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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2016 Feb 5;371(1687):20150101. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0101.

Biological trade and markets.

Author information

1
Institute for Theoretical Biology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Berlin 10115, Germany p.hammerstein@biologie.hu-berlin.de.
2
Faculté Psychologie, Université de Strasbourg, Strasbourg 67000, France.

Abstract

Cooperation between organisms can often be understood, like trade between merchants, as a mutually beneficial exchange of services, resources or other 'commodities'. Mutual benefits alone, however, are not sufficient to explain the evolution of trade-based cooperation. First, organisms may reject a particular trade if another partner offers a better deal. Second, while human trade often entails binding contracts, non-human trade requires unwritten 'terms of contract' that 'self-stabilize' trade and prevent cheating even if all traders strive to maximize fitness. Whenever trading partners can be chosen, market-like situations arise in nature that biologists studying cooperation need to account for. The mere possibility of exerting partner choice stabilizes many forms of otherwise cheatable trade, induces competition, facilitates the evolution of specialization and often leads to intricate forms of cooperation. We discuss selected examples to illustrate these general points and review basic conceptual approaches that are important in the theory of biological trade and markets. Comparing these approaches with theory in economics, it turns out that conventional models-often called 'Walrasian' markets-are of limited relevance to biology. In contrast, early approaches to trade and markets, as found in the works of Ricardo and Cournot, contain elements of thought that have inspired useful models in biology. For example, the concept of comparative advantage has biological applications in trade, signalling and ecological competition. We also see convergence between post-Walrasian economics and biological markets. For example, both economists and biologists are studying 'principal-agent' problems with principals offering jobs to agents without being sure that the agents will do a proper job. Finally, we show that mating markets have many peculiarities not shared with conventional economic markets. Ideas from economics are useful for biologists studying cooperation but need to be taken with caution.

KEYWORDS:

biological markets; comparative advantage; cooperation; mutualism; partner choice; principal–agent problem

PMID:
26729940
PMCID:
PMC4760201
DOI:
10.1098/rstb.2015.0101
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

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