181. Selfishness or Altruism? The Evolution of Sociality in Humans and Other Animals

K. Tarvin (Biology)
Full Course -- 4 credits
Fall Semester FYSP 181-01 MWF 3:30-4:20

Cooperation is uncommon in nature, and truly altruistic behaviors are virtually unknown in nonhuman animals. Nonetheless, individuals from some species do cooperate with other individuals. Although evolutionary biologists have made tremendous progress toward understanding complex social behavior in organisms ranging from bees to birds to slime molds, a good deal of human social behavior cannot easily be explained with the usual arsenal of the evolutionary theorist. This course will explore the ability of evolutionary theory to account for social interactions in humans and other animals. We will begin by considering the selfish elements of biological entities and how natural selection can favor cooperation in nonhuman animals in spite of their “selfish genes.” The implications of these basic ideas are immense—cooperation among individuals may lead to coherent and stable groups, and group coherency sets the stage for all sorts of other complex social phenomena. We will then consider whether evolutionary theory can account for elaborate social phenomena that seem restricted to humans—for example, the preponderance of religion, economic exchange, and political alliances within human societies. How do these quintessential features of human society mesh with contemporary evolutionary theory? Is biology sufficient to understand them?