Selfish altruism, fierce cooperation and the predator

This paper suggests a new way to think about a famous question: what explains cooperation in nature and in particular in humans? I argue that, for an evolutionary biologist as well as a quantitative social scientist, the triangle of two ‘teammates’ in the presence of a predator (passing and shooting in two-on-one situations) is one of the fundamental conceptual building-blocks for understanding these phenomena because in such a situation the fact that life is packaged in many distinct enclosures (and not in one big monolithic blob) can unfold its comparative advantage. I show how, in the presence of a predator, cooperative equilibria emerge among entirely selfish teammates if we infinitesimally bias the lead player in the selfish direction or assign a computational burden on the predator due to the presence of a teammate. I argue that ‘predators’ are common in the biological jungle but also in everyday human settings. Intuitively, this paper builds on the simple idea – a familiar one to a biologist observing the natural world but perhaps less so to social scientists – that everybody has enemies.


The paper is available at the Journal of Biological Dynamics.