skip to main content

This content will become publicly available on May 8, 2024

Title: Comparative economics: how studying other primates helps us better understand the evolution of our own economic decision making
The origins of evolutionary games are rooted in both economics and animal behaviour, but economics has, until recently, focused primarily on humans. Although historically, specific games were used in targeted circumstances with non-human species (i.e. the Prisoner's Dilemma), experimental economics has been increasingly recognized as a valuable method for directly comparing both the outcomes of economic decisions and their underlying mechanisms across species, particularly in comparison with humans, thanks to the structured procedures that allow for them to be instantiated across a variety of animals. So far, results in non-human primates suggest that even when outcomes are shared, underlying proximate mechanisms can vary substantially. Intriguingly, in some contexts non-human primates more easily find a Nash equilibrium than do humans, possibly owing to their greater willingness to explore the parameter space, but humans excel at more complex outcomes, such as alternating between two Nash equilibria, even when deprived of language or instruction, suggesting potential mechanisms that humans have evolved to allow us to solve complex social problems. We consider what these results suggest about the evolution of economic decision-making and suggest future directions, in particular the need to expand taxonomic diversity, to expand this promising approach. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Half a century of evolutionary games: a synthesis of theory, application and future directions'.  more » « less
Award ID(s):
1919305 1658867 2135621
Author(s) / Creator(s):
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. null (Ed.)
    In the past decade, there has been a surge of interest in using games derived from experimental economics to test decision-making behaviour across species. In most cases, researchers are using the games as a tool, for instance, to understand what factors influence decision-making, how decision-making differs across species or contexts, or to ask broader questions about species’ propensities to cooperate or compete. These games have been quite successful in this regard. To what degree, however, do these games tap into species' economic decision-making? For the purpose of understanding the evolution of economic systems in humans, this is the key question. To study this, we can break economic decision-making down into smaller components, each of which is a potential step in the evolution of human economic behaviour. We can then use data from economic games, which are simplified, highly structured models of decision-making and therefore ideal for the comparative approach, to directly compare these components across species and contexts, as well as in relation to more naturalistic behaviours, to better understand the evolution of economic behaviour and the social and ecological contexts that influenced it. The comparative approach has successfully informed us about the evolution of other complex traits, such as language and morality, and should help us more deeply understand why and how human economic systems evolved. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Existence and prevalence of economic behaviours among non-human primates’. 
    more » « less
  2. Evolutionary theories predict that sibling relationships will reflect a complex balance of cooperative and competitive dynamics. In most mammals, dispersal and death patterns mean that sibling relationships occur in a relatively narrow window during development and/or only with same-sex individuals. Besides humans, one notable exception is mountain gorillas, in which non-sex-biased dispersal, relatively stable group composition, and the long reproductive tenures of alpha males mean that animals routinely reside with both maternally and paternally related siblings, of the same and opposite sex, throughout their lives. Using nearly 40,000 hr of behavioral data collected over 14 years on 699 sibling and 1235 non-sibling pairs of wild mountain gorillas, we demonstrate that individuals have strong affiliative preferences for full and maternal siblings over paternal siblings or unrelated animals, consistent with an inability to discriminate paternal kin. Intriguingly, however, aggression data imply the opposite. Aggression rates were statistically indistinguishable among all types of dyads except one: in mixed-sex dyads, non-siblings engaged in substantially more aggression than siblings of any type. This pattern suggests mountain gorillas may be capable of distinguishing paternal kin but nonetheless choose not to affiliate with them over non-kin. We observe a preference for maternal kin in a species with a high reproductive skew (i.e. high relatedness certainty), even though low reproductive skew (i.e. low relatedness certainty) is believed to underlie such biases in other non-human primates. Our results call into question reasons for strong maternal kin biases when paternal kin are identifiable, familiar, and similarly likely to be long-term groupmates, and they may also suggest behavioral mismatches at play during a transitional period in mountain gorilla society. 
    more » « less
  3. BACKGROUND Charles Darwin’s  Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex  tackled the two main controversies arising from the Origin of Species:  the evolution of humans from animal ancestors and the evolution of sexual ornaments. Most of the book focuses on the latter, Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. Research since supports his conjecture that songs, perfumes, and intricate dances evolve because they help secure mating partners. Evidence is overwhelming for a primary role of both male and female mate choice in sexual selection—not only through premating courtship but also through intimate interactions during and long after mating. But what makes one prospective mate more enticing than another? Darwin, shaped by misogyny and sexual prudery, invoked a “taste for the beautiful” without speculating on the origin of the “taste.” How to explain when the “final marriage ceremony” is between two rams? What of oral sex in bats, cloacal rubbing in bonobos, or the sexual spectrum in humans, all observable in Darwin’s time? By explaining desire through the lens of those male traits that caught his eyes and those of his gender and culture, Darwin elided these data in his theory of sexual evolution. Work since Darwin has focused on how traits and preferences coevolve. Preferences can evolve even if attractive signals only predict offspring attractiveness, but most attention has gone to the intuitive but tenuous premise that mating with gorgeous partners yields vigorous offspring. By focusing on those aspects of mating preferences that coevolve with male traits, many of Darwin’s influential followers have followed the same narrow path. The sexual selection debate in the 1980s was framed as “good genes versus runaway”: Do preferences coevolve with traits because traits predict genetic benefits, or simply because they are beautiful? To the broader world this is still the conversation. ADVANCES Even as they evolve toward ever-more-beautiful signals and healthier offspring, mate-choice mechanisms and courter traits are locked in an arms race of coercion and resistance, persuasion and skepticism. Traits favored by sexual selection often do so at the expense of chooser fitness, creating sexual conflict. Choosers then evolve preferences in response to the costs imposed by courters. Often, though, the current traits of courters tell us little about how preferences arise. Sensory systems are often tuned to nonsexual cues like food, favoring mating signals resembling those cues. And preferences can emerge simply from selection on choosing conspecifics. Sexual selection can therefore arise from chooser biases that have nothing to do with ornaments. Choice may occur before mating, as Darwin emphasized, but individuals mate multiple times and bias fertilization and offspring care toward favored partners. Mate choice can thus occur in myriad ways after mating, through behavioral, morphological, and physiological mechanisms. Like other biological traits, mating preferences vary among individuals and species along multiple dimensions. Some of this is likely adaptive, as different individuals will have different optimal mates. Indeed, mate choice may be more about choosing compatible partners than picking the “best” mate in the absolute sense. Compatibility-based choice can drive or reinforce genetic divergence and lead to speciation. The mechanisms underlying the “taste for the beautiful” determine whether mate choice accelerates or inhibits reproductive isolation. If preferences are learned from parents, or covary with ecological differences like the sensory environment, then choice can promote genetic divergence. If everyone shares preferences for attractive ornaments, then choice promotes gene flow between lineages. OUTLOOK Two major trends continue to shift the emphasis away from male “beauty” and toward how and why individuals make sexual choices. The first integrates neuroscience, genomics, and physiology. We need not limit ourselves to the feathers and dances that dazzled Darwin, which gives us a vastly richer picture of mate choice. The second is that despite persistent structural inequities in academia, a broader range of people study a broader range of questions. This new focus confirms Darwin’s insight that mate choice makes a primary contribution to sexual selection, but suggests that sexual selection is often tangential to mate choice. This conclusion challenges a persistent belief with sinister roots, whereby mate choice is all about male ornaments. Under this view, females evolve to prefer handsome males who provide healthy offspring, or alternatively, to express flighty whims for arbitrary traits. But mate-choice mechanisms also evolve for a host of other reasons Understanding mate choice mechanisms is key to understanding how sexual decisions underlie speciation and adaptation to environmental change. New theory and technology allow us to explicitly connect decision-making mechanisms with their evolutionary consequences. A century and a half after Darwin, we can shift our focus to females and males as choosers, rather than the gaudy by-products of mate choice. Mate choice mechanisms across domains of life. Sensory periphery for stimulus detection (yellow), brain for perceptual integration and evaluation (orange), and reproductive structures for postmating choice among pollen or sperm (teal). ILLUSTRATION: KELLIE HOLOSKI/ SCIENCE 
    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    Comparative approaches to experimental economics have shed light on the evolution of social decision‐making across a range of primate species, including humans. Here we replicate our previous work looking at six pairs of capuchin monkeys' (Sapajus [Cebus] apella) responses to scenarios requiring both coordination (Assurance Game) and anti‐coordination (Hawk‐Dove Game). This then provides a foundation for assessing their responses to two additional games, one with a scenario of beneficial cooperation with a temptation to defect (Prisoner's Dilemma) and one with an environment requiring changing strategies within short temporal proximity (Alternating Economic Game). We additionally explored the effects of exogenous oxytocin on decision‐making. Oxytocin did not affect decisions in any of our games. Results from the first two games largely replicated our previous findings. Responses to the Prisoner's Dilemma were more varied than was seen in previous games, with pairs respectively cooperating, defecting, and failing to establish stable strategies. Such variability indicates that this game may be a good assay for individual differences in social decision‐making. Finally, capuchins were able to flexibly switch between their previously established strategies within each of the different games, even when the games were presented within the same session, requiring strategy adjustments within short temporal proximity. These results build on earlier findings showing that capuchins can alter decision‐making strategies as the context demands, which is likely essential for decision‐making in naturally occurring contexts.

    more » « less

    It is often claimed that conserving evolutionary history is more efficient than species‐based approaches for capturing the attributes of biodiversity that benefit people. This claim underpins academic analyses and recommendations about the distribution and prioritization of species and areas for conservation, but evolutionary history is rarely considered in practical conservation activities. One impediment to implementation is that arguments related to the human‐centric benefits of evolutionary history are often vague and the underlying mechanisms poorly explored. Herein we identify the arguments linking the prioritization of evolutionary history with benefits to people, and for each we explicate the purported mechanism, and evaluate its theoretical and empirical support. We find that, even after 25 years of academic research, the strength of evidence linking evolutionary history to human benefits is still fragile.

    Most – but not all – arguments rely on the assumption that evolutionary history is a useful surrogate for phenotypic diversity. This surrogacy relationship in turn underlies additional arguments, particularly that, by capturing more phenotypic diversity, evolutionary history will preserve greater ecosystem functioning, capture more of the natural variety that humans prefer, and allow the maintenance of future benefits to humans. A surrogate relationship between evolutionary history and phenotypic diversity appears reasonable given theoretical and empirical results, but the strength of this relationship varies greatly. To the extent that evolutionary history captures unmeasured phenotypic diversity, maximizing the representation of evolutionary history should capture variation in species characteristics that are otherwise unknown, supporting some of the existing arguments. However, there is great variation in the strength and availability of evidence for benefits associated with protecting phenotypic diversity. There are many studies finding positive biodiversity–ecosystem functioning relationships, but little work exists on the maintenance of future benefits or the degree to which humans prefer sets of species with high phenotypic diversity or evolutionary history. Although several arguments link the protection of evolutionary history directly with the reduction of extinction rates, and with the production of relatively greater future biodiversityviaincreased adaptation or diversification, there are few direct tests. Several of these putative benefits have mismatches between the relevant spatial scales for conservation actions and the spatial scales at which benefits to humans are realized. It will be important for future work to fill in some of these gaps through direct tests of the arguments we define here.

    more » « less