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J Theor Biol. 2006 Mar 21;239(2):195-202. Epub 2005 Oct 19.

Synergy and discounting of cooperation in social dilemmas.

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Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, 6270 University Boulevard, Vancouver BC, Canada V6T 1Z4.


The emergence and maintenance of cooperation by natural selection is an enduring conundrum in evolutionary biology, which has been studied using a variety of game theoretical models inspired by different biological situations. The most widely studied games are the Prisoner's Dilemma, the Snowdrift game and by-product mutualism for pairwise interactions, as well as Public Goods games in larger groups of interacting individuals. Here, we present a general framework for cooperation in social dilemmas in which all the traditional scenarios can be recovered as special cases. In social dilemmas, cooperators provide a benefit to the group at some cost, while defectors exploit the group by reaping the benefits without bearing the costs of cooperation. Using the concepts of discounting and synergy for describing how benefits accumulate when more than one cooperator is present in a group of interacting individuals, we recover the four basic scenarios of evolutionary dynamics given by (i) dominating defection, (ii) coexistence of defectors and cooperators, (iii) dominating cooperation and (iv) bi-stability, in which cooperators and defectors cannot invade each other. Generically, for groups of three or more interacting individuals further, more complex, dynamics can occur. Our framework provides the first unifying approach to model cooperation in different kinds of social dilemmas.

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