On the Origin of Cooperation

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Science  04 Sep 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5945, pp. 1196-1199
DOI: 10.1126/science.325_1196

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In the ninth essay in Science's series in honor of the Year of Darwin, Elizabeth Pennisi explores why an individual would help another at a cost to itself when natural selection favors the survival of the fittest. Charles Darwin suggested that selection might favor families whose members were cooperative, and researchers today agree that kinship helps explain cooperation. But cheaters—those who benefit without making sacrifices—are likely to evolve because they will have an edge over individuals who spend energy on helping others, thus threatening the stability of any cooperative venture. That puzzle has inspired biologists, mathematicians, even economists to come up with ways to explain how cooperation can arise and thrive. Researchers have spent countless hours observing social organisms from man to microbes, finding that even single-celled organisms have sophisticated means of working together. As genomics has come of age, researchers are getting down to the genetic nuts and bolts of cooperation in a variety of systems for the first time.