Findings from Michigan State University scientists contradicted a widely publicised study last year that said self-centred actions gave humans an evolutionary advantage.
“We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean,” said lead author Professor Christoph Adami. “For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.”
The new study uses game theory, a way of analysing strategic decision-making that is used across many fields such as biology, economics and politics.
Running hundreds of thousands of high-powered computer simulations, the authors found that while selfish opponents can often beat cooperative opponents, their selfishness could never be the result of evolution.
Selfishness as a strategy to beat cooperative players was uncovered in a study last year. However, if selfish players kept winning, eventually there would only be selfish players left, who would have to become cooperative to survive in the long run.
Evolutionary biologists have focussed for much of the last 30 years on explaining cooperation, found in many life forms from single-cell organisms to humans.