Bryan Wilder and Kenneth O. Stanley (2015)
Altruists Proliferate Even at a Selective Disadvantage within Their Own Niche
In: PLoS ONE 10(6): e0128654. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0128654 (11 pages in PDF).
Source code for the experimental results in this paper is available.
The evolutionary origin of altruism is a long-standing puzzle. Numerous explanations have been proposed, most prominently based on inclusive fitness or group selection. One possibility that has not yet been considered is that new niches will be created disproportionately often when altruism appears, perhaps by chance, causing altruists to be over-represented in such new niches. This effect is a novel variant of group selection in which altruistic groups benefit by discovering unoccupied niches instead of by competing for the limited resources within a single niche. Both an analytical population genetics model and computational simulations support that altruism systematically arises due to this side effect of increased carrying capacity even when it is strongly selected against within any given niche. In fact, even when selection is very strongly negative and altruism does not develop in most populations, it can still be expected to be observed in a consistent fraction of species. The ecological structure provided by niches thereby may be sufficient for altruists to proliferate even if they are always at a disadvantage within each niche considered individually.