Some weeks ago I visited a friend in Berlin. We went to a few museums there and later spent some days in Budapest. She studies biology and skipped some lectures because of our activities. However there was one lecture she did not want to miss, and she invited me to join her. I was not really looking forward to this, but it turned out I was quite lucky. The lecture was about biological markets. It was most interesting and did not seem to require much previous knowledge.

It was given by Peter Hammerstein. I looked him up: he started his academic career in the field of game theory and studied under Reinhard Selten, who won the Nobel Prize together with John Nash. The term biological markets was proposed by Hammerstein & Noë in 1994 & 1995 papers. It refers to "all interactions between organisms in which one can recognize different classes of 'traders' that exchange commodities, such as goods (e.g. food, shelter, gametes) or services (e.g. warning calls, protection, pollination)."

The 'biological markets' approach uses game theory in order to model and explain behavior of organisms. Also behavior which seems at first sight altruistic can be explained.

For example, an animal may give a warning call to a group of the same species that a predator is approaching. This behavior is good for the group, but at the expense of the warning animal itself, as it has now less time to get away itself. This seems altruistic, but it is not. It was found that a warning call is more likely to be given when the relatedness between the warning animal and the rest of the group is higher. This is because closer related group members are more likely to carry the same genes as the warning animal. Therefore, the warning animal is doing nothing more than maximizing the chances of survival of his genes, one way or the other.

Further examples can be found on the site of Ronald Noë.

The most interesting applications to our markets and trading may be the found forms of 'foul play'. One example of the lecture was about 'helpers at the nest', which are sometimes able to trick the mother in thinking they delivered more food to the nest than they actually did. (Apparently, not only humans have cons).

I found the following book on this topic. I did not read it yet and therefore cannot recommend it, but based on the description and authors I believe it should be an interesting read providing examples of markets and trading in the animal kingdom. I will certainly add it to my list.


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