Human Nature

, Volume 10, Issue 3, pp 205–252 | Cite as

The natural selection of altruistic traits

  • Christopher Boehm


Proponents of the standard evolutionary biology paradigm explain human “altruism” in terms of either nepotism or strict reciprocity. On that basis our underlying nature is reduced to a function of inclusive fitness: human nature has to be totally selfish or nepotistic. Proposed here are three possible paths to giving costly aid to nonrelatives, paths that are controversial because they involve assumed pleiotropic effects or group selection. One path is pleiotropic subsidies that help to extend nepotistic helping behavior from close family to nonrelatives. Another is “warfare”—if and only if warfare recurred in the Paleolithic. The third and most plausible hypothesis is based on the morally based egalitarian syndrome of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, which reduced phenotypic variation at the within-group level, increased it at the between-group level, and drastically curtailed the advantages of free riders. In an analysis consistent with the fundamental tenets of evolutionary biology, these three paths are evaluated as explanations for the evolutionary development of a rather complicated human social nature.

Key words

Altruism Cooperation Egalitarianism Group selection Pleiotropy Warfare 


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© Walter de Gruyter, Inc 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of Southern CaliforniaLos Angeles

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