Bacteria that channel Elinor Ostrom

This blog post, from Not Exactly Rocket Science, caught my attention. I blogged about it in my more general-audience blog. Here I want to elaborate a little bit on the connection with Elinor Ostrom’s work. Ostrom studies how various human societies have evolved mechanisms to manage common property resources. She shows how in many cases these mechanisms lead to much better outcomes for the users of the commons than what the plain old game theoretic foundation of the “tragedy of the commons” that we teach undergraduate students (and graduate students, too) leads us to believe. I like how the study of bacteria I started this post with shows the same idea operating via chemical signals and evolutionary pressures in populations of bacteria. Surely humans can continue to evolve useful mechanisms to manage their own common property resource problems better, if bacteria can. Note that the bacteria in this study did not have a uniformly good solution: only if the population of the colony gets large enough does the evolutionary advantage of cheaters evaporate. But it does evaporate, eventually.

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