Evolutionary establishment of moral and double moral standards through spatial interactions

PLoS Comput Biol. 2010 Apr 29;6(4):e1000758. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000758.


Situations where individuals have to contribute to joint efforts or share scarce resources are ubiquitous. Yet, without proper mechanisms to ensure cooperation, the evolutionary pressure to maximize individual success tends to create a tragedy of the commons (such as over-fishing or the destruction of our environment). This contribution addresses a number of related puzzles of human behavior with an evolutionary game theoretical approach as it has been successfully used to explain the behavior of other biological species many times, from bacteria to vertebrates. Our agent-based model distinguishes individuals applying four different behavioral strategies: non-cooperative individuals ("defectors"), cooperative individuals abstaining from punishment efforts (called "cooperators" or "second-order free-riders"), cooperators who punish non-cooperative behavior ("moralists"), and defectors, who punish other defectors despite being non-cooperative themselves ("immoralists"). By considering spatial interactions with neighboring individuals, our model reveals several interesting effects: First, moralists can fully eliminate cooperators. This spreading of punishing behavior requires a segregation of behavioral strategies and solves the "second-order free-rider problem". Second, the system behavior changes its character significantly even after very long times ("who laughs last laughs best effect"). Third, the presence of a number of defectors can largely accelerate the victory of moralists over non-punishing cooperators. Fourth, in order to succeed, moralists may profit from immoralists in a way that appears like an "unholy collaboration". Our findings suggest that the consideration of punishment strategies allows one to understand the establishment and spreading of "moral behavior" by means of game-theoretical concepts. This demonstrates that quantitative biological modeling approaches are powerful even in domains that have been addressed with non-mathematical concepts so far. The complex dynamics of certain social behaviors become understandable as the result of an evolutionary competition between different behavioral strategies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution
  • Cluster Analysis
  • Competitive Behavior
  • Computational Biology / methods
  • Cooperative Behavior*
  • Game Theory*
  • Humans
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Morals*