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Biology LibreTexts

45.6D: Altruism and Populations

  • Page ID
    14209
  • Altruistic behaviors may be explained by the natural instinct to improve the chances of passing on one’s genes.

    Learning Objectives

    • Explain how altruistic behaviors can benefit populations

    Key Points

    • Behaviors that lower the fitness of the individual, but increase the fitness of another individual are termed altruistic; why altruistic behaviors exist has been the topic of some debate.
    • One explanation for altruistic-type behaviors is found in the genetics of natural selection and the “selfish gene ” theory: although a gene cannot be selfish in the human sense, it may appear that way if the sacrifice of an individual benefits related individuals that share genes that are identical.
    • Even less-related individuals, those with less genetic identity than that shared by parent and offspring, benefit from seemingly-altruistic behavior, such as sterile worker bees protecting the queen.
    • Unrelated individuals may also act altruistically to each other, which seems to defy the “selfish gene” explanation; however, this altruism is typically reciprocal, in that both benefit from the interaction.
    • Most of the behaviors described when speaking of altruism do not seem to satisfy the definition of “pure” altruism; some evolutionary game theorists suggest that we get rid of the terms “altruistic” and “selfish” altogether since they describe human behavior.

    Key Terms

    • kin selection: an evolutionary mechanism by which an organism’s behavior benefits the reproductive success of its relatives, including at the expense of its own survival or reproduction
    • altruism: devotion to the interests of others; brotherly kindness; opposed to egoism or selfishness
    • game theory: a branch of applied mathematics that studies strategic situations in which individuals or organizations choose various actions in an attempt to maximize their returns

    Altruistic Behaviors

    Behaviors that lower the fitness of the individual engaging in the behavior, but increase the fitness of another individual, are termed altruistic. Examples of such behaviors are seen widely across the animal kingdom. Social insects, such as worker bees, have no ability to reproduce, yet they maintain the queen so she can populate the hive with her offspring. Meerkats keep a sentry standing guard to warn the rest of the colony about intruders, even though the sentry is putting itself at risk. Wolves and wild dogs bring meat to pack members not present during a hunt. Lemurs take care of infants unrelated to them. Although on the surface these behaviors appear to be altruistic, it may not be so simple.

    Why Does Altruism Exist?

    There has been much discussion over why altruistic behaviors exist. Do these behaviors lead to overall evolutionary advantages for their species ? Do they help the altruistic individual pass on its own genes? And what about such activities between unrelated individuals? One explanation for altruistic-type behaviors is found in the genetics of natural selection. In the 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, scientist Richard Dawkins attempted to explain many seemingly-altruistic behaviors from the viewpoint of the gene itself. Although a gene obviously cannot be selfish in the human sense, it may appear that way if the sacrifice of an individual benefits related individuals that share genes that are identical by descent (present in relatives because of common lineage). Mammal parents make this sacrifice to take care of their offspring. Emperor penguins migrate miles in harsh conditions to bring food back for their young. Selfish gene theory has been controversial over the years and is still discussed among scientists in related fields.

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    Altruistic actions: Emperor penguins migrate miles in harsh conditions to bring back food for their young. Are extreme, altruistic actions such as these motivated by the selfish need to pass on genes?

    Even less-related individuals (those with less genetic identity than that shared by parent and offspring) benefit from seemingly altruistic behavior. The activities of social insects such as bees, wasps, ants, and termites are good examples. Sterile workers in these societies take care of the queen because they are closely related to it; as the queen has offspring, she is passing on genes from the workers indirectly. Thus, it is of fitness benefit for the worker to maintain the queen without having any direct chance of passing on its genes due to its sterility. The lowering of individual fitness to enhance the reproductive fitness of a relative and, thus, one’s inclusive fitness evolves through kin selection. This phenomenon can explain many superficially-altruistic behaviors seen in animals. However, these behaviors may not be truly defined as altruism in these cases because the actor is actually increasing its own fitness either directly (through its own offspring) or indirectly (through the inclusive fitness it gains through relatives that share genes with it).

    Unrelated individuals may also act altruistically to each other; this seems to defy the “selfish gene” explanation. An example of this is observed in many monkey species where a monkey will present its back to an unrelated monkey to have that individual pick the parasites from its fur. After a certain amount of time, the roles are reversed and the first monkey now grooms the second monkey. Thus, there is reciprocity in the behavior. Both benefit from the interaction and their fitness is raised more than if neither cooperated or if one cooperated and the other did not. This behavior is still not necessarily altruism, as the “giving” behavior of the actor is based on the expectation that it will be the “receiver” of the behavior in the future; a concept termed reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism requires that individuals repeatedly encounter each other, often the result of living in the same social group, and that cheaters (those that never “give back”) are punished.

    Evolutionary Game Theory and Altruism

    According to evolutionary game theory, a modification of classical game theory in mathematics, many of these so-called “altruistic behaviors” are not altruistic at all. The definition of “pure” altruism, based on human behavior, is an action that benefits another without any direct benefit to oneself. Most of the behaviors previously described do not seem to satisfy this definition; game theorists are good at finding “selfish” components in them. Others have argued that the terms “selfish” and “altruistic” should be dropped completely when discussing animal behavior, as they describe human behavior and may not be directly applicable to instinctual animal activity. What is clear, though, is that heritable behaviors that improve the chances of passing on one’s genes or a portion of one’s genes are favored by natural selection and will be retained in future generations as long as those behaviors convey a fitness advantage.