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Evolutionary Perspectives on Prosocial Behavior

Jeffry A. Simpson University of Minnesota

Overview of the Talk
•  Describe the environments in which early
humans evolved •  Briefly review major evolutionary theories, which reveal the theoretical expansion of how and why prosocial actions could have evolved in humans •  Discuss findings that support this expansion

Features of Ancestral Environments
•  For 98% of human evolutionary history, our ancestors:
–  lived as hunters and gatherers (Kelly, 1995), with men doing most hunting and women doing most gathering (Wood & Eagly, 2002) –  dwelt in small, cooperative bands (Richerson & Boyd, 2005) –  were biologically-related to most other tribe/group members (Foley, 1992) –  met strangers infrequently (Wright, 1994) –  lived in the same group their entire lives (Kelly, 1995) –  were raised by kin, extended family members, and tribe members, with older sibs helping to raise younger sibs (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1989) –  cooperated extensively with kin and non-kin (Brewer & Caporeal, 2006)

•  These conditions are ideal for the evolution of altruism (Cosmides & Tooby,
1992). •  Cooperative groups were the primary survival strategy of early humans (Brewer & Caporeal, 1990).

Natural Selection

Natural Selection Theory (Darwin, 1859, 1871)
•  Focused on survival of the fittest and differential
reproduction at the level of the individual. •  The theory explains why organisms act on their own self-interests in many situations. •  Although Darwin speculated about stronger forms of prosociality in humans, his original theory did not explain how or why it could have evolved.

Inclusive Fitness

Natural Selection

Inclusive Fitness Theory (Hamilton, 1964)
•  Shifted attention to kin selection and genes as the unit
of selection. •  Why do some individuals not reproduce, but help their relatives raise their children? •  This behavior should have been selected when the costs of not reproducing to help kin raise their children were less than the benefits of doing so, given the degree of biological relatedness to the relative s child.

Reciprocal Altruism Inclusive Fitness

Natural Selection

Reciprocal Altruism Theory (Trivers, 1971)
•  Focused on how selective altruism could have evolved
between non-kin. •  There should have been situations when non-kin who developed beneficial exchange relationships could have facilitated each other s survival and reproductive success. •  Reciprocal altruism: Should have evolved in species that: 1. have longer life spans 2. repeatedly interact with the same individuals 3. are mutually dependent 4. have weaker dominance hierarchies 5. can benefit from other ingroup members during conflicts with outgroups 6. invest heavily in offspring and parental care

Group Selection Reciprocal Altruism Inclusive Fitness

Natural Selection

Group Selection Theory (Sloan Wilson & Sober, 1994)
•  In certain situations, groups could have been the unit of
selection. •  If certain groups were more productive, skillful, or inventive than others, individuals in successful groups should have left more descendants. •  Because cohesion and organized division of labor are critical to effective group functioning, strong prosocial tendencies toward all ingroup members could have been selected. •  However, the ratio of costs-to-benefits of remaining in a group must be very low and the % of altruists in a group must be very high to start and sustain group selection.

Gene-Culture Co-evolution Group Selection Reciprocal Altruism Inclusive Fitness

Natural Selection

Gene-Culture Co-Evolutionary Theories (e.g., Richerson & Boyd, 2005)
•  Group selection may have occurred through genetic and
cultural evolution. •  During evolutionary history, rapid environmental and climate changes may have led to special social learning and imitation capacities in humans. •  These capacities allowed new knowledge, information, and innovations to be transmitted more efficiently and reliably within and across generations in certain groups.

Gene-Culture Co-Evolutionary Theories
•  Cultural practices unique to a group (e.g., discovering
reproduction of members of that group. •  Large between-group differences in cultural practices could have been maintained by: 1. Strong moralistic punishment of cheaters or defectors in groups. 2. Strong pressure to conform to group rules and norms. 3. Sustained conflict with outgroups.
better ways to grow crops, hunt animals, or defend territories) could have enhanced the survival and

Evidence Supporting Gene-Culture Co-Evolutionary Theories
•  Purely gene-centered theories cannot explain the extent
and depth of human prosocial tendencies, especially toward strangers. •  If Gene-Culture Co-Evolutionary theories are correct, people should:

1. readily conform to group rules and norms. 2. distinguish ingroup from outgroup members and act on these distinctions. 3. punish persons who violate important group rules/norms.

Evidence Supporting Gene-Culture Co-Evolutionary Theories
•  Several studies have documented these
1. People are strongly motivated to conform to group norms and pressures (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004), even when tasks are simple and groups are temporary (e.g., Asch, 1956; Sherif, 1936).

Evidence Supporting Gene-Culture Co-Evolutionary Theories
2. People automatically distinguish ingroup from outgroup members and discriminate against outgroups (Brewer & Brown, 1998), both when differentiation is trivial or random (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) and when it is important (e.g., Sherif et al., 1961).

Evidence Supporting Gene-Culture Co-Evolutionary Theories
3. People display strong reciprocity (e.g., take on the when costs are very high and the enforcer s self-interest is harmed (Fehr & Fischbacher, 2003).
costs of rewarding or punishing others when cooperation is essential for group cohesion or desirable outcomes), even

Strong reciprocity ensures that cheaters and noncooperators do not destroy cooperation and good-will within groups.

•  In sum Darwin left room for all of these evolutionary
models of prosocial behavior, each of which addresses different adaptive problems. •  Inclusive Fitness Theory: Explains extreme forms of selfsacrifice that evolved to protect individuals direct genetic interests, especially when biological relatives needed help in life-or-death situations. •  Reciprocal Altruism Theory: Explains more common, less costly prosocial acts that increased individuals fitness, particularly when resources were limited, unpredictable, or difficult to obtain and the cooperation of others was necessary.

•  Gene-Environment Co-Evolutionary Theories: Explain
other forms of prosocial behavior (e.g., helping all members
of one s group, even when reciprocal alliances have not been established) that increased fitness by allowing individuals

to benefit from established cultural practices and living in a highly cohesive, productive group. •  Given the many obstacles to survival and reproduction, humans should have evolved to take advantage of multiple routes to enhancing their fitness.

Thank You