Human beings are a social species that relies on cooperation to survive and thrive. Understanding how and why cooperation succeeds or fails is integral to solving the many global challenges we face.
Focus on Cooperation
Cooperation has been the key to success for many of Earth's species, from microbiota to humans. Despite the centrality of cooperation to so many liveways, there is still a great deal to be understood about its evolution and how and when it succeeds and fails. This collection pulls together content from the Nature Human Behaviour Focus issue on Cooperation - including insights from anthropology, evolutionary biology, human behavioural ecology, economics, neuroscience, psychology, ethology, and environmental studies - and from the archive of Nature Ecology & Evolution, to understand the state of knowledge on cooperation and highlight future research directions.
Through mathematical analysis, simulations and examples from real-world social networks, Fotouhi et al. demonstrate how establishing sparse interconnections between previously segregated, uncooperative societies can support the evolution of cooperation globally.
Division of labour is common in social groups from microbes to animals. Here, the authors show that natural selection favours extreme specialization, suggesting that division of labour may drive major evolutionary transitions.
In a common-pool resource experiment, Koomen and Herrmann show that six-year-old children are collectively able to avoid collapsing a shared resource and use similar strategies to adults.
Eusociality evolved independently in Hymenoptera and in termites. Here, the authors sequence genomes of the German cockroach and a drywood termite and provide insights into the evolutionary signatures of termite eusociality.
Gächter et al. use experiments and simulations to show that low levels of cooperation (the ‘tragedy of the commons’) are systematically more likely in maintaining a public good than in providing a new one, even under identical incentives.
Global groundwater resources are threatened by over-extraction. An agent-based model is presented, incorporating cooperative and collective action theory that reveals tipping points in social attitudes toward conservation in three at-risk regions.
In a model that varies the cost of deliberation, a range of cooperative strategies involving strategic ignorance and Bayesian learning can evolve, including dual-process defectors, who intuitively defect, but may choose to cooperate.
When given time to deliberate in an economic game, individuals become less cooperative. Grossmann and colleagues show that players directed toward a third-person perspective reorientate from selfish to common goals and maintain cooperation.
Muthukrishna et al. experimentally model the cost, causes and cures for corruption, showing that anti-corruption strategies can occasionally backfire.
Living in a harsh environment is linked to breeding in cooperative groups, but which is cause and which is effect? Here, a bird phylogeny is used to show that, contrary to previous assumption, cooperative breeders are more likely to colonize harsh environments.
Experimental archaeological ballistic modelling suggests that lesions on 120,000-year-old deer skeletons from Neumark-Nord, Germany, were caused by close-range use of thrusting spears on the part of Neanderthals.
The evolutionary transition to cooperative breeding often involves high levels of monogamy and therefore indirect fitness benefits to helpers. Here, an alternative pathway is shown for cichlid fishes, involving direct fitness benefits derived from ecological factors such as group living.
Analysis of the life history and habitat of the ambrosia beetle Austroplatypus incompertus reveals strict monogamy and lifetime sperm storage as precursors to eusociality in this coleopteran species.
Cetaceans show a similar increase in brain size as is seen in human evolution. Here, this increase is shown to be linked to an expansion in the social and ecological niche.
A model of how behaviour in animal societies can shift states is tested in social spiders. Colony size and personality composition determine the timing and ability of a group to recover from such state shifts.
Cooperative interactions within the family enhance the capacity for evolutionary change in body size
The social environment is rarely considered a factor in models of trait responses to selection. Here the authors show that carrion beetle populations respond to selection for larger body size, but only when parents care for their offspring.
Analysis of multiple species of sponge-dwelling, snapping shrimp reveals pair-forming, communal and eusocial species, suggestive of evolution of eusociality via a ‘family-centred model’, paralleling insects and vertebrates.
Reviews & Perspectives
Fehr and Schurtenberger show that the prevailing evidence supports the view that social norms are causal drivers of human cooperation and explain major cooperation-related regularities. Norms also guide peer punishment and people have strong preferences for institutions that support norm formation.
Dispersal and social behaviour co-evolve, yet their evolutionary consequences are unclear. Here, the authors show that linkage between the loci responsible for dispersal and social behaviour results in the emergence of social polymorphism.
Studying subtle signals of generosity is important to understand the long term maintenance of human cooperative networks. Certain types of low-cost food sharing among Martu women, for example, may signal commitment and cement cooperative ties.
Hilbe et al. synthesize recent theoretical work on zero-determinant and ‘rival’ versus ‘partner’ strategies in social dilemmas. They describe the environments under which these contrasting selfish or cooperative strategies emerge in evolution.
McAuliffe et al. synthesize recent behavioural and neuroscientific evidence on the development of fairness behaviours in children, which shows that the signatures of human fairness can be traced in childhood.
Hunting in groups allows predators to forage more efficiently. Here, the authors outline a framework for evaluating social predation strategies according to five key behavioural dimensions.
Indigenous knowledge and ecological science have complementary differences that can be fruitfully combined to better understand the past and predict the future of social-ecological systems. Cooperation among scientific and Indigenous perspectives can improve conservation and resource management policies.
Knowledge that humans could trigger a regime shift in a vital natural system may help in identifying a goal for collective action, but it is unlikely to spur the degree of cooperation needed to avert a catastrophe. Substantial behaviour change can be achieved by manipulating the institutions that govern human action on the commons.
Global environmental change is largely indifferent to political boundaries, but meeting the challenges they pose in the future will inevitably require cross-border cooperation. We talk to David Lehrer, Executive Director at The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, about how this challenge is at the heart of their academic mission.
Some acts of human cooperation are not easily explained by traditional models of kinship or reciprocity. Fitness interdependence may provide a unifying conceptual framework, in which cooperation arises from the mutual dependence for survival or reproduction, as occurs among mates, risk-pooling partnerships and brothers-in-arms.
Through cooperation we are able to thrive, build societies, culture and technology. But history also reveals our potential for selfishness, spite and prejudice. Studying the neural processes that drive choice behaviour is essential to understand this paradox and develop means to curb greed and extend the limits of cooperation.
Many species face the problems of how, when and with whom to cooperate. Comparing responses across species can reveal the evolutionary trajectory of these decisions, including in humans. Using nearly identical economic game methods to compare species could identify the evolutionary constraints and catalysts to cooperation.
New details of the social and sex lives of platypodine ambrosia beetles support a controversial link between parental monogamy and complex animal societies.