How Do Biological Systems Deal with Hackers, Phishers, Spoofers, Spammers, and Scammers?

Posted: 16 May 2009

Date Written: May 20, 2009


Social function and organization are predicated on effective coordination and cooperation; these in turn require honest communication among the participants in a social group. But in order to facilitate any sort of social structure and interaction, there has to be some way to deal with the threat of deception. We see this not only at the level of complex animal societies such as baboon troops or cooperatively nesting birds or social insects, but also in the complex social organization within the body of any single multicellular organism. The problem of avoiding deception to allow social organization can be broken down into at least two categories: 1) the legitimate members of the social institution have some overlap in interests, but they also have individual incentives for deception, and 2) non-members of the social organization attempt to parasitize and exploit the system but subversion and other forms of trickery. We see the former category in the evolution of mate-choice signals; we see the latter in the evolution of immune strategies to deal with pathogens.

At a previous Squaw Valley conference I talked about the biological mechanisms for manufacturing trust among the legitimate participants in a social institution, and described the basic results from signaling theory, the well-established game theoretic framework for addressing such questions. This year, I will look at the second part of the problem: how biological systems deter exploitation and subversion by rogue outsiders. Using the vertebrate adaptive immune system as a case study, I will discuss a number of the principles involved in making a system not only robust against accidental noise or component failure, but also strategically robust against deliberate and devious efforts at subversion. In striking contrast to signaling theory, here we have no general game theoretic framework for addressing these problems. I'll discuss some of the challenges that have hindered progress in developing a theory of this sort, and offer a few modest suggestions about how we might use attempt to move in this direction.

Suggested Citation

Bergstrom, Carl T., How Do Biological Systems Deal with Hackers, Phishers, Spoofers, Spammers, and Scammers? (May 20, 2009). Gruter Institute Squaw Valley Conference 2009: Law, Behavior & the Brain, Available at SSRN:

Carl T. Bergstrom (Contact Author)

University of Washington ( email )

Seattle, WA 98195
United States

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