A little co-operation goes a long way in evolution, scientists find - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 5 August

New research is challenging the assumption that evolution favours the selfish.

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 5 August

A little co-operation goes a long way in evolution, scientists find

Darren Evans

New research is challenging the assumption that evolution favours the selfish.

In fact, the old idiom that selfishness will get you nowhere appears to be true, at least in Darwinian terms.

Computer simulations run by a team from Michigan State University in the US demonstrated that populations that work together for the common good are more successful than those where individuals work alone for personal gain.

The work shows that if the human race had only exhibited selfish traits it would have died out long ago, the team argues.

In essence, while being selfish may give you a short-term advantage in life, in the long-run cooperation and communication are more likely to pay dividends.

Using game theory, a type of maths that analyses decision-making, the research team ran huge numbers of simulated situations of conflict or cooperation, particularly the “prisoner’s dilemma”.

In this scenario two criminals are being held in custody, but the police do not have enough evidence to secure a conviction for the crime they are suspected of. The prisoners – who are held in isolation – are offered immediate freedom if they testify against their partner in crime, who will then be given a six-month sentence. If both prisoners inform on each other, they will receive a three-month sentence. And if both remain silent, they will receive a one-month sentence.

Previous studies have suggested that most individuals employ a selfish strategy in this scenario and testify because they cannot know how the other person would act.

But if real-world elements like communication are taken into account – ie, the captives are allowed to discuss their options – then the prisoners are more likely to make a pact, remaining silent so that both are freed after one month.

Professor Christoph Adami, Michigan State University team’s lead, said communication is critical for cooperation.

“In an evolutionary setting, with populations of strategies, you need extra information to distinguish each other,” he said. “We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean. For a short time, and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.”

Although the findings may seem to contradict the idea of the “selfish gene”, the theory that living organisms only exist to pass on their genetic material, the researchers think they may actually complement it.

In fact, unselfish behaviour could help so-called “selfish genes” to survive, as they reap all the rewards of living within a cooperative group.


  • What is evolution?
  • Who was Charles Darwin? Find out ten facts about him.
  • Is it ever acceptable to be selfish?
  • Do you agree that "communication is critical for cooperation"? Explain your answer.

Related resources


  • Start a discussion on evolution with this extensive lesson plan and activities.

Evolution timeline

  • Watch a video about evolution, charting the journey of a single-celled organism to present day, then get students to create a timeline.

Natural selection

  • An activity-filled lesson covering various aspects of natural selection including the peppered moth and Galapagos finches.

Working together

  • Explore the idea of working together with this lesson plan, script and PowerPoint slide.

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