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Evolution stands up to bullies

August 13, 2012|By Monte Morin
  • A new study examines humanity's drive to stand up against bullies.
A new study examines humanity's drive to stand up against bullies. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Stop bullying: It’s not just a public service slogan, its an evolutionary rallying cry.

As a national campaign urges parents and children to stand up to bullying, a biomathematician at the University of Tennessee says the urge to band together against strong aggressors is a key to humanity’s success as a species.

In a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sergey Gavrilets uses mathematical models to investigate just why humans exhibit strong egalitarian, or socially equal, behaviors.

He concludes that by standing up to bullies and preventing them from monopolizing resources, groups could increase their odds of survival and produce more offspring. In the process, people evolved a genetic drive to help weak individuals fight back.

That drive, according to Gavrilets, ultimately led to widespread cooperation among humans as well as empathy and compassion.

In animal groups with strong hierarchies, high-ranking members often take more and better resources from weaker members and have better mating success. Gavrilets used mathematics to compare the prosperity of groups that allowed stronger members to consume the best resources, and those in which “helpers” aided the weak individual by standing up to, or fighting off, the stronger bully. The results of these mathematical models were then extrapolated over thousands of generations.

Groups with helpers prospered, according to the study.

“Based on the results, helping the victim then is the evolutionary ‘right’ thing to do, not only from a victim’s point of view or a societal point of view, but also the helper’s point of view,” said Gavrilets, who is associate director for scientific activities at the National Institute for Mathematical Biological Synthesis. “I’d speculate that this is also a psychologically rewarding thing to do in spite of the risks potentially involved.”

The study argues that since helpers ultimately aided themselves and their own progeny by assisting victims, the action was both altruistic and selfish. While the short-term risks were great, the long-term benefits were pronounced.

“In the end, it is pure selfish tendencies that could drive the emergence of helping behavior, empathy and moral values,” Gavrilets wrote.

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