Defined as the ability to sacrifice yourself for the sake of others, altruism has been a bit of a genetic mystery. Understanding why altruism evolves is one of the fundamental challenges in evolutionary theory.
However, a paper published online in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society by researchers affiliated with MSU’s BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action has shed new light on the subject. This study marked the first time that scientists have been able to test such generalizations of kin selection theory.
“The ability to conduct research in digital systems enabled us to learn nuances of kin selection theory that may have been difficult to discover via evolutionary experiments in natural systems,” said team member Charles Ofria.
Using digital evolution technology, the team learned how altruism evolves by setting up different experimental situations. Through this, the researchers found that genes were more likely to help others that were physically similar to them, as opposed to strictly helping those that are related to them.
“Sometimes, by chance, relatives do not share genes, while complete strangers do,” said Jeff Clune, a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University who recently earned his doctorate from MSU. “A potentially better strategy, then, is to help individuals who are very physically similar to you, which may be a proxy for genetic similarity.”
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