A mechanism for social selection and successful altruism

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Science  21 Dec 1990:
Vol. 250, Issue 4988, pp. 1665-1668
DOI: 10.1126/science.2270480


Within the framework of neo-Darwinism, with its focus on fitness, it has been hard to account for altruism behavior that reduces the fitness of the altruist but increases average fitness in society. Many population biologists argue that, except for altruism to close relatives, human behavior that appears to be altruistic amounts to reciprocal altruism, behavior undertaken with an expectation of reciprocation, hence incurring no net cost to fitness. Herein is proposed a simple and robust mechanism, based on human docility and bounded rationality that can account for the evolutionary success of genuinely altruistic behavior. Because docility-receptivity to social influence-contributes greatly to fitness in the human species, it will be positively selected. As a consequence, society can impose a "tax" on the gross benefits gained by individuals from docility by inducing docile individuals to engage in altruistic behaviors. Limits on rationality in the face of environmental complexity prevent the individual from avoiding this "tax." An upper bound is imposed on altruism by the condition that there must remain a net fitness advantage for docile behavior after the cost to the individual of altruism has been deducted.

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