Evolutionary dynamics within and among competing groups

Daniel B. Cooney, Simon A. Levin, Yoichiro Mori, Joshua B. Plotkin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Biological and social systems are structured at multiple scales, and the incentives of individuals who interact in a group may diverge from the collective incentive of the group as a whole. Mechanisms to resolve this tension are responsible for profound transitions in evolutionary history, including the origin of cellular life, multicellular life, and even societies. Here, we synthesize a growing literature that extends evolutionary game theory to describe multilevel evolutionary dynamics, using nested birth–death processes and partial differential equations to model natural selection acting on competition within and among groups of individuals. We analyze how mechanisms known to promote cooperation within a single group—including assortment, reciprocity, and population structure—alter evolutionary outcomes in the presence of competition among groups. We find that population structures most conducive to cooperation in multiscale systems can differ from those most conducive within a single group. Likewise, for competitive interactions with a continuous range of strategies we find that among-group selection may fail to produce socially optimal outcomes, but it can nonetheless produce second-best solutions that balance individual incentives to defect with the collective incentives for cooperation. We conclude by describing the broad applicability of multiscale evolutionary models to problems ranging from the production of diffusible metabolites in microbes to the management of common-pool resources in human societies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2216186120
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number20
StatePublished - May 16 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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