A new route to the evolution of cooperation

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The Prisoner's Dilemma (PD) constitutes a widely used metaphor to investigate problems related to the evolution of cooperation. Whenever evolution takes place in well-mixed populations engaged in single rounds of the PD, cooperators cannot resist invasion by defectors, a feature, which is somewhat alleviated whenever populations are spatially distributed. In both cases the populations are characterized by a homogeneous pattern of connectivity, in which every individual is equivalent, sharing the same number of neighbours. Recently, compelling evidence has been accumulated on the strong heterogeneous nature of the network of contacts between individuals in populations. Here we describe the networks of contacts in terms of graphs and show that heterogeneity provides a new mechanism for cooperation to survive. Specifically, we show that cooperators are capable of exploring the heterogeneity of the population structure to become evolutionary competitive. As a result, cooperation becomes the dominating trait in scale-free networks of contacts in which the few highly connected individuals are directly inter-connected, in this way contributing to self-sustain cooperation.

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