The Peloton’s Dilemma

I’ve greatly enjoyed the London 2012 fever that’s gripped the country, and have spent many happy hours watching sports I know nothing about. One such event was the men’s cycling road race. It may sound like watching people cycle along a road for the best part of 6 hours is only one grade above watching paint drying for excitement, but you’d be wrong. With my evolutionary biologist hat on, I was transfixed by the strategies of cooperation and competition that were being played out before me.

So the basic deal is this: leading the pack as a cyclist costs you heavily in terms of energy, so people must take turns leading, and share the benefits of being in the slip stream. Added to this, many were in teams, with four of five team mates taking the burden of leading the pack, and working together to protect their one ‘sprinter’ team mate, so he would stay in the best part of the slip stream during the race, and save his energy for the gold-rush at the end.

In the case of Team GB we had Mark Cavendish as our great hope for Gold, with his GB team mates, including Bradley Wiggins, who won the Tour de France the week before. We were massive favourites for gold, and because of this, we did not win gold. The reason was simple: the other members of the peloton (the main pack of cyclists) decided to free-ride on the efforts of team GB, and not help lead the pack. Their logic being that team GB were going for gold, so they would surely do what was needed to ensure the peloton stayed near the leaders.

Anyone who watched it, will know the result: team GB were unable to catch up on the leading pack, and Mark ended in 29th place. Afterwards some people blamed the Australian and German cyclists for not helping enough to lead the peloton as the explanation for the loss.

My question is this: does the same sort of ‘tragedy of the strong’ happen in nature? Imagine we have a group, where only a minority can reproduce and that reproduction is skewed (like gold, silver and bronze…gold is valued far higher than bronze) and that the only way of having a chance of reproducing at the end of ones life, is by cooperating together at the start. To match the cycling analogy, we could image the group is composed of sub-groups of relatives, who indirectly benefit from reproduction (like the national teams) – this effectively helps to amplify the inequalities in strength within the group. If our starting condition is one of inequality, might it happen that if you have one family group / individual that is better than the others that a tragedy of the commons type situation might arise because the other, weaker, groups will try to avoid cooperating and instead free ride on the efforts of the dominant group in order to sneak a silver or bronze position? Might this be relevant for, say, breeding where juvenile males might live together, but at some point will become competitors for mates?

It’s cool to think that watching hours of cycling races might help illuminate questions about life histories with cooperative and competitive phases and inequalities between individuals…at least I can justify watching the Tour de France in the name of science!

Compare the meerkat and the lawyer!

I recently had a long phone conversation with Hugh Crisp, a former partner at the law firm Freshfields who is now based at the Saïd Business School, about the insights that mole rats and meerkats can offer lawyers. No, it’s not April, I’m serious. I did wonder what my colleagues would think about the fact I was debating whether lawfirms were more like bee or mole rats, but it was remarkable how often I’d find myself saying ‘oh, well that problem occurs in nature, and it’s solved like this…’. This is not science…but it is fun, and if a sprinkling of biological examples help convince people that cut-throat individualism is not the most effective strategy out there, then bring it on!

It’s resulted in this FT article by Gillian Tett

Read it here:

Compare the meerkat and the lawyer!

Overconfident about the evolution of overconfidence!


This paper on the evolution of overconfidence came out a couple of weeks ago in Nature. The authors claim that their simple model offers an explanation as to why humans are typically overconfident when faced with novel or uncertain situations, such as climate change or the financial crisis. In general, the I like the author – Dominic Johnstone’s – work. He wrote a great paper on the logic of cooperation a few years ago and did some interesting stuff using evolutionary thinking to study adaptation rates for the US Army and insurgents….the structural and incentive differences mean insurgents modify their behaviour far more rapidly than the Army can keep up with.

Unfortunately, I really dislike this latest paper. The only thing novel about it is the overconfidence spin – but sadly, their model is not really about the evolution of overconfidence. The novelty they introduce to a standard animal conflict model is a parameter, k, which they have defined as overconfidence; but that is a dangerously loaded term to give such a general parameter. Essentially, all the model shows is that when the cost of gaining a resource goes down, an individual is more likely to go for it – a basic result known since the 1970s. The model results also rest upon some unrealistic assumptions – such as that if the chance of an individual winning the resource is <0.5 then they won’t go for it – I don’t think this is realistic, as it would leave resources often unclaimed…what if a resource is extremely valuable, but there is only a 10% chance of winning it? Natural selection will often favour high-risk high-reward strategies.

What would a model need to show in order to convince me that overconfidence was an adaptive trait? I think you’d need two parameters – one giving your confidence that you can get a resource, and another reflecting how likely you can get the resource based upon an estimate of your personal quality (with an error included so we do not assume perfect information)…The ‘quality estimate’ trait value would vary with partner quality / resource value, but the ‘confidence’ trait value would be independent of resource / partner quality – consistently positive for overconfident, negative for under confident. We could then examine the evolution of the ‘confidence’ trait value (i.e. how over / under confident and individual is favoured to be) – my guess is that natural selection would favour this trait to go to 0 i.e. to have no consistent over / under confidence bias…but I’d love to see someone model it.

It’s a pity this paper made it through the review process, but the publications of papers of this quality happens so frequently, it is not surprising any more.