The Evolutionary Basis of Social Behavior

Though we take the necessities of social behavior for granted, group living in the animal world is highly unusual. In fact even the most rudimentary forms of sociality have long been a puzzle for biologists to explain in terms of evolutionary theory. The reason is that a society serves no purpose unless members help one another, yet any effort an individual makes assisting others takes away from investment in his own offspring and reproductive success. If altruists have fewer children, altruistic behavior will be eliminated by natural selection. Yet without altruism there is no benefit to living in a society. How therefore can social behavior ever have evolved? Evolutionary biologists have developed a reasonably good account of how social behavior may have emerged in groups of closely related individuals, in a theory about what is known as inclusive fitness. Another theory, that of reciprocal altruism, explains how behavior could have evolved for helping even unrelated people, or at least those who can be expected to reciprocate the favor at a later time. Why will a bee sacrifice its life in the hive's defense? Why should a worker ant embrace sterility and devote her life to raising the queen's offspring? The late William Hamilton made a major addition to Darwin's theory in showing how altruism, at least toward one's own kin, makes evolutionary sense. Darwinian fitness, defined as reproductive success, is all about getting as many of one's own genes as possible into the next generation. Hamilton's insight was that the notion of Darwinian fitness should properly be expanded to include the genes one shares with one's kin. Since these shared genes are the same, being inherited from the same parent, grandparent or great-grandparent, then helping get those into the next generation is as good as transmitting one's own.

This notion of expanded fitness, or inclusive fitness as Hamilton called it, predicts that individuals will have a special interest in promoting the survival of children, full siblings and parents, with all of whom they have about 50% of their genes in common, and a substantial though lesser interest in the survival of grandchildren, nephews and nieces, half siblings, grandparents, and aunts and uncles, with whom they share 25% of their genes. To maximize their inclusive fitness, individuals must restrain their own competitive behavior and make some degree of self-sacrifice on behalf of kin—in other words, develop social behavior. Thus altruists can be inclusively fitter than non-altruists and their genes, under certain conditions, will spread. Hamilton's theory of inclusive fitness explains many otherwise puzzling features of social organisms, such as the self-sacrificing behavior of social insects like bees, ants and termites. It also helps explain why chimp communities and human tribal societies are organized along kinship lines. It can take extreme circumstances to make evident the survival value of human kinship ties. Some 51% of the 103 Mayflower pioneers in the Ply-mouth colony perished after their first winter in the New World. It turns out that the survivors had significantly more relatives among other members of the colony than did those who died. Among the Donner party, a group of 87 people stranded in the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846, only 3 of 15 single young men survived, whereas men who survived

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