The Evolution of Cooperation: National Academy of Sciences Colloquium

I’m back from camping everyone.  I had a blissfully slow week of hiking in Acadia National Park, and I never once checked my email — I didn’t even miss it.  Special thanks to juliebyrd and zil of medmd for adding to darwinbookcats in my absence, they did a great job.  While I gone, I read some great and not so great books, and got more exciting ideas for evolution posts.  I’ll get back to all of them this week and next, but first for a quick update.

Batik image of two cooperating ants

The National Academy of Sciences recently published articles resulting from a colloquium series on evolution, In the light of evolution: Cooperation and conflict.  The cooperation found in many insect and primate societies once baffled evolutionists and creationists alike.  If natural selection really was the “survival of the fittest” and nature “red in tooth and claw”, how could things like cooperation and altruism evolve? But the important breakthrough came in the 1930s with the theory of kin selection.  Kin selection, which features prominently in the cooperation and conflict symposium,  showed that altruism and cooperation could evolve if individuals could increase their fitness (pass their genes on to the next generation) even if they didn’t leave any children of their own.  The answer: help raise the children of your close siblings, which share a large part of your own genetic material.  The title of the series comes from Theodosius Dobzhanzky’s essay and assertion that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution“, which is certainly true for the evolution of complex animal societies.  All of the colloquium papers are free and open access, so feel free to follow the link and read the articles to your heart’s content.  I’m happy to post on any one in detail if you have specific requests.

And speaking of kin selection, I have a beautiful new niece, Camille Elizabeth. I’ve not got about a quarter of my genes represented in the next generation.  Wohoo!  Congratulations brother and sister-in-law.

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5 thoughts on “The Evolution of Cooperation: National Academy of Sciences Colloquium

  1. I’m back from an outing to Silent Valley National Park in Kerala, India. One of the planet’s “hotspots”. Discussions led to homosexuality and genetics. Being a homosexual and scientifically-minded, I stressed my opinion that homosexuality is genetically determined. I was talking with the owner of the resort in which I was staying and a nature-lover who was also staying at the resort. Why did evolution produce homosexuality? It’s a question I ponder often, but not as often as the question “why does life exist in the Universe?” I enjoy your posts, your site, your cats.

    • That’s a great question. You are right: scientific research has demonstrated that there is a genetic basis to homosexuality (these studies focus mainly on males). And homosexual behavior is found in animals other than humans, including bonobos, rhesus monkeys, and dolphins. Both of these observations suggest that homosexuality can evolve, though there is also evidence that homosexuality may also be environmentally determined by birth-order (the last-born of a series of sons is more likely to be homosexual than the first-born). The main scientific hypotheses that address the question “Why did homosexuality evolve?” center on kin selection, social structure, and maternal manipulation of the fetus. It would be great to write an Evolution of Homosexuality post to present and discuss these different hypotheses. I’d be happy to do that some time soon.

      • Until I get to that, enjoy this informative cartoon from the documentary For The Bible Tells Me So. Educational and entertaining.

  2. I laughed out loud a few times during the video….I am the 4th of 5 boys and my younger brother didn’t come along until I was eight years old. Perhaps, this research on fetal influence holds some merit, but I know of many instances that are out of that limitation; like my first cousin who was the first-born. Also part of our discussion, since the woman in the discussion is a psychologist, was, “Does bisexuality really exist?” Ha! I used to be judgmental against bisexuals!! Homosexuals refusing to step totally out of the closet….but there again, since the gradation of genetic expression can be seen in almost everything, I’ve had to change my bias.
    On another note, my niece is the sponsor of the blog you have on your site “I Heart National Parks”!! She and her husband are doing genetic research. I think you know them. Claire and Kelly O’Quinn. I think they just went to Acadia National Park. Did you guys travel together? This is getting a bit weird for me.

  3. Kelly!! OMG!! This is so funny. I didn’t realize it was YOU! I really didn’t! It just hit me. Sometimes it takes my brain a while…..

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