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Altruism, benevolence and culture

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Human cultural groups appear well designed, but is this apparent design due to altruism or due to self-serving behaviours? Sober and Wilson argue that human cultures are founded on group-selected altruism. This argument assumes that individually selected self-serving traits are not being misidentified as altruistic. A simple definition of individual selection suggests that Sober and Wilson fail to separate one such trait, called benevolence, from altruism. Benevolent individuals act selfishly but provide an incidental benefit to their neighbours. The female-biased Hamiltonian sex ratios are used to illustrate benevolence, and a financial analogy is used to emphasize why such traits are individually advantageous. Benevolence can only evolve in a spatially structured population, illustrating the importance of separating individual selection in structured and unstructured populations. Unlike benevolence, altruism can only evolve by group selection and, as a result, is vulnerable to selfish ‘cheats’ that exploit the self-sacrifice of altruists.
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Document Type: Review Article

Affiliations: Dept. of Biology, University of California, Riverside, CA 92521.

Publication date: 2000-01-01

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