Public goods in relation to competition, cooperation, and spite

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Public goods and common-pool resources are fundamental features of biological and social systems, and pose core challenges in achieving sustainability; for such situations, the immediate interests of individuals and the societies in which they are embedded are in potential conflict, involving game-theoretic considerations whose resolution need not serve the collective good. Evolution has often confronted such dilemmas - e.g., in bacterial biofilms - in the challenges of cancer, in nitrogen fixation and chelation, in the production of antibiotics, and in collective action problems across animal groups; there is much to learn from the Darwinian resolution of these situations for how to address problems our societies face today. Addressing these problems involves understanding the emergence of cooperative agreements, from reciprocal altruism and insurance arrangements to the social norms and more formal institutions thatmaintain societies. At the core are the issues of how individuals and societies discount the future and the interests of others, and the degree that individual decisions are influenced by regard for others. Ultimately, as Garrett Hardin suggested, the solution to problems of the commons is in "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon," and hence in how groups of individuals form and how they arrive at decisions that ultimately benefit all.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10838-10845
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue numberSUPPL.3
StatePublished - Jul 22 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Collective phenomena
  • Complex adaptive systems
  • Prosociality


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