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J Theor Biol. 2000 Mar 21;203(2):135-52.

Ecological symmetry breaking can favour the evolution of altruism in an action-response game.

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German National Research Center for Information Technology, GMD Schloss Birlinghoven, Sankt Augustin, D-53754, Germany.


The evolution of altruistic behaviour is studied in a simple action-response game with a tunable degree of conflict of interest. It is shown that for the continuous, mixed-medium approach no stable polymorphism favours altruism. Ecological dynamics are explored with the addition of a spatial dimension and a local energy variable. A continuous spatial model with finite local range does not introduce any substantial difference in the results with respect to the level of altruism. However, the model illustrates how ecological coupling may lead to the formation of stable spatial patterns in the form of discrete and isolated clusters of players as a consequence of inverse density dependence. A discrete, individual-based model is built in which local interactions are also modelled as occurring within a finite neighbourhood of each individual and spatial positions are not restricted as in lattice models. This model shows substantially different results. A high level of altruism is observed for low (but positive) degrees of conflict and this level decreases linearly for higher degrees of conflict. The evolution of altruism is explained by studying the broken symmetries introduced by the spatial clusters themselves, mainly between their central and peripheral regions which, in combination with the discrete and the stochastic nature of the model, result in the stabilization of strategies in which players behave altruistically towards the same type. As a consequence of the activity of the players, energy resources at the centre of an altruistic cluster are very depleted; so much so that, for low conflict, fitter non-altruistic mutants may initially invade only to become locally extinct due to their less efficient use of energy as their numbers increase. In peripheral regions invader may subsist; however, for geometrical reasons long-lasting genealogies tend to originate only at the centre of a cluster.

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