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Genetic Scenarios for Evolving Cooperation

The following scenarios have been proposed to explain the apparent altruism among living systems as a result of Darwinian genetic evolution:

Group Selection

Consider two groups of organisms, one in which the individuals have a genetic tendency towards cooperation, and one without such a tendency. The altruistic group will have a larger overall fitness, because of the synergy created by cooperation. Hence, the altruistic group will be more fit and eventually replace the selfish one.

Critique: this scenario ignores the problem of suboptimization. Within the altruistic group the greatest increase in fitness will go to those individuals that are least cooperative, since they profit from the others' altruism while doing less in return. As a result, the non-altruists will gradually overtake the altruists. Cooperative systems tend to be eroded from within by "genetic competition between the cooperators" (Campbell, 1983).

Kin Selection

What is selectively retained in biological evolution is not the individual but the individual's genes (Dawkins, 1976). For the genes it may be advantageous to sacrifice the life of an individual if that can save other individuals ("kin") carrying the same genes. Thus, parents will tend to be altruistic towards their offspring and siblings towards siblings. In groups like ant colonies, where individuals share most of their genes, there is more benefit in helping the colony queen to produce more, closely related offspring than to produce offspring of one's own. This is sufficient to explain ultrasociality in the insect world (Campbell, 1983).

Critique: this reasoning cannot explain ultrasociality in human society at large, where there is little sharing of genes between individuals.

Reciprocal Altruism

The "prisoner's dilemma" may be overcome by a strategy of "tit-for-tat", which reciprocates to cooperation by cooperation and to defection by defection. This makes it impossible for selfish individuals, who defect, to gain long-term advantages from reciprocal cooperators, since these will only cooperate with those that cooperate themselves. Yet two "tit-for-tat" players will spontaneously start to cooperate thus reaping the benefits of continuing synergy (Axelrod, 1984).

Critique: at the first encounter, none of the players knows how the other one will respond. In order to have a chance to start a cooperative exchange the reciprocal altruist must start with a cooperative move, which can be taken advantage of by a defector. The strategy only starts to pay when there are repeated encounters with the same individual, so that the gains of continuing cooperation outweigh the losses of first-time encounters with defectors. It also implies that players should recognize different partners and remember their last moves toward a given partner in order to choose the appropriate next move. This is insufficient to explain a complex ultrasocial system, where many encounters are first-time.


Moralizing = punishing selfishness and rewarding altruism in others. It has the advantage that it stimulates altruism, diminishes the fitness of defectors, and carries less costs than being spontaneously altruistic (Campbell, 1979).

Critique: moralism can only maintain an existing cooperative arrangement, it cannot create one from scratch. Effective moralism requires a higher order ethical system which is quite complicated to evolve by genetic means.


Several promising avenues have been proposed to explain the evolution of cooperation, but each has its limitations, and they seem ineffective as a way to explain human ultrasociality solely on the basis of genetic evolution.

Reference: Heylighen F. (1992) : "Evolution, Selfishness and Cooperation", Journal of Ideas, Vol 2, # 4, pp 70-76.

Copyright© 1997 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Mar 10, 1997


Metasystem Transition Theory

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Social Evolution

Evolution of Cooperation

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