Few phenomena attract as much attention from as many different scientific disciplines as the study of cooperation. The fields of anthropology, biology, economics, political sciences, psychology and sociology all consider cooperation to be a central focus of inquiry.

This fascination with cooperation and its cousin, trading, rests on its puzzling nature: cooperation appears intrinsically unstable and theoretically problematic, yet it is ubiquitous throughout nature and human societies. Cooperating and trading agents may sometimes make a profit, but simultaneously risk suffering a loss; they must choose continually between small, but immediate, benefits and more substantial, but temporally distant, ones; more often than not the interests of partners are at odds. All of this implies that agents with very different natures, ranging from bacteria to multi-national alliances of humans, are equipped with similar evolved strategies designed to solve the same recurring dilemmas. While distantly related species probably use different mechanisms to implement these strategies, more closely related species are more likely to employ the same mechanisms when solving the same problems. We therefore propose a program in which these strategies and mechanisms form the focus of research, and where our main goal is to highlight the evolutionary continuity of cooperation, both genetic and cultural, and make it an object of study in its own right: What explains the evolution of different mechanisms and strategies? Can we trace the evolutionary history of mechanisms and does this explain the forms we observe today? Can bounded rationality and the break-down of cooperation in modern human societies be explained by the activation of mechanisms that evolved in past environments? A second aim, essential to achieving the first, is to bring together experts from different disciplines in order to encourage, and enable, cross-fertilisation of different traditions, terminologies and methods.

Cooperation and trade have essential elements in common: individuals or groups invest in order to increase their chances of obtaining a net benefit, while, at the same time, they run the risk of obtaining little or no return from their investment. It is therefore crucial for each participant in cooperation, and for each trader, to have a number of mechanisms at his/her disposal that help to ensure optimal profit. As trading and cooperation are not fully interchangeable concepts, there are forms of cooperation that lack the exchanges that typify trading (e.g., acceptance of mutual boundaries by territory holding animals) and there are automated forms of trading that have little to do with cooperation (e.g., internet stock-trading), we propose to concentrate only on those areas in which the two phenomena overlap.

Evolutionary theory provides different explanations for cooperation between closely related individuals and for cooperation between unrelated or distantly related individuals. Investment in close relatives (“kin selection”) yields a guaranteed return, because there is a high chance that the relative receiving the investment also shares the genetic information that gives rise to the investors generous behaviour. While kin selection has its share of unresolved problems, the enigma posed by cooperation among unrelated agents presents a far greater challenge to evolutionary theory and is in need of much further study. The proposed program will therefore focus on cooperation in which kinship plays no role.

Evidence for cooperation and trade is apparent throughout the entire history of life on Earth, extending all the way back to our unicellular ancestors. Therefore, rather than studying cooperation and trading within the somewhat artificial confines of separate disciplines, we feel it is more valuable to study them as a single phenomenon, and draw on a wide array of methods and expertise from a variety of disciplines. The disciplines concerned include (in alphabetical order):

(1) Anthropology (biological, physical and social);
(2) Biology (ethology, behavioural and evolutionary ecology, palaeontology);
(3) Cognitive science (artificial intelligence, evolutionary robotics, embodiment, philosophy of mind)
(4) Economics (micro-economics, neuro- & endocrino-economics, game theory); (5) Mathematics (game theory);
(6) Political sciences (comparative politics, political theory);
(7) Psychology (economic and evolutionary psychology);
(8) Sociology (economic sociology).

This text is the introduction to a longer text developed by the coordinating proposer Ronald Noë, with input from the co-proposers Louise Barrett (Liverpool), Redouan Bshary (Neuchatel), Tim Clutton-Beck (Cambridge), Robin Dunbar (Liverpool), Ernst Fehr (Zurich), Dario Floreano (Lausanne), Peter Hammerstein (Berlin), Peter Henzi (Preston), Laurent Keller (Lausanne), Karin Knorr-Cetina (Konstanz), Olof Leimar (Stockholm), Ruth Mace (London), Rui F. de Oliveira (Lisbon), Boguslaw Pawlowski (Wroclaw), Carel van Schaik (Zurich), Paul Seabright (Toulouse), Karl Sigmund (Vienna), Pavel Stopka (Prague), Eörs Szathmary (Budapest), Eric van Damme (Tilburg), Gregory Velicer (Tübingen), Elisabetta Visalberghi (Rome) and Franjo Weissing (Groningen).

The proposal was subsequently further developed at a workshop hosted by Peter Hammerstein (HU Berlin) in November 2005, with the participation of Louise Barrett (Liverpool), Robert Boyd (UCLA), Edward H. Hagen (Berlin), Laurent Keller (Lausanne), Ronald Noë (Strasbourg), Bettina Rockenbach (Erfurt), Eörs Szathmary (Budapest), Masanori Takezawa (Berlin), and Eric van Damme (Tilburg) and at a workshop in Brussels, December 2005, where funding agencies discussed the theme development with Samuel Bowles (Santa Fe / Siena), Peter Hammerstein (Berlin), Ruth Mace (London), Ronald Noë (Strasbourg), Eörs Szathmary (Budapest) and Eric van Damme (Tilburg).

Presentation of the theme made by Ronald Noë, Eörs Szathmary, Samuel Bowles 
to European funding agencies in December 2005.

Full text of the original EUROCORES Theme proposal submitted to ESF and recommended for development by the EUROCORES Committee in September 2005

TECT Call for Outline Proposals 

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