Sunday, July 08, 2007

Generalized reciprocity between rats demonstrated

PLoS Biology has an article about some experiments with cooperation between rats that showed that rats that had been helped by others before were more willing to help others, regardless of who those others were. In other words, they seemed to behave according to the old principle "what comes around, goes around".

Generalized Reciprocity in Rats by Claudia Rutte, Michael Taborsky

The evolution of cooperation among nonrelatives has been explained by direct, indirect, and strong reciprocity. Animals should base the decision to help others on expected future help, which they may judge from past behavior of their partner. Although many examples of cooperative behavior exist in nature where reciprocity may be involved, experimental evidence for strategies predicted by direct reciprocity models remains controversial; and indirect and strong reciprocity have been found only in humans so far. Here we show experimentally that cooperative behavior of female rats is influenced by prior receipt of help, irrespective of the identity of the partner. Rats that were trained in an instrumental cooperative task (pulling a stick in order to produce food for a partner) pulled more often for an unknown partner after they were helped than if they had not received help before. This alternative mechanism, called generalized reciprocity, requires no specific knowledge about the partner and may promote the evolution of cooperation among unfamiliar nonrelatives.

The authors sums up the finding pretty well, and I see no real need to elaborate on the findings

Author Summary

The evolution of cooperation is based on four general mechanisms: mutualism, where an action benefits all partners directly; kin selection, where related individuals are supported; “green beard” altruism that is based on a genetic correlation between altruism genes and respective markers; and reciprocal altruism, where helpful acts are contingent upon the likelihood of getting help in return. The latter mechanism is intriguing because it is prone to exploitation. In theory, reciprocal altruism may evolve by direct, indirect, “strong,” and generalized reciprocity. Apart from direct reciprocity, where individuals base their behavior towards a partner on that partner's previous behavior towards themselves, and which works under only highly restrictive conditions, no other mechanism for reciprocity has been demonstrated among conspecifics in nonhuman animals. Here, we tested the propensity of wild-type Norway rats to help unknown conspecifics in response to help received from other unknown partners in an instrumental cooperative task. Anonymous receipt of help increased their propensity to help by more than 20%, revealing that nonhuman animals may indeed show generalized reciprocity. This mechanism causes altruistic behavior by previous social experience irrespective of partner identity. Generalized reciprocity is hence much simpler and therefore more likely to be important in nature than other reciprocity mechanisms.

Of course, it's not possible to say if this behavior is abnormal, until similar tests have been carried out on other species. It does, however, tell us that it is possible that such behavior happens in nature, which is something that has only been speculated about before.

Need I say what this would mean regarding the percepted uniqueness of human altruism? If generalized reciprocity is the norm, then altruism would make evolutionary sense on a species level, and should be quite comment in nature (and it has been observed before among several species, so that supports this idea).

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