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Evolution and Bullying

UTK Distinguished Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Mathematics Sergey Gavrilets recently published a paper in PNAS on the evolutionary origins of egalitarianism.  It shows why individuals may be selected for interfering in a conflict between a bully and a victim on the side of the victim.

The evolutionary emergence of the egalitarian syndrome is one of the most intriguing unsolved puzzles related to the origins of modern humans. Standard explanations and models for cooperation and altruism—reciprocity, kin and group selection, and punishment—are not directly applicable to the emergence of egalitarian behavior in hierarchically organized groups that characterized the social life of our ancestors. Here I study an evolutionary model of group-living individuals competing for resources and reproductive success. In the model, the differences in fighting abilities lead to the emergence of hierarchies where stronger individuals take away resources from weaker individuals and, as a result, have higher reproductive success. First, I show that the logic of within-group competition implies under rather general conditions that each individual benefits if the transfer of the resource from a weaker group member to a stronger one is prevented. This effect is especially strong in small groups. Then I demonstrate that this effect can result in the evolution of a particular, genetically controlled psychology causing individuals to interfere in a bully–victim conflict on the side of the victim. A necessary condition is a high efficiency of coalitions in conflicts against the bullies. The egalitarian drive leads to a dramatic reduction in within-group inequality. Simultaneously it creates the conditions for the emergence of inequity aversion, empathy, compassion, and egalitarian moral values via the internalization of behavioral rules imposed by natural selection. It also promotes widespread cooperation via coalition formation.

It has also garnered widespread press coverage:

Los Angeles Times: Evolution stands up to bullies,0,7921942.story?track=rss
Health: Fight the Power: Standing Up to Bullies Benefits Us All
Knoxville New Sentinel: Science and bullying: Why we are programmed to help others
Tennessee Today: UT, NIMBioS Study Finds Bullies Squelched When Bystanders Intervene
Decoded Science "Egalitarian Drives as a Response to Bullying"

Discover Magazine: Against the Übermensch Bullying intervention is genetically evolutionary 'right thing to do’
United Press International: Fighting bullies pushed evolution

Piteå-Tidningen (Sweden): Thus arose the sense of equality
French Tribune: Standing against Bullying is in Genes 
Folha de S. Paulo (Brasil): O altruísmo egoísta
Korea Herald: Fighting bullies pushed evolution

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