Evolution will punish the selfish? It’s not as simple as that

| August 5, 2013
sharing BenGray
Image: Ben Grey
This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

When I see a headline explaining that “Evolution will punish you if you are selfish and mean” it looks at first sight completely meaningless. Has evolution punished the AIDS virus for being ruthless to its victims? Has evolution punished the ants for their behavior towards the competition?

The story is actually a report of a result in game theory which overthrew an earlier experiment in game theory suggesting that a completely “ruthless” strategy would succeed in a contest with other ones slightly less ruthless.

It may not tell us much about evolution, but it tells us a great deal about popular culture and the things that interest human beings.

Read the full, original story here: Evolution will punish the selfish? It’s not as simple as that

Additional Resources:

  • Evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean,” Michigan State University
    It’s easier to understand the coverage slant when you see the tantalizingly juicy quote from the study’s lead researcher. He kicks off the university’s press release with this:

    “We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean,” said lead author Christoph Adami, MSU professor of microbiology and molecular genetics. “For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.”

    You have to admit, it does make a better story if you disregard all those caveats that appear after the attribution break.

  • Selfish traits no good: Nice guys finish first, evolution researchers say,” Christian Science Monitor
    This story jumps straight into rationalizing the results of the study and offering anecdotal evidence and “common sense” examples. In fact, this article doesn’t even mention that the study was a simulation, and that the individuals in the mathematical model were iterated equations.
  • Selfishness is Unsustainable and May Eventually Disappear as an Evolutionary Trait,” Nature World News
    This article offers more details and includes information about the simulation and the study’s game theory framework.
  • Selfish traits not favoured by evolution, study shows,” BBC
    The BBC story talks about the mathematical model used in the study and offers a thoughtful description of the experiment. But they did unnecessarily, and some might say, inaccurately, sneak the word “people” into the first sentence, like so:

    Evolution does not favour selfish people, according to new research.



The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

Outbreak Daily Digest
Biotech Facts & Fallacies
Talking Biotech
Genetics Unzipped
a a b b a f ac a

Video: Death by COVID: The projected grim toll in historical context

The latest statistics, as of July 10, show COVID-19-related deaths in U.S. are just under 1,000 per day nationally, which is ...
mag insects image superjumbo v

Disaster interrupted: Which farming system better preserves insect populations: Organic or conventional?

A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future ...
dead bee desolate city

Are we facing an ‘Insect Apocalypse’ caused by ‘intensive, industrial’ farming and agricultural chemicals? The media say yes; Science says ‘no’

The media call it the “Insect Apocalypse”. In the past three years, the phrase has become an accepted truth of ...
types of oak trees

Infographic: Power of evolution? How oak trees came to dominate North American forests

Over the course of some 56 million years, oaks, which all belong to the genus Quercus, evolved from a single undifferentiated ...
biotechnology worker x

Can GMOs rescue threatened plants and crops?

Some scientists and ecologists argue that humans are in the midst of an "extinction crisis" — the sixth wave of ...
food globe x

Are GMOs necessary to feed the world?

Experts estimate that agricultural production needs to roughly double in the coming decades. How can that be achieved? ...
eating gmo corn on the cob x

Are GMOs safe?

In 2015, 15 scientists and activists issued a statement, "No Scientific consensus on GMO safety," in the journal Environmental Sciences ...
Screen Shot at PM

Charles Benbrook: Agricultural economist and consultant for the organic industry and anti-biotechnology advocacy groups

Independent scientists rip Benbrook's co-authored commentary in New England Journal calling for reassessment of dangers of all GMO crops and herbicides ...
Screen Shot at PM

ETC Group: ‘Extreme’ biotechnology critic campaigns against synthetic biology and other forms of ‘extreme genetic engineering’

The ETC Group is an international environmental non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Canada whose stated purpose is to monitor "the impact of emerging technologies and ...
Share via
News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.
Send this to a friend