Simon Powers

My main research interests are in the coevolution of population structure and social behaviour. Whilst much previous work has shown that population structure can create selection pressure favouring cooperation, relatively little work has addressed the origin of this population structure itself. By contrast, my research has shown that social behaviour can in turn exert indirect selection pressure on genetic traits that affect population structure, leading to the creation of population structures that support high degrees of cooperation. Drawing parallels with environmental niche construction (Odling-Smee et al.), I term this process Social Niche Construction. I am particularly interested in the consequences of this for understanding the origin of sociality, and Maynard Smith & Szathmáry’s major transitions in evolution. My work in this area has recently been the subject of a commentary in Science (Szathmáry 2011, Science 334:6063, pp. 1648-1649).

I am also interested in the origin of cooperation in large human groups, and whether or not punishment can provide an explanation for this. My recent work in this area shows that if defectors are also able to punish cooperators (so-called anti-social punishment), then punishment may no longer be able to maintain cooperation in large groups, contrary to previous models of strong reciprocity. I am currently modelling the (cultural) co-evolution of social institutions that support cooperation, such as policing, with individual social behaviour and group size.

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Member of
Lehmann group