Frank, S. A. 2010. A general model of the public goods dilemma. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 23:1245-1250.
An individually costly act that benefits all group members is a public good. Natural selection favours individual contribution to public goods only when some benefit to the individual offsets the cost of contribution. Problems of sex ratio, parasite virulence, microbial metabolism, punishment of noncooperators, and nearly all aspects of sociality have been analysed as public goods shaped by kin and group selection. Here, I develop two general aspects of the public goods problem that have received relatively little attention. First, variation in individual resources favours selfish individuals to vary their allocation to public goods. Those individuals better endowed contribute their excess resources to public benefit, whereas those individuals with fewer resources contribute less to the public good. Thus, purely selfish behaviour causes individuals to stratify into upper classes that contribute greatly to public benefit and social cohesion and to lower classes that contribute little to the public good. Second, if group success absolutely requires production of the public good, then the pressure favouring production is relatively high. By contrast, if group success depends weakly on the public good, then the pressure favouring production is relatively weak. Stated in this way, it is obvious that the role of baseline success is important. However, discussions of public goods problems sometimes fail to emphasize this point sufficiently. The models here suggest simple tests for the roles of resource variation and baseline success. Given the widespread importance of public goods, better models and tests would greatly deepen our understanding of many processes in biology and sociality.