay silent (cooperation) they both only get a jail term of one month.

Adami explains, “The two prisoners that are interrogated are not allowed to talk to each other. If they did they would make a pact and be free within a month. But if they were not talking to each other, the temptation would be to rat the other out. Being mean can give you an advantage on a short timescale but certainly not in the long run – you would go extinct.”

We’re All in This Together

A 2012 study titled "Two Key Steps in the Evolution of Human Cooperation: The Interdependence Hypothesis” showed that humans are much more inclined to cooperate than are their closest evolutionary relatives. The authors of the study found that humans developed cooperative skills because it was in their mutual interest to work well with others — primarily due to ecological circumstances which forced us to cooperate with others to obtain food.

Ultimately altruism is self-serving to a degree — we must cooperate with one another in order to survive. We are altruistic to others because we need them for our individual survival and the survival of our species.

Researchers speculate that as hunter-gatherers humans had to forage together, which meant that each individual had a direct stake in the welfare of the group. This created an interdependence which caused humans to develop special cooperative abilities that other apes do not possess. This includes: dividing food fairly, communicating goals and strategies, and understanding one’s individual role in the collective. Homo sapiens who were able to coordinate with their fellow hunter-gatherers would pull their weight in the group and were more likely to survive.

For more on this please check out my Psychology Today blogs "The Evolutionary Biology of Altruism" and "Why Is Doing Good More Important than Feeling Good?

As societies grew larger and more complex, humans actually became more dependent on one other. The authors define this as a second evolutionary jump in which collaborative skills and impulses were developed on a larger scale as humans faced competition from other groups. As we moved from agrarian to industrialization individuals actually became more "group-minded," identifying with others in their society even if they did not know them personally. This new sense of belonging created indigenous cultural conventions and norms, that were reflected in behaviors interested in the well-being of the collective such as volunteerism. 

Conclusion: Evolutionary Biology Shows that Nice Guys Finish First

Will the digital age and Facebook culture make us more interdependent, cooperative, and collective minded—or more selfish, egocentric, and mean? In a dog-eat-dog world it is encouraging to have scientists confirm that machiavellian and self-serving behavior ultimately backfires. Being cooperative, loyal, and altruistic is not only good for your individual well-being it builds social capital, resilience, and is good for the collective. This is the ultimate win-win.

“What we modelled in the computer were very general things, namely decisions between two different behaviors. We call them cooperation and defection. But in the animal world there are all kinds of behaviors that are binary, for example to flee or to fight,” says Adami. "In any evolutionary environment, knowing your opponent’s decision would not be advantageous for long because your opponent would evolve the same recognition mechanism to also know you," Dr. Adami concludes. “It’s almost like what we had in the cold war, an arms race – but these arms races occur all the time in evolutionary biology."

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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