In social evolution, communication trumps selfishness

Talking to village elders, Zabul, Afghanistan

In a previous post, I explored how game theory helped us understand the value and power behind social cooperation, which is the basis for public services. One classic example of game theory, however, has pointed towards selfishness, which puzzled evolutionary biologists. Cooperation abounds in the natural world, not just among humans, so how could this be?

A new study mentioned in a BBC article offers a new resolution to this contradiction: communication.

In the classic game The Prisoner’s Dilemma, a pair of criminal accomplices will get the shortest sentences possible if they don’t inform on each other. But, they are separated in their cells and can’t talk with each other, so they have no way of knowing if their partner will keep quiet or inform. Nobel Laureate John Nash showed that, in this game, acting selfishly and informing on the other was the winning strategy.

But obviously, if the prisoners could talk to each other, they would figure out their mutual situation and agree to keep quiet because it was in each of their self-interest.

This type of communication is the new ingredient analyzed by researchers in genetics and evolution. Adding communication makes cooperation the stronger strategy. (However, one group’s advantage from communication can be short-lived, since other competitors can develop strategies to counteract the advantage of communication.)

Through communication, we can develop mutually beneficial solutions to problems that seem, when we are isolated, to favor selfishness.

It seems perfectly natural (pardon the pun) that communication should be a vital adjunct to social cooperation and evolutionary success. If public services are a modern expression of our social nature, then the promotional aspect of marketing is a modern expression of communication among our various tribes and clans.

Our modern world is awash in communication, including blogs like this. Do you think that this amount of communication represents a positive evolutionary step, or generates noise that drowns out the communication that we need to survive?

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