What, If anything, Is Biological Altruism?

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (forthcoming)
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The study of biological altruism is a cornerstone of modern evolutionary biology. Associated with foundational issues about natural selection, it is often supposed that explaining altruism is key to understanding social behavior more generally. Typically, biological altruism is defined in purely effects-based, behavioral terms – as an interaction in which one organism contributes fitness to another, at its own expense. Crucially, such a definition isn’t meant to rest on psychological or intentional assumptions. We show that, appearances and official definitions notwithstanding, the notion biological altruism carries a vestige of the psychological, intentional concept familiar to us from the human domain. In particular, definitions of altruism from Hamilton onwards presuppose an actor\recipient distinction – a distinction, so we argue, that has questionable biological grounding. We arrive at this conclusion step-by-step, first looking at several simple, “austere” definitions and their problems, and then critiquing the actor\recipient distinction directly. If successful, our arguments suggest that the category of biological altruism requires a significant rethink.

Author Profiles

Topaz Halperin
Harvard University
Arnon Levy
Hebrew University of Jerusalem


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