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Ecology and Conservation

Mr Dugald Foster

Mr Dugald Foster

PhD Student

 Stella Turk Building F3.06


University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Penryn, TR10 9FE


Cooperation is the bedrock of human social life. Humans share food and resources, exchange goods, and work together to achieve their desired ends, often at a personal cost, or with complete strangers. But people can also put their own interests first, harming the interests of others in the process. Why do we sometimes cooperate with others, and sometimes prioritise our own interests? And if prioritising our own interests provides greater payoffs, how did such extensive cooperation between humans evolve in the first place?

My research aims to contribute to our understanding of the evolution of human cooperation through asking questions such as:

1) What causes variation in the levels of cooperation that individuals and populations exhibit? 

2) What are the relative roles of genetics, ecology, demography and culture in sustaining cooperation? 

3) Could an evolutionary approach to cooperation help in designing effective interventions for contemporary human cooperative dilemmas? 

To answer these questions, I analyse data using theory and methods from Human Behavioural Ecology, Cultural Evolution, Demography and Epidemiology. For my PhD, I am investigating cooperation among borrowers of microfinance loans. These are loans offered to people who cannot afford loans from mainstream banks, or who are otherwise excluded from financial services. To insure themselves against failed loan repayment, some microfinance institutions offer “joint liability” loans, given to a group of borrowers who take on collective responsibility for repayment of the loan. If a member of a loan group fails to repay their share, the other members of their group must repay it for them, or else the group faces expulsion from the loan service.

This situation represents a real-life cooperative dilemma, in which individual interests conflict with those of the group: there is an incentive for individual borrowers within a loan group to free-ride on the repayment efforts of others (in effect receiving a “free” loan). However, if group members do not cooperate to successfully repay the group loan, all members are banned from future loans. Despite this dilemma, microfinance institutions regularly declare high repayment rates worldwide, suggesting the presence of effective cooperative mechanisms operating in loan groups across varying cultural contexts. Using causal modelling, meta-analysis and multilevel modelling methods to analyse microfinance data, I aim to identify mechanisms capable of solving the cooperative dilemma faced by microfinance borrowers. The results of this project could provide useful insights for the design of interventions to help people manage shared, high-value resources.


2019-2023: PhD, Biosciences, University of Exeter

2017-2018: MSc, Demography and Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

2015-2016: PGDip, Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Durham

2010-2013: BA, Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Bristol


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