Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 21, Issue 2, pp 213–234 | Cite as

The Significance of Non-vertical Transmission of Phenotype for the Evolution of Altruism

  • Scott WoodcockEmail author


My aim in this paper is to demonstrate that a very simple learning rule based on imitation can help to sustain altruism as a culturally transmitted pattern or behaviour among agents playing a standard prisoner’s dilemma game. The point of this demonstration is not to prove that imitation is single-handedly responsible for existing levels of altruism (a thesis that is false), nor is the point to show that imitation is an important factor in explanations for the evolution of altruism (a thesis already prominent in the existing literature). The point is to show that imitation contributes to the evolution of altruism in a particular way that is not always fairly represented by evolutionary game theory models. Specifically, the paper uses a simple model to illustrate that cultural transmission includes mechanisms that do not transmit phenotype vertically (i.e. from parent to related offspring) and that these mechanisms can promote altruism in the absence of any direct biological propensity favouring such behaviour. This is a noteworthy result because it shows that evolutionary models can be built to explicitly reflect the contribution of non-vertical transmission in our explanations for the evolution of altruism among humans and other social species.


Altruism Cultural Evolution Cultural Inheritance Cultural Transmission Evolution Game Theory Imitation Prisoner’s Dilemma 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Axelrod, R. 1984The Evolution of CooperationBasic BooksNew YorkGoogle Scholar
  2. Binmore, K., Samuelson, L. 1997Muddling through: noisy equilibrium selectionJ. Economic Theory74235265CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bjornmerstedt, J., Weibull, J.,  et al. 1996Nash equilibrium and evolution by imitationArrow, K. eds. The Rational Foundations of Economic BehaviorMacmillanNew York155171Google Scholar
  4. Boyd, R., Richerson, P.J. 1985Culture and the Evolutionary ProcessThe University of Chicago PressChicagoGoogle Scholar
  5. Boyd, R., Richerson, P.J. 2004Not By Genes AloneUniversity of Chicago PressChicagoGoogle Scholar
  6. Dawkins, R. 1976The Selfish GeneOxfordOxford University PressGoogle Scholar
  7. Dennett, D.C. 1975Why the law of effect will not go awayJ. Theory Social Behav.5179187Google Scholar
  8. Dennett, D.C. 1996Darwin’s Dangerous IdeaTouchstone PressNew YorkGoogle Scholar
  9. Dugatkin, L.A. 2000The Imitation FactorThe Free PressNew YorkGoogle Scholar
  10. Durham, W.H. 1991Coevolution: Genes, Culture and Human DiversityStanford University PressStanfordGoogle Scholar
  11. Eshel, I., Samuelson, L., Shaked, A. 1998Altruists, egoists and hooligans in a local interaction modelJ. Econ. Literature88157179Google Scholar
  12. Gale, J., Binmore, K., Samuelson, L. 1995Learning to be imperfect: the ultimatum gameGames Econ. Behav.85690CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Henrich, J., Boyd, R., Bowles, S., Camerer, C., Fehr, E., Gintis, H., McElreath, R. 2001In search of homo economicus: behavioural experiments in fifteen small-scale societiesAm. Econ. Rev.917378Google Scholar
  14. Kant I. 1991. Idea for a universal history with cosmopolitan purpose. In: Reiss H. (ed.), Kant’s Political Writings. 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.Google Scholar
  15. Kitcher, P. 1993The evolution of human altruismJ. Phil.XC501Google Scholar
  16. Kitcher, P. 1999Games social animals play: commentary on Brian Skyrms’ evolution of the social contractPhil. Phenomenol. Res.59221228Google Scholar
  17. Schlag, K. 1998Why imitateand if so how? A bounded rational approach to the multi-armed banditsJ. Econ. Theory78130156CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Skyrms, B. 1996Evolution of the Social ContractCambridge University PressCambridgeGoogle Scholar
  19. Skyrms B. 1999. Precis of evolution of the social contract and reply to critics. Phil. Phenomenol. Res. 59: 217–220and and 243-254.Google Scholar
  20. Skyrms, B. 2000Stability and explanatory significance of some simple evolutionary modelsPhil. Sci.6794113CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Sober, E., Wilson, D.S. 1994Reintroducing group selection to the human behavioral sciencesBehav. Brain Sci.17585654Google Scholar
  22. Sober, E., Wilson, D.S. 1998Unto Others: the Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish BehaviorHarvard University PressCambridge, MassGoogle Scholar
  23. Wilson, D.S., Dugatkin, L.A. 1997Group selection and assortative interactionsAm. Nat.149336351CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Woodcock, S., Heath, J. 2002The robustness of altruism as an evolutionary strategyBiol. Phil.17567590Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of VictoriaVictoriaCanada

Personalised recommendations