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Open Access Research article

Environmental adversity and uncertainty favour cooperation

Peter Andras1*, John Lazarus2 and Gilbert Roberts2

Author Affiliations

1 School of Computing Science, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

2 Institute of Neuroscience, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2007, 7:240  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-7-240

Published: 30 November 2007

Abstract

Background

A major cornerstone of evolutionary biology theory is the explanation of the emergence of cooperation in communities of selfish individuals. There is an unexplained tendency in the plant and animal world – with examples from alpine plants, worms, fish, mole-rats, monkeys and humans – for cooperation to flourish where the environment is more adverse (harsher) or more unpredictable.

Results

Using mathematical arguments and computer simulations we show that in more adverse environments individuals perceive their resources to be more unpredictable, and that this unpredictability favours cooperation. First we show analytically that in a more adverse environment the individual experiences greater perceived uncertainty. Second we show through a simulation study that more perceived uncertainty implies higher level of cooperation in communities of selfish individuals.

Conclusion

This study captures the essential features of the natural examples: the positive impact of resource adversity or uncertainty on cooperation. These newly discovered connections between environmental adversity, uncertainty and cooperation help to explain the emergence and evolution of cooperation in animal and human societies.