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The coevolution of choosiness and cooperation


Explaining the rise and maintenance of cooperation is central to our understanding of biological systems1,2 and human societies3,4. When an individual’s cooperativeness is used by other individuals as a choice criterion, there can be competition to be more generous than others, a situation called competitive altruism5. The evolution of cooperation between non-relatives can then be driven by a positive feedback between increasing levels of cooperativeness and choosiness6. Here we use evolutionary simulations to show that, in a situation where individuals have the opportunity to engage in repeated pairwise interactions, the equilibrium degree of cooperativeness depends critically on the amount of behavioural variation that is being maintained in the population by processes such as mutation. Because our model does not invoke complex mechanisms such as negotiation behaviour, it can be applied to a wide range of species. The results suggest an important role of lifespan in the evolution of cooperation.

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Figure 1: Equilibrium frequency distribution of trait combinations in the continuous snowdrift game with accelerating costs.
Figure 2: Continuous snowdrift game with decelerating costs.
Figure 3: Continuous prisoner’s dilemma.


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We thank O. Leimar and four anonymous referees for comments on a previous version of this paper. Z.B. was supported by a grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to A.I.H. and J.M.M. L.F. was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

Author Contributions Based on an idea by J.M.M., the concept for this paper was developed in discussions among all authors. J.M.M. also formulated the material in Box 1 and most of the Supplementary Information; Z.B. performed the computations and prepared the figures; A.I.H. surveyed the literature; L.F. had the main responsibility for writing the paper.

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Correspondence to Lutz Fromhage.

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Supplementary Information

The file contains Supplementary Notes with model description and Supplementary Figures1-2 with Legends. These components can be further described as follows:1) A plot of the cost and benefit functions used in the model; 2) A plot showing the effect of mortality on the location of equilibria, and on the time needed to reach these equilibria, in our simulations; 3) A technical description of how the computer simulation was implemented and 4) The analytical derivation of some key results of our model, using the Continuous Prisoner's Dilemma with linear cost and benefit functions as an example. (PDF 162 kb)

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McNamara, J., Barta, Z., Fromhage, L. et al. The coevolution of choosiness and cooperation. Nature 451, 189–192 (2008).

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