Mark Canciani at the Biological Interest Group – Monday, 11th June, 2-3pm, Byrne House

For the second meeting of the Biological Interest Group this summer semester, we were very pleased to have Mark Canciani discussing a draft chapter on the history (and historiography) of biological altruism and its impact on research and theories of the evolution of eusociality. The overarching aim of his thesis is to argue that biological altruism in not applicable to the case of eusociality, particularly eusocial insects (e.g. ants, bees, wasps, termites). Mark will argue that the use and tight association of biological altruism to eusocial insects has been problematic for eusociality research, i.e. it entailed that authors solve the so-called altruism paradox in order to explain eusociality (on this paradox see Cronin, 1991; Sober, 1994; Wilson & Wilson, 2007). However, the association between biological altruism and eusociality has also led to too much focus on the levels of selection debate, and the evolution of eusociality, rather than other important issues such as the maintenance of eusociality (and it’s ecological success), the evolution of complex eusocial colonies, polymorphism among the different castes, and more. Moreover, the way in which the discourse has unfolded has led to too little attention paid to whether altruism was the correct description of eusocial workers.

The chapter, which is the first of Mark’s thesis, is entitled ‘Altruism: History Justified by Theory Justified by History’. Its aim is to trace the history of biological altruism and the influence of this debate on eusociality research. He argues that it is important to consider how the concept of biological altruism became so tightly associated to eusociality and why this was a problem. Mark argues that W. D. Hamilton (1963; 1964a; 1964b; 1972; 1975) not only had a huge influence on eusocial research due to his kin selection theory (which is one of the main evolutionary explanations for eusociality today, as well as group selection), but that his work also led to the emergence of the altruism paradox, the conflation of the altruism paradox with eusociality, and consequently, it led to the field focusing too much on the levels of selection issue. The impact of Hamilton’s influence was so great that it led subsequent authors to make (somewhat whiggish) historical claims that Darwin also struggled with the altruism paradox when discussing eusocial insects, which Mark argues is an unlikely semblance, since the concept of biological altruism was not developed until the 1930s and it paradox only emerged in the 1960s. Mark argues that these type of historical claims were only made after the conflation of the altruism paradox with eusociality, due to the interaction between current theory and historiography.


Cronin, H., The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today, (Cambridge University Press, 1991)

Hamilton, W.D., ‘The evolution of altruistic behavior’, The American Naturalist, 97 (1963) 354-356

Hamilton, W.D., ‘The genetical theory of social behaviour I’, Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7 (1964a) 1-16

Hamilton, W.D., ‘The genetical theory of social behaviour II’,  Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7 (1964b) 17-52

Hamilton, W.D., ‘Altruism and related phenomena, mainly in social insects’, Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, 3 (1972) 193-232

Hamilton, W.D., ‘Innate social aptitudes of man: An approach from evolutionary genetics’, ASA Studies 4: Biological Anthropology, R. Fox (ed.), (Malaby Press, 1975)

Sober, E., From a Biological Point of View: Essays in Evolutionary Biology, Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Wilson, G.C., & D.C. Wilson, ‘Rethinking the theoretical foundation of sociobiology’, The Quarterly Review of Biology, 82 (2007) 327-348


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