Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics

PhD candidate Evolution and Behaviour

Faculty of Science – Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics

Publication date
26 July 2018
Level of education
Salary indication
€2,266 to €2,897 gross per month
Closing date
26 August 2018
38 hours per week
Vacancy number

We, the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED), invite applications for a PhD candidate Evolution and Behaviour. Our institute is one of the eight research institutes of the Faculty of Science at the University of Amsterdam. 

Our scientific work aims at a better understanding of the dynamics of ecosystems at all relevant levels, from genes to ecosystems, using a truly multi-disciplinary approach, and based on both experimental and theoretical research. Scientific focus is on aquatic (both freshwater and marine) and terrestrial ecosystems, evolutionary and population biology, ecosystem and landscape dynamics, and theoretical and computational ecology. We want to unravel how ecosystems function in all their complexity, and how they change due to natural processes and human activities.

The Center for Research in Experimental Economics and political Decision making (CREED) is part of the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Amsterdam. People at CREED study decision making in a variety of economic and political contexts, ranging from individual choice to collective action problems. The main method of investigation is to use lab experiments, which is combined with behavioural game theory, evolutionary game theory, and theories of bounded rationality. CREED is part of the research priority area 'Behavioural Economics. 

The Psychology Research Institute (PRI) is embedded in the Department of Psychology at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. It is strongly oriented towards an empirical approach of the major themes in psychology. Research predominantly focuses on processes underlying various forms of normal and abnormal human behavior. This long-standing research orientation is characteristic of the teaching programmes offered by the College and Graduate School of Psychology. Our research programs seek to answer research questions related to basic processes of human functioning, but also address issues in more applied contexts. One of the consequences of this research orientation is the need for adequate methodological and technical facilities. Therefore, substantial financial efforts are invested in maintaining and upgrading the extensive laboratory infrastructure of the Institute. A major advantage of this up-to-date infrastructure is the attraction on other research groups, inside and outside the Institute. In this way intra- and interdisciplinary cross-links already have been established and still are developing between our research programmes and those of (neuro-) biology, medicine, environmental sciences, mathematics and social sciences..

Project description

The attractiveness of altruism: Partner choice and the evolution of cooperation

Why do people help each other? One possible answer is reciprocity: if you help me, I will help you. But often people are also generous with their time, effort and money if the recipients can never be expected to return the favour. This may be explained by sexual selection: by helping others, you become an attractive potential partner. So far, this mechanism is lacking in theoretical models of helping behavior. Using expertise from biology (dr Martijn Egas – IBED), economics (prof. Matthijs van Veelen – CREED) and psychology (dr Annemie Ploeger – PRI), we will develop a mathematical theory in this interdisciplinary project that combines evolution of helping with the evolution of partner choice, and test the new predictions in the lab. 

Humans are not always selfish. Already at an early age, we develop a tendency to help others, and in fact we are considered to be an exceptionally cooperative species. Most models of why people have evolved to help each other are either based on genetic relatedness, or on the repeated nature of interactions. There is, however, also a third possibility: helping others can serve to show to others how fit you are. If you can spare the time, money and attention to help others, then you must be mentally and physically healthy. Yet, we lack an explanation how such behaviour can evolve.

Sexual selection may favour traits, not in spite of their costliness, but because of it. The best-known example is the peacock’s tail, which is such a handicap to its owner, that it becomes a reliable indication that he is otherwise healthy. Females therefore prefer males with long, colourful tails. We propose to investigate whether our generosity and helping of others also works as a costly signal of fitness (in biology known as a 'handicap trait'), and might be under similar selective pressure.

Recent empirical evidence from psychology suggests that cooperation might be a sexually selected handicap in humans. However, there is still no theoretical work to substantiate the claim that cooperation can evolve under sexual selection. Models of sexual selection on handicap traits ignore cooperation, and models of the evolution of cooperation ignore sexual selection. There are some first steps towards understanding cooperation as a costly signal, but here we aim to develop—and test—a novel theoretical framework that properly integrates these two types of mathematical models, and where sexual selection acts on cooperation as a handicap trait.

This project can be summarized in the following four research questions:

  1. Can cooperation evolve by sexual selection when cooperators equally benefit all others?
  2. Can cooperation evolve by sexual selection when cooperators can strategically choose whom to help?
  3. What can we learn from modelling these processes in designing experiments to establish whether cooperation in humans is a sexually selected handicap?
  4. Do such experiments reject or support the hypothesis that cooperation is a sexually selected handicap?

You will be based at IBED (UvA, Science Park) under daily supervision of dr Martijn Egas, but will also have a work place at CREED and at PRI to facilitate the interdisciplinary nature of the project. Experiments, for instance, will be carried out at CREED (UvA, Roeterseiland) during which you will work there; the same holds for PRI (e.g. for developing questionnaires).


We are looking for a candidate with an interdisciplinary profile, an MSc degree in a relevant field of Biology, Psychology and/or Economics, and the following expertise:

  • primary, preferably two or more of: Behavioural Ecology, Evolutionary Psychology and/or Experimental Economics;
  • secondary: Theoretical and Computational science.

Candidates with a strong interest in evolutionary theory and mathematical models have an advantage.

Furthermore we require:

  • ability to work in a multi-disciplinary research team;
  • excellent communication skills in English.

Further information

Interested? For more information on this position please contact:


We offer a position for 38 hours a week in an exciting, dynamic and international research environment, starting from 1 October 2018. The full-time appointment will be on a temporary basis for a maximum period of four years (18 months plus a further 30 months after a positive evaluation) and should lead to a dissertation (PhD thesis). We will draft an educational plan that includes attendance of courses and (international) meetings. You are also expected to assist in teaching of undergraduates. The full-time gross monthly salary will range from €2,266 in the first year to €2,897 in the final year, according to the Dutch salary scales for PhD students. The Collective Labour Agreement for Dutch Universities is applicable. The annual salary will be increased by 8 % holiday allowance and 8.3 % end-of-year bonus.

Job application

The UvA is an equal opportunity employer. We celebrate diversity and are committed to creating an inclusive environment for all employees. We value a spirit of enquiry and endurance, provide the space to keep asking questions and cherish a diverse atmosphere of curiosity and creativity.

You may send your application ultimately at 28 August 2018 using the link below. Your application should include a motivation letter and CV. Interviews are planned in the first week of September.

Please add vacancy number 18-465 in the subject field. #LI-DNP

No agencies please

Published by  University of Amsterdam