Biology & Philosophy

, 26:385 | Cite as

Why reciprocal altruism is not a kind of group selection

  • Grant Ramsey
  • Robert Brandon


Reciprocal altruism was originally formulated in terms of individual selection and most theorists continue to view it in this way. However, this interpretation of reciprocal altruism has been challenged by Sober and Wilson (1998). They argue that reciprocal altruism (as well as all other forms of altruism) evolves by the process of group selection. In this paper, we argue that the original interpretation of reciprocal altruism is the correct one. We accomplish this by arguing that if fitness attaches to (at minimum) entire life cycles, then the kind of fitness exchanges needed to form the group-level in such situations is not available. Reciprocal altruism is thus a result of individual selection and when it evolves, it does so because it is individually advantageous.


Reciprocal altruism Group selection Fitness Kin selection Game Theory 



We wish to thank Charles Goodnight, David Sloan Wilson, and an anonymous referee for helpful critical comments on an earlier draft of this paper. A previous version of this essay was presented to the Duke Philosophy of Biology Reading Group—we thank them for their valuable discussion of our paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of Notre DameNotre DameUSA
  2. 2.Department of PhilosophyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA

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