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How does a propensity for self-sacrifice evolve? Are these impulses as primal as ferocity, lust, and greed? Or are they just a thin veneer over a savage nature? Answers come from creatures as diverse as amoebas and baboons, but the story starts in the county of Kent, in southern England. Kent has been home to two great evolutionary biologists. In the 19th century, Charles Darwin lived for many years in the village of Downe. In the 20th, William Donald Hamilton grew up catching beetles and chasing butterflies over the rolling hills near Badgers Mount. Hamilton was a tall man with a craggy face and the tops of a couple of fingers missing from a childhood accident— he blew himself up while making explosives.
He died in , at age 63, after an illness contracted while undertaking another risky endeavor: a trip to the Congo to collect chimpanzee feces. When I first met him, in Oxford in , he had a terrific shock of white hair, rode a rickety bicycle at prodigious speed, and was preoccupied with the question of why sex is useful in evolutionary terms.
For my doctorate, I worked with him on this question. And the particular behaviors he sought to explain are acts of extreme self-sacrifice, such as when a bee dies to defend the hive, or when an animal spends its whole life helping others rear their children instead of having some of its own.
The Selfless Gene - The Atlantic
To see why these behaviors appear mysterious to biologists, consider how natural selection works. In every generation, some individuals leave more descendants than others. So at first blush, a gene that promotes extreme altruism should quickly vanish from a population. He realized that a gene promoting extreme altruism could spread if the altruist helped its close relations.
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The reason is that your close relations have some of the same genes as you do. In humans and other mammals, full brothers and sisters have, on average, half the same genes. First cousins have, on average, an eighth of their genes in common. Among insects such as ants and bees, where the underlying genetics work differently, full sisters but not brothers typically have three-quarters of their genes in common. Look at lions. Lionesses live with their sisters, cousins, and aunts; they hunt together and help each other with child care. Bands of males, meanwhile, are typically brothers and half-brothers.
Large bands are better able to keep a pride of lionesses; thus even males who never mate with a female still spread some of their genes by helping their brothers defend the pride. Or take peacocks. Males often stand in groups when they display to females. This is because females are drawn to groups of displaying males; they ogle them, then pick the guy they like best to be their mate. Again, peacocks prefer to display with their brothers rather than with males they are not related to. Kin selection operates even in mindless creatures such as amoebas. For instance, the soil-dwelling amoeba Dictyostelium purpureum.
When times are good, members of this species live as single cells, reproducing asexually and feasting on bacteria. This glides off in search of more-suitable conditions. When it finds them, the slug transforms itself into a fruiting body that looks like a tiny mushroom; some of the amoebas become the stalk, others become spores. Those in the stalk will die; only the spores will go on to form the next amoeboid generation.
Sure enough, amoebas with the same genes in other words, clones tend to join the same slugs: They avoid mixing with genetic strangers and sacrifice themselves only for their clones. Kin selection also accounts for some of the nastier features of human behavior, such as the tendency stepparents have to favor their own children at the expense of their stepkids. Animals may begin to live together for a variety of reasons—most obviously, safety in numbers.
A bird in a flock spends more time eating and less time looking about for danger than it does when on its own. Indeed, eating well is another common reason for group living. Some predatory animals— chimpanzees, spotted hyenas, and wild dogs, for example— have evolved to hunt together.
Many social animals thus live in huge flocks or herds, and not in family groups—or even if the nexus of social life is the family, the family group is itself part of a larger community. At the least, the evolution of social living requires limiting aggression so that neighbors can tolerate each other.
And often, the evolution of larger social groupings is accompanied by an increase in the subtlety and complexity of the ways animals get along together. Consider baboons. Baboons are monkeys, not apes, and are thus not nearly as closely related to us as chimpanzees are. Nonetheless, baboons have evolved complex social lives.
They live in troops that can number from as few as eight to as many as Females live with their sisters, mothers, aunts, and infants; males head off to find a new troop at adolescence around age 4. Big troops typically contain several female family groups, along with some adult males. The relationships between members of a troop are varied and complex.
Sometimes two or more males team up to defeat a dominant male in combat. If a female is attacked or harassed, her friends will come bounding to the rescue; they will also protect her children, play with them, groom them, carry them, and sometimes share food with them. If the mother dies, they may even look after an infant in her place. Yet friendliness and the associated small acts of affection and kindness—a bout of grooming here, a shared bite to eat there—seem like evolutionary curiosities.
Or do they? Among social animals, one potentially important cause of premature death is murder. Infanticide can be a problem for social mammals, from baboons and chimpanzees to lions and even squirrels. Similarly, fighting between adults—particularly in species where animals are well armed with horns, tusks, or teeth—can be lethal, and even if it is not, it may result in severe injuries, loss of status, or eviction from the group. The possibility of death by murder creates natural selection for traits that reduce this risk.
For example, any animal that can appease an aggressor, or that knows when to advance and when to retreat, is more likely to leave descendants than an animal that leaps wildly into any fray.
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Serious physical fights tend to break out only when both animals think they can win that is, when they are about the same size. Friendships between males can be important in overcoming a dominant male—which may in turn lead to an improvement in how attractive the animals are to females. Similarly, females that have a couple of good male friends will be more protected from bullying—and their infants less likely to be killed. Why do the males do it? Males that are friends with a particular female are more likely to become her sex partners later on, if indeed they are not already.
In other words, friendship may be as primal an urge as ferocity. The lineage that became modern humans split off from the lineage that became chimpanzees around 6 million years ago. Eventually this new lineage produced the most socially versatile animal the planet has ever seen: us. How did we get to be this way? One clue comes from chimpanzees. Chimpanzee communities can also be fairly large, comprising several different subcommunities and family groups. Friends hang out together and hunt together—and gang up on other males. However, unlike baboon troops, which roam around the savannah freely intermingling, chimpanzee communities are territorial.
Males on patrol move together in silence, often stopping to listen. If they run into a neighboring patrol, there may be some sort of skirmish, which may or may not be violent. But woe betide a lone animal that runs into the patrolling males. If they encounter a strange male on his own, they may well kill him. And sometimes, repeated and violent attacks by one community lead to the annihilation of another, usually smaller, one. Indeed, two of the three most-studied groups of chimpanzees have wiped out a neighboring community.
Chimpanzees have two important sources of premature death at the hands of other chimpanzees: They may be murdered by members of their own community, or they may be killed during encounters with organized bands of hostile neighbors. Just like humans. Humans carry weapons, and have done so for thousands of years. Gaurav Parab. Sai Sathya Sakha. Abdul Razak Baburao Korbu. Our New Human Consciousness: Series Terry Sands. Buddhism in the Heian period reflected in the Tale of Genji.
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