Kin Selection: A Philosophical Analysis

Dissertation, University of Cambridge (2013)
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This PhD dissertation examines the conceptual and theoretical foundations of the most general and most widely used framework for understanding social evolution, W. D. Hamilton's theory of kin selection. While the core idea is intuitive enough (when organisms share genes, they sometimes have an evolutionary incentive to help one another), its apparent simplicity masks a host of conceptual subtleties, and the theory has proved a perennial source of controversy in evolutionary biology. To move towards a resolution of these controversies, we need a careful and rigorous analysis of the philosophical foundations of the theory. My aim in this work is to provide such an analysis. I begin with an examination of the concepts behavioural ecologists employ to describe and classify types of social behaviour. I stress the need to distinguish concepts that are often conflated: for example, we need to distinguish simple cooperation from collaboration in collective tasks, behaviours from strategies, and control from manipulation and coercion. I proceed from here to the formal representation of kin selection via George R. Price’s covariance selection mathematics. I address a number of interpretative issues the Price formalism raises, including the vexed question of whether kin selection theory is ‘formally equivalent’ to multi-level selection theory. In the second half of the dissertation, I assess the uses and limits of Hamilton’s rule for the evolution of social behaviour; I provide a precise statement of the conditions under which the rival neighbour-modulated fitness and inclusive fitness approaches in contemporary kin selection theory are equivalent (and describe cases in which they are not); and I criticize recent formal attempts to establish the controversial claim that kin selection leads to organisms behaving as if maximizing their inclusive fitness.

Author's Profile

Jonathan Birch
London School of Economics


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