The Birth of the Idea

It may be no coincidence that the concepts of altruism and natural selection were developed simultaneously in the mid-nineteenth century. Social philosophy was being much discussed and contrasting opinions abounded. On the one hand, Auguste Comte was popularizing altruism as part of his secular positivist religion, which argued for selfless acts that aid humanity and founded the new science of sociology. On the other hand, Herbert Spencer's individualism was fueling the fires of British industry. It was into this environment that Darwin proposed his individual-centered theory of evolution -natural selection.

With altruism based upon selflessness, and natural selection on selfishness, their conceptual collision would appear inevitable. However, this collision was barely evident at first. While Darwin did not use the term, his writings sowed the seeds for all modern explanations for altruism: the Origin of Species confidently proposes a mix of family relations, colony-level benefits, and parental manipulation to explain social insect workers (Figure 2); and the Descent of Man appeals to both group-level thinking and reciprocation to explain what he called human sympathy. Furthermore, Herbert Spencer explicitly discussed altruism in biology and explained it through both family life and competition among tribes. It is also noteworthy that Spencer often took an outcome-based definition, showing that there have long been parallel traditions of thinking about altruism, one based on intention and the other on behavior (see the introduction). This said, Spencer's views differed significantly from modern definitions by taking reproduction itself to be altruistic.

In the hundred years following the Origin, evolutionary discussions of cooperation and altruism are spotty, and often less clear than Darwin's original writings. This includes Kropotkin's extensive discussion of cooperation, which appeals to both group selection and a, sometimes flawed, species-level argument. By the mid-twentieth century, however, it is clear that many authors understood how cooperative acts like worker sterility and human sociality could evolve through kinship, group selection, and reciprocal benefits. These include H. G. Wells (with Julian Huxley and G. P. Wells), R. A. Fisher, A. H. Sturtevant, A. E. Emerson, J. L. Lush, and Sewell Wright. However, these authors rarely used the term 'altruism' - the notable exception being J. B. S. Haldane who colorfully compared his reader altruistically rescuing some drowning relatives to sterility in insect workers - and the concept anyway was given little space or attention. No one seemed to think that altruism was all that important:

There will also, no doubt, be indirect effects in cases in which an animal favours or impedes the survival or reproduction of its relatives.. . Nevertheless such indirect effects will in very many cases be unimportant. .. (Fisher, 1930, p. 27)

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