Research in the Akcay lab aims to understand how biological organization evolves. We study this question at many different levels using mathematical modeling, simulation, and analysis of existing data. We also collaborate with empirical researchers working on a broad range of organisms and questions to guide our theory development and testing.
Some of the current projects in the lab and some of the relevant publications are listed below:
Evolution of social behavior and structure: a major research focus in the lab is how natural selection shapes the structure of social interactions. For instance, when do we expect populations to play the paradigmatic Prisoner’s Dilemma game as opposed to other types of game structures. A significant part of this effort in the lab focuses on situations with imperfect information. We are applying a methodology from economics new to biology, called mechanism design, which inverts the standard game theory approach. We applied this approach to signaling and reproductive skew and are expanding it to other settings such as public goods games and parental care.
(Akçay and Roughgarden, 2011, Proc. R. Soc.B; Akçay 2012, JTB; Akçay et al. 2012, PNAS)
Evolution of social preferences and norms: humans and a handful of other highly social animals appear to have prosocial preferences, i.e., a spontaneous motivation to help others, even at a cost to themselves. In collaboration with Jeremy Van Cleve, we study how such preferences can evolve with or without indirect benefits (i.e., kin selection). This work also lead to some general insights on how the different mechanisms favoring cooperative behaviors interact with each other. More recently we started working on the evolution of social norms and human cooperation.
Akçay et al. 2009, PNAS; Akçay and Van Cleve 2012, Am Nat; Van Cleve and Akçay, arxiv)
Evolution and ecology of mutualisms: we study how costs and benefits of mutualisms vary at different scales, from the within-host scale in symbioses to the population and global scales. Our previous work has focused on legumes and rhizobia and ant-plants, but we are interested in a wide range of mutualisms.
(Akçay and Roughgarden 2007, Proc. Roy. Soc. B; Akçay and Simms 2011 Am. Nat.; Pringle et al. 2013, PLoS Biology)
Coupled socio-ecological systems: in collaboration with James Watson, Simon Levin and several others including fisheries scientists and economists, we are studying the coupling between the social dynamics of fishers operating in a fishery and the behavioral and population dynamics of the fish. The goal is to understand how social dynamics of fishers should be incorporated in decision-making by managers. We are also interested in how local social organization and dynamics affects conservation and restoration efforts in terrestrial and wetland systems.
Social physiology: We are interested in how social interactions affect individual physiology, and are affected by it in return. In particular, we are focusing on the consequences of social structure and environmental uncertainty on stress response and allostasis.
Reproductive social behavior: we are interested in how interactions between and within sexes affect selection on traits involved in reproduction, such as signals involved in mate-choice, extra-pair reproduction in birds, and parental care dynamics.
In addition to these, we are interested in a variety of other topics.