Hi, I'm Athena Aktipis, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University and co-Director of The Cooperation Science Network and The Human Generosity Project. I study cooperation across systems from human sharing to cancer. I'm the founder of Zombified Media; host of the podcast, Zombified, and author of the book from Princeton University Press, The Cheating Cell: How evolution helps us understand and treat cancer. When COVID-19 was on the verge of becoming a pandemic, I started the Cooperation in the Apocalypse project to better understand how crises affect cooperation, interdependence and other social behaviors. I am passionate about building interdisciplinary teams to tackle tough questions, empowering students to learn about the topics they are most curious about, and leveraging cooperation theory to improve our universities and the broader communities in which we are all embedded.


    I study cooperation across many systems in my lab including human sharing and microbial cooperation.


    I travel to fieldsites around the world to study how people cooperate especially during times of need.


    I use computational models to understand the fundamental principles underlying cooperation and test alternatives.


    I apply my work to practical challenges from cancer prevention to developing new solutions to resource management problems.

  • Current projects

    I search for general principles of cooperation that manifest across diverse systems. To learn more about the research in my lab, visit AktipisLab.org.

    The Human Generosity Project

    I study cooperation in humans, especially helping in times of need. I look at food sharing, resource transfers, shared work and other forms of cooperation using diverse methods including human laboratory experiments, anthropological fieldwork and computational modeling. I also apply these principles to practical problems including resource management and disaster recovery. You can learn more about these studies and more on The Human Generosity Project webpage.

    Cancer and Multicellular Cooperation

    Multicellular bodies are essentially societies of cells that must cooperate and coordinate to contribute most effectively to the fitness of the organism. Cancer represents a breakdown of this multicellular cooperation. In my lab we examine cancer through this lens using computational modeling and clinical collaborations. My work on this topic was covered in The New York Times article Cellular 'Cheaters' Give Rise to Cancer and it is the topic of my book from Princeton University Press, The Cheating Cell: How evolution helps us understand and treat cancer.

    Cooperation and Conflict

    I also study other systems that are governed by fundamental tensions between cooperation and conflict. This includes maternal-fetal conflict in microchimerism, a topic covered in a recent New York Times article A Pregnancy Souvenir: Cells That are Not Your Own based on our review paper, and the potential role of the microbiome in unhealthy eating behavior, also covered in The New York Times article Our Microbiome May Be Looking Out for Itself.


    I am a cooperation theorist, theoretical evolutionary biologist, and cancer biologist working at the intersection of these fields.  

    Reed College

    Psychology, BA

    In 2002 I graduated from Reed College in Portland, OR with two Commendations for Academic Excellence and membership in the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

    University of Pennsylvania

    Psychology, MA

    Psychology, PhD

    I received a Masters Degree in Psychology from University of Pennsylvania in 2004 and my PhD in 2008. The topic of my dissertation was computational models of the evolution of cooperation.

    University of Arizona

    Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Post-doctoral Fellowship

    From 2008 to 2011 I was a Post-doctoral Fellow in the laboratory of John Pepper at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I began applying cooperation theory and evolutionary principles to cancer during this time, focusing on dispersal theory and the evolution of multicellularity.

    University of California San Francisco

    Research Scientist

    Co-founder Center for Evolution and Cancer (CEC)

    Director of Human and Social Evolution, CEC

    In 2011 I moved to UCSF to start the Center for Evolution and Cancer, the first center of its kind. During my time at UCSF, I began building my lab and evolution and cancer research program and continued my work on the evolution of cooperation.

    Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin


    I was a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin (also knows as the Wissenschaftskolleg or just 'Wiko') during the 2013-2014 academic year as part of a working group on Cancer Evolution. During this time my colleagues and I worked on fundamental questions about the nature of cancer and the role of evolution in shaping cancer progression and susceptibility.

    Arizona State University

    Associate Professor, Psychology

    Director, Interdisciplinary Cooperation Initiative

    Member, Center for Evolution and Medicine

    In 2014 I moved to Arizona State University to the Department of Psychology. I collaborate with diverse researchers from many different departments and centers to study the general principles underlying cooperation and conflict across systems.


    Coverage of my work in the news

    By Erin Blakemore
    Washington Post


    This Washington Post review of my book, The Cheating Cell: How Evolution Help Us Understand and Treat Cancer, explains how my evolutionary approach to cancer offers an alternative to the war metaphor for treating cancer.

    by Rachel Feltman
    Popular Science


    With the Human Generosity Project, Athena Aktipis wants to show that cooperation makes humans stronger.

    By Keridwen Cornelius
    Phoenix Magazine


    Instead of battling cancer, some cactus breeds simply adapt. Arizona State University researchers wonder if human beings can do the same.

    By Leah Shaffer
    Sapiens Magazine


    Generosity helps communities manage risk and cope with disasters. New research untangles the factors that lead people to help neighbors in need. Learn more about The Human Generosity Project in this article.

    By Scott Seckel
    ASU Now


    Four-day conference bridging science and the arts explores zombification to engage in potentially frightening aspects of the future.

    by Brett Milano

    Harvard Gazette


    Cancer, with us since the dawn of cellular life, is a companion we may never be rid of, says Arizona State University evolutionary biologist Athena Aktipis. But a fresh look at the disease could bring new strategies for managing it, she told a Harvard audience on Wednesday, April 4th.

    by Brian Mockenhaupt

    High Country News


    This article in High Country News covers our work on sharing in times of need as part of The Human Generosity Project, focusing on cooperation among ranchers in southern Arizona and New Mexico.

    by Carl Zimmer
    New York Times

    This New York Times article is based on a review paper we published about microchimerism, maternal-fetal conflict and health.

    by George Johnson

    New York Times


    This New York Times article covers our review of cancer as cheating in multicellular cooperation.

    by Carl Zimmer
    New York Times


    Could microbes be manipulating our eating behavoir? This New York Times article covers our review of the potential mechanisms and evolutionary pressures that could lead to microbial manipulation.

  • The cheating cell

    How evolution helps us understand and treat Cancer

    "The one book to read for a true understanding of cancer and its control."

    David Sloan Wilson, author of This View of Life

  • forthcoming books

    Right now, I'm writing two books. The first, Everything is Fine! is a sort of handbook for surviving our apocalyptic times and the second, Hijacked, is about the science of zombification.

    Everything is Fine!

    How to Thrive in the Apocalypse

    Workman (May, 2024)


    The New Science of Neural Manipulation and What It Means for Our Health, Happiness and Sense of Self

    Princeton University Press (2025)

  • selected talks

    Selected talks on cancer, cooperation and more

    Got A Minute, ASU
    October, 2019

    The body is made up of trillions of cells that all have to work together in cooperation for us to survive and thrive.

    Harvard Museums

    April 4, 2018

    Cancer, with us since the dawn of cellular life, is a companion we may never be rid of, says Arizona State University evolutionary biologist Athena Aktipis. But a fresh look at the disease could bring new strategies for managing it, she told a Harvard audience on Wednesday, April 4th.

    TedX ASU

    May 21, 2016

    Throughout history, why have so many humans had the inherit need to be generous? Could generosity have something to do with the evolution of human societies? In her talk, Dr. Aktipis addresses the question of whether we help one another out of the goodness of our hearts or because we expect to get something back in return.

    Exploratorium Museum

    June 23, 2015

    People all over the world share resources to make sure everybody gets what they need. However, sharing isn't unique to humans—many animal species have sharing systems, and even cells in multicellular organisms share resources for the good of both the cells and the whole organism. Can humans learn about sharing from the practices of cells and other organisms?

    Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin - Institute for Advanced Study

    April 2, 2014

    Why haven't our bodies evolved to suppress cancer better? Why can't we cure cancer with modern medicine? Evolutionary theory and methods are now helping us answer these questions.

    In this lecture, Dr. Aktipis describes how evolution is transforming our understanding of cancer.

  • Blog

    On teaching, learning and doing science

    An interactive game theory activity for teaching the prisoner's dilemma. We encounter cheating...
    Do you have what it takes to outcompete your neighbors, strategically cooperate take over the...
    March 24, 2016
    Do it yourself models of the evolution of cooperation. We've all been there. You've tried and...
    More Posts

    I teach in the Department of Psychology at ASU. My courses are cross-listed with Biology and other units.

    Communication for Scientists

    Communicating with broader audiences through writing and more

    Whether you are looking for a way of reaching the public or just wanting to build your academic communication skills , this class will help you up your communications game. Learn how to write more effectively, speak more effectively, leverage communication resources in your community and create a strong online presence. We also talk about emerging issues in science communication such as new platforms for publishing, data management and open science.


    Next taught: Fall 2022

    The Science of Zombification

    What is taking over your brain?

    We are vulnerable to being neurally and behaviorally hijacked by things that are not us. For the purpose of this course, we define a zombie as an entity that is fully or partially under the control of another entity. This includes host-parasite interactions, autonomous technology, the influence of culture, and social influence/coercion in human interactions. From microbes hijacking behavior, to humans influencing each other, to our brains being taken over by social media, we discuss why zombification happens, why we are susceptible to it, and what we can do about it.


    Next taught: Spring 2023

    Cooperation and Social Behavior

    Cooperation and conflict across life

    This course covers fundamental principles of cooperation across systems in order to better understand human social behavior. We discuss basic principles of cooperation and conflict using frameworks from multiple disciplines including evolutionary biology, economics, behavioral ecology and anthropology.


    Next taught: Fall 2023

    Intro Evolutionary Psychology

    How nature and nurture shape who we

    What is human nature? How has it been shaped by our evolutionary history? How do ecological factors influence human behavior and the behavior of other species? This course takes an interdisciplinary approach to behavior, incorporating psychological, anthropological and cross-species perspectives in an exploration of what makes us who we are.


    Next taught: Spring 2024

    Microbiome and Social Behavior

    Humans: 30 trillion human cells. 30 trillion microbial cells

    Humans are complex social creatures and we are inhabited by trillions of microbes that live on and in us. These microbes behave and interact with each other and us in many fascinating ways. In this course we will ask: How does our social behavior affect microbiome transmission? How does our microbiome affect our social behaviors? Also, we discuss how cooperation and conflict shape interactions both among microbes and also between microbes and hosts.


    Next taught: Fall 2024


    Download my CV or click here for a list of select publications on my lab website


    Are you interested in working with me?

    Undergraduate Students

    Are you an ASU undergraduate interested in cooperation and conflict? Or zombies and the apocalypse?

    Every semester, we accept a limited number of undergraduate students into the Cooperation Scholars Program (the undergraduate program of The Cooperation Science Network), which offers seminar-style discussion, research training and mentoring in cooperation science. We also accept several undergraduates to be part of our Z-team, a group that works with Channel Zed and the Zombified Podcast to communicate about science and medicine to broad audiences. Contact my lab manager, Cristina Baciu, for more information or to apply.



    Graduate students

    Are you interested in going to graduate school in social psychology or evolutionary biology?

    If you are interested in working with me as a graduate student, please send me an email and include a description of your research interests and your CV.



    Research Interns

    Thinking about graduate school but not sure?

    If you have experience successfully executing your own research projects and are interested in getting more research experience before graduate school, a research intern position in my lab could be right for you.  Please send me an email and include a description of your research interests and your CV.



    Post-doctoral fellows

    Have you finished your PhD and want to do research in my lab?

    If you are interested in working in my lab as a post-doctoral fellow, please send me an email and include a description of your research interests and your CV.



    For inquiries about speaking engagements, please contact Katie Stileman at the Princeton University Press speakers bureau.


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