Why mutual helping in most natural systems is neither conflict-free nor based on maximal conflict

Redouan Bshary, Klaus Zuberbuhler, Carel van Schaik

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15 Citations (Scopus)
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Mutual helping for direct benefits can be explained by various game theoretical models, which differ mainly in terms of the underlying conflict of interest between two partners. Conflict is minimal if helping is self-serving and the partner benefits as a by-product. In contrast, conflict is maximal if partners are in a prisoner’s dilemma with both having the payoff-dominant option of not returning the other’s investment. Here, we provide evolutionary and ecological arguments for why these two extremes are often unstable under natural conditions and propose that interactions with intermediate levels of conflict are frequent evolutionary endpoints. We argue that by product helping is prone to becoming an asymmetric investment game since even small variation in by-product benefits will lead to the evolution of partner choice, leading to investments and partner monitoring. Second, iterated prisoner’s dilemmas tend to take place in stable social groups where the fitness of partners is interdependent, to the effect that a certain level of helping is self-serving. In sum, intermediate levels of mutual helping are expected in nature, while efficient partner control mechanisms may allow reaching higher levels.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20150091
Number of pages10
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. B, Biological Sciences
Issue number1687
Early online date4 Jan 2016
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2016


  • Cooperation
  • Mutualism
  • By-product mutualism
  • Prisoner's dilemma
  • Pseudoreciprocity
  • Biological market


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