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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Genetic hitchhiking can promote the initial spread of strong altruism

Mauro Santos1* and Eörs Szathmáry234

Author Affiliations

1 Departament de Genètica i de Microbiologia, Grup de Biologia Evolutiva (GBE), Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, 08193 Bellaterra (Barcelona), Spain

2 Collegium Budapest, Institute for Advanced Study, Szentháromság u. 2, H-1014 Budapest, Hungary

3 Institute of Biology, Eötvös University, 1/c Pázmány Péter sétány, H-1117 Budapest, Hungary

4 Parmenides Center for the Study of Thinking, 14a Kardinal Faulhaber Strasse, Munich D-80333, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:281  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-281

Published: 10 October 2008



The evolutionary origin of strong altruism (where the altruist pays an absolute cost in terms of fitness) towards non-kin has never been satisfactorily explained since no mechanism (except genetic drift) seems to be able to overcome the fitness disadvantage of the individual who practiced altruism in the first place.


Here we consider a multilocus, single-generation random group model and demonstrate that with low, but realistic levels of recombination and social heterosis (selecting for allelic diversity within groups) altruism can evolve without invoking kin selection, because sampling effects in the formation of temporary groups and selection for complementary haplotypes generate nonrandom associations between alleles at polymorphic loci.


By letting altruism get off the ground, selection on other genes favourably interferes with the eventual fate of the altruistic trait due to genetic hitchhiking.