Forget the competitive vibe of "survival of the fittest." It turns out that evolution has little patience for the callous and selfish.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Communications, evolutionary biologists Christoph Adami and Arend Hintze reject the success of "zero-determinant" evolutionary strategies — a 2012 idea derived from game theory models, which holds that selfish evolutionary "players" are always able to eliminate those who choose to cooperate.

Such analytical tools are not unusual; for some time, game theory has extensively applied in wide range of disciplines, including biology, political science and philosophy. The method, which has its roots in economics, studies strategic decision making, paying particular attention to the conflicts that arise when two or more intelligent, rational “players” are engaged in a situation that requires such decision making — a “game.”

"The paper caused quite a stir," said lead author Adami, referring to the 2012 study. "The main result appeared to be completely new, despite 30 years of intense research in this area."

However, the researchers surmised that if zero-determinant strategies actually gave players an evolutionary edge, cooperation would dwindle and eventually yield to a new world of selfish egocentrics. To investigate this, they used a high-powered computing system to run hundreds of thousands of such games.

"We found evolution will punish you if you're selfish and mean," said Adami. "For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn't evolutionarily sustainable."

From the results of the simulated games, the researchers found that while selfish players using a zero-determinant strategy against cooperative players did indeed prevail, those players would ironically be forced to cooperate with each other at some point.

Evolution Forcing Cooperation?

"The only way ZD strategists could survive would be if they could recognize their opponents," said Hintze, who co-authored the study. "And even if ZD strategists kept winning so that only ZD strategists were left, in the long run they would have to evolve away from being ZD and become more cooperative. So they wouldn't be ZD strategists anymore."

Does this mean that despots and autocrats will become extinct one day? We'll find out in a few million years or so. For now, don't be selfish or mean — and remember that sharing could mean survival.

Source: Christoph Adami, Arend Hintze. Evolutionary instability of zero-determinant strategies demonstrates that winning is not everything. Nature Communications, 2013; 4 DO