Ownership of non-controllable resources usually has to be maintained by costly defense against competitors. Whether defense and thus ownership pays in terms of fitness depends on its effectiveness in preventing theft. We show that if the owners' willingness to defend varies in the population and information about it is available to potential thieves then the ability to react to this information and thus avoid being attacked by the owner is selected for. This can lead to a positive evolutionary feedback between cautiousness in intruders and aggressiveness in owners. This feedback can maintain ownership when the actual direct effectiveness of defense in reducing theft is very low or even absent, effectively turning defense into punishment. We conclude that the deterrence effect of defense in many situations could be stronger than that of prevention and that for many real-world scenarios the purpose of defense of resources might be to punish rather than to drive away intruders.
Many animals defend resources against conspecifics. Resource defense can usually only evolve if its costs are paid for by foiling attempts at theft. We show that if potential thieves can detect differences in aggressiveness between owners then cautious intruders and aggressive owners coevolve so that in the end even ineffective defense deters thieves and maintains ownership. This result greatly extends the number of situations in which we expect resource defense to evolve and has the potential to unify the concepts of defense and punishment.