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10121 How Has Altruism Evolved?

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Altruism is a topic that I studied early on in my Evolution and Behaviour model. At first glance, it appears to go against everything that Natural Selection predicts. An altruistic act is one that benefits another at your own expense. As the main biological imperative of life is for genes to replicate themselves as much as possible to increase their frequency in the gene pool, why would animals act in a way to decrease their own fitness? In this situation, fitness can be measured in terms of the number of offspring an animal has since this reflects the number of times a gene has likely been passed on. The more offspring an animal has, the more successful its life has been.

There are 4 main types of social interactions with other members of an individual’s population – cooperation, selfishness, altruism and spite:

Looking at the above table we would expect most organisms only to act in cooperative or selfish ways, as these are the only ways that benefit them. Selfish actions only benefit that individual and have no effect on anyone else. Unsurprisingly, this type of behaviour is very common and includes things such as not sharing food.

Co-operation also has many advantages to an individual. Group hunting can be more effective than individual hunting and therefore result in a higher food yield per individual. Living in a larger group causes “the dilution effect”. This describes how being in a large group reduces the chance that a predator will catch an individual. Additionally, living with a larger group increases the vigilance in watching for predators.However, this only really helps if the organism that spots the predator alerts the others, which can be considered an altruistic act as it calls attention to itself and so is more likely to be targeted by the predator. A good example of this is in meerkat groups where adults will stand-watch at higher vantage points on their hind legs and alert the rest of the group if they see a predator.

Is It a Gene Thing?

If we consider altruistic acts at the level of an individual, it seems hard to imagine how altruism has evolved. An altruist in a group of selfish animals would be at a disadvantage as they would be willing to help others, but the others would not help them. This would, therefore, be strongly selected against and any genes for altruistic traits would rapidly disappear from the gene pool. In a primarily altruistic group, a selfish individual would have an advantage over the others as they may be the recipient of altruistic acts but not return them. This means that they would have a higher reproductive success and as a result the allele for selfish acts would rapidly increase in frequency within the gene pool. In Vervet monkey populations, monkeys will sound an alarm call to warn the others of the presence of a predator – this is an altruistic act as it calls more attention to themselves – making them more likely to be targeted by the predator. Surely a monkey with a selfish trait that did not warn the others would be at an advantage as it would be able to escape quietly, while the predator targeted the others? This was described by Darwin as “subversion from within” as any altruistic group will eventually give rise to a selfish individual which will be at an advantage and therefore increase the frequency of that selfish gene.

At the level of the group, however, it is possible to see that groups that contain all, or primarily altruists, would have an advantage over selfish groups in bad years where food is scarce – as a result the selfish groups might all die, leaving a greater proportion of altruists in the population. However, in good years selfish groups will do better than the altruists as they can put all their resources towards producing as many offspring as possible. Darwin proposed a theory for the evolution of altruism that suggested that although self-sacrificial behaviour is disadvantageous to an individual, it might be beneficial to the group. On its own, Darwins theory does not seem sufficient to explain the evolution of something that seems like such a paradox to natural selection.

In 1964 Bill Hamilton published his theory of “kin selection” – also called inclusive fitness. If we consider fitness to mean the number of copies of a gene you cause to be passed on to the next generation we can see that as relatives are likely to share some of your genes, it may be beneficial to help them reproduce (as well as yourself). By helping close relatives, you can increase the total number of copies of your genes that are passed on to the next generation.

If we imagine a gene that increased the likelihood of an organism acting in an altruistic way such as sharing food with everyone it came across, that would provide no advantage. However, if that organism only shared food with its relatives and that extra food helped them to increase their reproductive success then we can see how an altruistic allele could increase in frequency in a population. This theory does not rely on an organism being able to recognise its relatives as in social populations relatives will normally live close together. Cuckoos have evolved to exploit this lack of ability to recognise who is actually related to them, as they lay their eggs in Dunnock nests. At first glance, seeing a dunnock feeding and looking after a cuckoo chick might seem like an altruistic act on the part of the dunnock, but in fact this is simply because the dunnock does not recognise that the cuckoo egg is not one of their own – even when the cuckoo chick hatches first and pushes the other eggs out the nest.

Hamilton’s Rule defines the conditions under which a gene promoting altruism would increase in frequency in the population:

Where A is the altruist and B is the beneficiary. If A helps B, A will suffer a cost of decreasing the number of offspring it has but B will benefit and have more offspring than it would have done without A’s help. If B is closely related to A, then B’s benefit will also benefit A since they share some of the same genes. Relatedness is the probability that one gene in an individual is an identical copy, by descent of a gene in another individual. This will, therefore, be higher in siblings (a 50% chance of sharing the same gene) than in cousins (a 12.5% chance of sharing the same gene). If the inequality described by Hamilton’s rule is met, then it is evolutionarily beneficial for A to help B at A’s own expense.

This theory of kin selection works well to explain altruistic acts within social insect populations. For example, within bee colonies, sterile worker bees spend their lives looking after the queen bee, as this is the best way for them to try and ensure some of their genes get passed on since they cannot reproduce themselves. Worker bees have stings and will attack predators that get too close to their nest – in stinging the predator, the barb gets stuck in the predator and the bee dies. The evolution of this suicidal behaviour only makes sense if we consider that the nest is full of that bee’s relatives and in protecting them they will be able to reproduce to offspring with copies of the same gene as the worker ant.

This shows that altruistic behaviour is not the paradox of natural selection it seems. If we consider kin selection, we can see that the organisms still act in a way to maximise an alleles presence in a population. The conditions for the spread of an altruistic gene are given by Hamilton’s rule and when this inequality is met it is beneficial for an individual to behave altruistically towards the other – this explains the different levels of altruistic behaviour shown to different relatives. John Haldane once said “I would gladly lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins.”

altruism Categories: Articles Tags: , 9142 Love and Magic in Greco-Roman Egypt

Depending on your success – or lack thereof – in the romantic world, you may or may not have ever wondered if there was a sure-fire way to win someone’s heart. It’s doubtful, however, that you’ve ever considered trying a magic to seduce a potential beloved. Yet magic and love are linked inextricably in our cultural consciousness – consider love songs with titles like ‘Bewitched’, or ‘I Put a Spell On You’. The link between magic and love predates us by centuries and can be traced back to a corpus of magical spells from the 2nd century BC.

Love Spells in History


Known as the Papyri Graecae Magicae (PGM) these papyri record spells, chants and magic used in Greco-Roman Egypt up until the 5th century CE. Primary among the subject matter of these spells? Love, which comprises 15% of the published spells – even today, love is the most common topic, along with finances, in modern horoscopes and astrology columns.

The characteristic feature of these spells is the desire to predict and control the behaviour of another person. Sometimes this becomes so aggressive that it is uncomfortable to modern ears – a love spell of attraction targeting a woman asks that love seize her ‘guts, her liver, her spirit, her bones’. A repeated formula in the spells promises to ‘bind’ a lover, with one even asking for a demon-helper to find and ‘bind down’ the lady in question and another advocating the creation of voodoo dolls from wax or clay: ‘make the male [figure] holding a sword in his left hand and threatening to plunge it into the right side of her neck … and make [the female figure] with her arms behind her’.


The formulaic nature of the spells gives us some insight into how these spells might have operated. Many of the spells are filled with ‘nonsense words’, the ancient equivalent of ‘abracadabra’, whilst the model spells in the PGM often leave the name of the beloved blank; ‘I adjure you … that she [name] lose the fire in her eye or even lie awake with nothing on her mind except me, [name], alone’. Some take this specification to an absurd extreme – one spell requires the practitioner to write on the ground ‘bring [name], the daughter of [name], to the house to the sleep place in which is [name], the son of [name]!’. The excessive specification of both parties – magic-user and beloved, rather than just the latter– seems to suggest that it covers all bases and is somehow more reliable than the standard spell formula. These variants can help us understand the way in which these spells were distributed and used; the more personalised variants were perhaps more expensive, catered to buyers who were keen to have the magic tailored to their exact situation.

In any case, these spells provided the chance to control the behaviour and emotions of another human being. When contextualised against the other kinds of spells featured in the PGM – with other popular spells promising punishment for those who have wronged you and magical cures – it is clear that these spells lent some sense of agency to people who were subject to the whims of fate in almost every other aspect of their lives.

Magic as History

Using magical spells as historical documents, however, is not necessarily so straightforward. It’s unclear if they were accessible to a range of people; did you pay a scribe to write the spell for you, with your personal additions, or could you just buy a generic spell? How expensive was this service? These questions are key to understanding who used magic as well as why they were used. Similarly, magic was repeatedly criminalised in the Roman world; it’s unclear if the people using love magic were engaging in a seriously illegal practice or whether it occupied a grey moral area for them. The fact that magic was illegal also may have led to the development of magical practices that do not leave any trace in the archaeological record, such as incantations or rituals.


This last point has been used to explain a curious paradox in the study of magic in the Greco-Roman world; although magic was exclusively linked with female witches in ancient (and modern) literature, the love spells are predominantly written for men to use. Some scholars have tried to argue that evidence of female magic has simply not survived – the PGM themselves are an exceptional find. But the PGM can also be read as important historical evidence for some good old fashioned sexism, tied into the legality of magic as a practice. For ancient male authors to depict magic as an exclusively female practice functioned as a discouragement to real-life men from partaking in it, for fear of the associations of womanish weakness.

This doesn’t correlate with the extant evidence, which generally offers men the chance to secure the romantic attention of individual women who are currently engaged elsewhere: ‘let her desire me alone, let her love me alone’, reads one spell. Yet it illustrates how – cautiously approached – the PGM are a valuable document for understanding social attitudes to magic, which may give us some sense what kind of spells were available, who used them, and what they hoped to achieve.

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