Biological altruism in hostile environments

Complexity 5 (2):23-28 (1999)
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The evolution of economic altruism is one of the most vigorous areas of study at the intersection of biology, economics, and philosophy. The basic problem is easily understood. Biological organisms, be they people or paramecia, have ample opportunity to confer benefits on others at relatively low cost to themselves. If conferring such benefits becomes common, the overall productivity of the population in which it occurs is increased. Presumably, there is no advantage to refusing such benefits, but it is also the case that there is considerable advantage to pursuing a strategy according to which such benefits are accepted, but not conferred. In populations where individuals interact at random with others and when individuals play pure strategies (i.e., they always confer or do not confer benefits), the inevitable outcome is that altruistic behavior is driven to extinction. (Axelrod 1984) Nonetheless, there is ample evidence that self-sacrificing behavior is common in nature. (Sober and Wilson 1998) Consequently, individuals must not be interacting at random. The pressing question is then: what patterns of non-random interaction are responsible for the prevalence of altruistic behavior, and more theoretically, what sorts of plausible mechanisms exist that could generate the right kind of non- 1 The research reported here was supported by Canada ????? grant # ????? and the Centre for Applied Ethics at the University of British Columbia.



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William F. Harms
Seattle Central Community College

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