Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Evolution of Turn-Taking

ScienceDaily has a story on research done at the University of Leicester on the evolution of turn-taking. How this happened is far from clear:

Professor Andrew Colman and Dr Lindsay Browning carried out the study due to appear in the September issue of the journal Evolutionary Ecology Research. The study has helped to explain the evolution of cooperative turn-taking.

Professor Colman said: “In human groups, turn-taking is usually planned and coordinated with the help of language. For example, people living together often agree to take turns washing up the dishes after meals or taking their children to school. But turn-taking has also evolved in many other species without language or the capacity to reach negotiated agreements. These include apes, monkeys, birds, and antelopes that take turns grooming each other, and mating pairs of Antarctic penguins that take turns foraging at sea while their partners incubate eggs or tend to chicks.

But how it evolved in the animal world is, according to these researchers, another matter:
Using evolutionary game theory and computer simulations, Professor Colman and Dr Browning discovered a simple variation of “tit for tat” that explains how turn-taking can evolve in organisms that pursue their individual self-interests robotically.

The researchers state: “Turn-taking is initiated only after a species has evolved at least two genetically different types that behave differently in initial, uncoordinated interactions with others. Then as soon as a pair coordinates by chance, they instinctively begin to play ‘tit for tat’. This locks them into mutually beneficial coordinated turn-taking indefinitely. Without genetic diversity, turn-taking cannot evolve in this simple way.
I find this a bit fuzzy and it is easy to see how a group like the Discovery Institute would pounce on it and say that this behavior is part of design in nature. They might argue that evolutionary explanations are arbitrary because the researchers approach the problem from an evolutionary perspective only, especially when it is described as an evolutionary "invisible hand" that is behind the turn-taking behavior.

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