Questioning the cultural evolution of altruism

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The evolutionary foundations of helping among nonkin in humans have been the object of intense debates in the past decades. One thesis has had a prominent influence in this debate: the suggestion that genuine altruism, strictly defined as a form of help that comes at a net fitness cost for the benefactor, might have evolved owing to cultural transmission. The gene–culture coevolution literature is wont to claim that cultural evolution changes the selective pressures that normally act to limit the emergence of altruistic behaviours. This paper aims to recall, however, that cultural transmission yields altruism only to the extent that it relies on maladaptive mechanisms, such as conformist imitation and (in some cases) payoff-biased transmission. This point is sometimes obscured in the literature by a confusion between genuine altruism, maladaptive by definition, and mutualistic forms of cooperation, that benefit all parties in the long run. Theories of cultural altruism do not lift the selective pressures weighing on strictly altruistic actions; they merely shift the burden of maladaptation from social cognition to cultural transmission.

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