Trading public goods stabilizes interspecific mutualism

J Theor Biol. 2013 Feb 7:318:58-67. doi: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2012.10.022. Epub 2012 Oct 24.


The existence of cooperation between species raises a fundamental problem for evolutionary theory. Why provide costly services to another species if the feedback of this provision also happens to benefit intra-specific competitors that provide no service? Rewarding cooperators and punishing defectors can help maintain mutualism; this is not possible, however, when one can only respond to the collective action of one's partners, which is likely to be the case in many common symbioses. We show how the theory of public goods can explain the stability of mutualism when discrimination between cooperators and defectors is not possible: if two groups of individuals trade goods that are non-linear, increasing functions of the number of contributions, their mutualistic interaction is maintained by the exchange of these public goods, even when it is not possible to punish defectors, which can persist at relatively high frequencies. This provides a theoretical justification and testable predictions for the evolution of mutualism in the absence of discrimination mechanisms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cooperative Behavior*
  • Game Theory
  • Group Processes
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Punishment
  • Species Specificity
  • Symbiosis