Negative Niche Construction Favors the Evolution of Cooperation
Brian D Connelly , Katherine J Dickinson , Sarah P Hammarlund , Benjamin Kerr
By benefitting others at a cost to themselves, cooperators face an ever present threat from defectors—individuals that avail themselves of the cooperative benefit without contributing. A longstanding challenge to evolutionary biology is to understand the mechanisms that support the many instances of cooperation that nevertheless exist. Hammarlund et al. recently demonstrated that cooperation can persist by hitchhiking along with beneficial non-social adaptations. Importantly, cooperators play an active role in this process. In spatially-structured environments, clustered cooperator populations reach greater densities, which creates more mutational opportunities to gain beneficial non-social adaptations. Cooperation rises in abundance by association with these adaptations. However, once adaptive opportunities have been exhausted, the ride abruptly ends as cooperators are displaced by adapted defectors. Using an agent-based model, we demonstrate that the selective feedback that is created as populations construct their local niches can maintain cooperation indefinitely. This cooperator success depends specifically on negative niche construction, which acts as a perpetual source of adaptive opportunities. As populations adapt, they alter their environment in ways that reveal additional opportunities for adaptation. Despite being independent of niche construction in our model, cooperation feeds this cycle. By reaching larger densities, populations of cooperators are better able to adapt to changes in their constructed niche and successfully respond to the constant threat posed by defectors. We relate these findings to previous studies from the niche construction literature and discuss how this model could be extended to provide a greater understanding of how cooperation evolves in the complex environments in which it is found.