How generosity, cheating, and exploitation shape our world, from human social groups to cellular societies.
Cooperation is essential to who we are as multicellular organisms, as social animals and as humans. We are made of trillions of cooperating cells and so we are literally cooperation incarnate. As humans, we cooperate with each other as well, sometimes without expecting anything in return. My work explores the question: Are there general principles that underlie cooperation across all systems, from cellular societies to human cooperation? In The Human Generosity Project, we incorporate computational modeling, experiments with human participants in the lab and work at nine fieldsites around the world to understand human sharing. In my work on cooperation and cheating in the evolution multicellularity, I focus on the question of how large multicellular bodies can evolve cooperation among trillions of cells despite the constant threat of cellular cheating, i.e., cancer. Cancer is essentially a breakdown of multicellular cooperation, and so cooperation theory is an essential tool for understanding why we get cancer and what we can do to better prevent and treat it. Across systems – from multicellular bodies to human societies – cheater detection and behavior regulation play important roles in stabilizing cooperation. In this talk I will discuss the fundamental principles of cooperation that span from cellular societies to human societies, and how these principles can be leveraged to improve our understanding of human nature and human health.