Prisoner’s Dilemma

Last year, University of Pennsylvania researchers Alexander J. Stewart and Joshua B. Plotkin published a mathematical explanation for why cooperation and generosity have evolved in nature. Using the classical game theory match-up known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma, they found that generous strategies were the only ones that could persist and succeed in a multi-player, iterated version of the game over the long term.

But now they’ve come out with a somewhat less rosy view of evolution. With a new analysis of the Prisoner’s Dilemma played in a large, evolving population, they found that adding more flexibility to the game can allow selfish strategies to be more successful. The work paints a dimmer but likely more realistic view of how cooperation and selfishness balance one another in nature.

“It’s a somewhat depressing evolutionary outcome, but it makes intuitive sense,” said Plotkin, a professor in Penn’s Department of Biology in the School of Arts & Sciences, who coauthored the study with Stewart, a postdoctoral researcher in his lab. “We had a nice picture of how evolution can promote cooperation even amongst self-interested agents and indeed it sometimes can, but, when we allow mutations that change the nature of the game, there is a runaway evolutionary process, and suddenly defection becomes the more robust outcome.”