Researchers analyze conditions that facilitate cooperation in nature

Research team develops a mathematical model of how individual animals inherit their social connections.

Karen Saltos | Jan 21, 2020

There are many examples of cooperation in nature. However, it is also easy to find examples of selfishness and conflict.

Researchers have been studying the conditions that lead to cooperation for years. The implications are for understanding the forces that drive animal behavior, charitable giving and international relations.

A basic doctrine of these studies is that cooperative behavior emerges when individuals interacting in a social network obtain some benefit from being generous with one another. Thus far, social networks are not fixed.

Erol Akay, an assistant professor of biology at University of Pennsylvania School of the Arts and Sciences, addresses this question of how a developing social network influences the possibility of cooperation in a theoretical social group. He found that where connected individuals are closely related they are more likely to cooperate. Nevertheless, these same groups can trigger a feedback loop that leads to the collapse of cooperation.

"We know from a half-century of study that cooperation is quite easy to evolve in principle," says Akay. His academic work points to a reason why. It is the possibility that social structure that brings about high levels of cooperation may not be stable in such a cooperative environment.

He and former postdoctoral researcher Amiyaal llany collaborated on a research study and developed a mathematical model of how individual animals inherit their social connections. This model can explain the structure of social networks in animal groups.