© Bob Demers, Univ. of Arizona


Judith Bronstein , Ph.D.

University Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

University of Arizona, Tucson

Born in 1957 in Delaware, USA
Studied Independent Studies in Environmental Science at Brown University and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan


Syngenomics: Evolution − from Conflict to Cooperation to Mutualism


Does Crime Pay? The Benefits of Cheating, the Costs of Being Cheated, and the Persistence of Interspecific Cooperation

How can cooperation persist in the face of a persistent, ubiquitous temptation to cheat? While at the Wissenschaftskolleg, I intend to critically examine evidence for our current interpretation of the conflicts that underlie interspecific cooperation (mutualism). Taking a broad conceptual perspective developed over thirty years of studying the ecology and evolution of mutualism, I will synthesize, for the first time, widely dispersed empirical evidence surrounding three critical issues. (1) Do individuals with options to either cheat or cooperate choose to cheat when they can? (2) Does "crime pay" - that is, does cheating confer fitness benefits to individuals that could alternatively cooperate? (3) Is it indeed costly to be cheated by one’s partner? Current cooperation theory is built on the belief that the answer to all three questions is yes. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this assumption is fundamentally flawed. My research program intersects with the broader goals of Michael Wade's Focus Group about Syngenomics: to create new evolutionary theory designed to advance our understanding of how cooperation can persist in the face of conflict. This is one of the central mysteries in biology today. It is one whose solution holds the promise of helping us to envision and perhaps even design more smoothly functioning human societies.

Recommended Reading

Barker, J. L., J. L. Bronstein, M. L. Friesen, E. I. Jones, H. K. Reeve, A. G. Zink, and M. E. Frederickson (2017). "Synthesizing perspectives on the evolution of cooperation within and between species." Evolution 71: 814-825.
Díaz-Muñoz, S., A. Boddy, G. Dantas, C. Waters, and J. L. Bronstein (2016). "Contextual organismality: Beyond pattern to process in the emergence of organisms." Evolution 70: 2669-2677.
Jones, E. I., M. E. Afkhami, E. Akcay, J. L. Bronstein, R. Bshary, M. E. Frederickson, K. D. Heath, J. Hoeksema, J. H. Ness, S. Pankey, S. S. Porter, J. L. Sachs, K. Scharnagl, and M. L. Friesen (2015). "Cheaters must prosper: reconciling theoretical and empirical perspectives on cheating in mutualism." Ecology Letters 18: 1270-1284.

Publications from the Fellows' Library

Bronstein, Judith ( 2017)
Synthesizing perspectives on the evolution of cooperation within and between species

Bronstein, Judith ( 2016)
Contextual organismality : beyond pattern to process in the emergence of organisms

Bronstein, Judith ( 2015)
Cheaters must prosper : reconciling theoretical and empirical perspectives on cheating in mutualism