an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

kin selection – some fascinating stuff

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meerkats get together for ye olde family snap

Canto: So we’ve done four blogs on Palestine and we’ve barely scratched the surface, but we’re having trouble going forward with that project because, frankly, it’s so depressing and anger-inducing that it’s affecting our well-being.

Jacinta: Yes, an undoubtedly selfish excuse, but we do plan to go on with that project – we’re definitely not abandoning it, and meanwhile we should recommend such books as Tears for Tarshiha by the Palestinian peace activist Olfat Mahmoud, and Goliath by the Jewish American journalist Max Blumenthal, which highlight the sufferings of Palestinian people in diaspora, and the major stresses of trying to exist under zionist monoculturalism. But for now, something completely different, we’re going to delve into the fascinating facts around kin selection, with thanks to Robert Sapolski’s landmark book Behave. 

Canto: The term ‘kin selection’ was first used by John Maynard Smith in the early sixties but it was first mooted by Darwin (who got it right about honey bees), and its mathematics were worked out back in the 1930s. 

Jacinta: What’s immediately interesting to me is that we humans tend to think we alone know who our kin are, especially our extended or most distant kin, because only we know about aunties, uncles and second and third cousins. We have language and writing and record-keeping, so we can keep track of those things as no other creatures can. But it’s our genes that are the key to kin selection, not our brains.

Canto: Yes, and let’s start with distinguishing between kin selection and group selection, which Sapolsky deals with well. Group selection, popularised in the sixties by the evolutionary biologist V C Wynne-Edwards and by the US TV program Wild Kingdom, which I remember well, was the view that individuals behaved, sometimes or often, for the good of the species rather than for themselves as individuals of that species. However, every case that seemed to illustrate group selection behaviour could easily be interpreted otherwise. Take the case of ‘eusocial’ insects such as ants and bees, where most individuals don’t reproduce. This was seen as a prime case of group selection, where individuals sacrifice themselves for the sake of the highly reproductive queen. However, as evolutionary biologists George Williams and W D Hamilton later showed, eusocial insects have a unique genetic system in which they are all more or less equally ‘kin’, so it’s really another form of kin selection. This eusociality exists in some mammals too, such as mole rats. 

Jacinta: The famous primatologist Sarah Hrdy dealt something of a death-blow to group selection in the seventies by observing that male langur monkeys in India commit infanticide with some regularity, and, more importantly, she worked out why. Langurs live in groups with one resident male to a bunch of females, with whom he makes babies. Meanwhile the other males tend to hang around in groups brooding instead of breeding, and infighting. Eventually, one of this male gang feels powerful enough to challenge the resident male. If he wins, he takes over the female group, and their babies. He knows they’re not his, and his time is short before he gets booted out by the next tough guy. Further, the females aren’t ovulating because they’re nursing their kids. The whole aim is to pass on his genes (this is individual rather than kin selection), so his best course of action is to kill the babs, get the females ovulating as quickly as possible, and impregnate them himself. 

Canto: Yes, but it gets more complicated, because the females have just as much interest in passing on their genes as the male, and a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush…

Jacinta: Let me see, a babe in your arms is worth a thousand erections?

Canto: More or less precisely. So they fight the male to protect their infants, and can even go into ‘fake’ estrus, and mate with the male, fooling the dumb cluck into thinking he’s a daddy. 

Jacinta: And since Hrdy’s work, infanticide of this kind has been documented in well over 100 species, even though it can sometimes threaten the species’ survival, as in the case of mountain gorillas. So much for group selection.

Canto: So now to kin selection. Here are some facts. If you have an identical twin your genome is identical with hers. If you have a full sibling you’re sharing 50% and with a half-sibling 25%. As you can see, the mathematics of genes and relatedness can be widened out to great degrees of complexity. And since this is all about passing on all, or most, or some of your genes, it means that ‘in countless species, whom you co-operate with, compete with, or mate with depends on their degree of relatedness to you’, to quote Sapolsky. 

Jacinta: Yes, so here’s a term to introduce and then fairly promptly forget about: allomothering. This is when a mother of a newborn enlists the assistance of another female in the process of child-rearing. It’s a commonplace among primate species, but also occurs in many bird species. The mother herself benefits from an occasional rest, and the allomother, more often than not a younger relation such as the mother’s kid sister, gets to practice mothering. 

Canto: So this is part of what is called ‘inclusive fitness’, where, in this case, the kid gets all-day mothering (if of varying quality) the kid sister gets to learn about mothering, thereby increasing her fitness when the time comes, and the mother gets a rest to recharge her batteries for future mothering. It’s hopefully win-win-win. 

Jacinta: Yes, there are negatives and positives to altruistic behaviour, but according to Hamilton’s Rule, r.B > C, kin selection favours altruism when the reproductive success of relatives is greater than the cost to the altruistic individual. 

Canto: To explain that rule, r equals degree of relatedness between the altruist and the beneficiary (aka coefficient of relatedness), B is the benefit (measured in offspring) to the recipient, and C is the cost to the altruist. What interests me most, though, about this kin stuff, is how other, dumb primates know who is their kin. Sapolsky describes experiments with wild vervet monkeys by Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth which show that if monkey A behaves badly to monkey B, this will adversely affect B’s behaviour towards A’s relatives, as well as B’s relatives’ behaviour to A, as well as B’s relatives’ behaviour to A’s relatives. How do they all know who those relatives are? Good question. The same researchers proved this recognition by playing a recording of a juvenile distress call to a group of monkeys hanging around. The female monkeys all looked at the mother of the owner of that distress call to see what she would do. And there were other experiments of the sort. 

Jacinta: And even when we can’t prove knowledge of kin relations (kin recognition) among the studied animals, we find their actual behaviour tends always to conform to Hamilton’s Rule. Or almost always… In any case there are probably other cues, including odours, which may be unconsciously sensed, which might aid in inclusive fitness and also avoiding inbreeding. 

Canto: Yes and It’s interesting how this closeness, this familiarity, breeds contempt in some ways. Among humans too. Well, maybe not contempt but we tend not to be sexually attracted to those we grow up with and, for example, take baths with as kids, whether or not they’re related to us. But I suppose that has nothing to do with kin selection. And yet…

Jacinta: And yet it’s more often than not siblings or kin that we have baths with. As kids. But getting back to odours, we have more detail about that, as described in Sapolski. Place a mouse in an enclosed space, then introduce two other mice, one unrelated to her, another a full sister from another litter, never encountered before. The mouse will hang out with the sister. This is called innate recognition, and it’s due to olfactory signatures. Pheromones. From proteins which come from genes in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). 

Canto: Histowhat?

Jacinta: Okay, you know histology is the study of bodily tissues, so think of the compatibility or otherwise of tissues that come into contact. Immunology.  Recognising friend or foe, at the cellular, subcellular level. The MHC, this cluster of genes, kicks off the production of proteins which produce pheromones with a unique odour, and because your relatives have similar MHC genes, they’re treated as friends because they have a similar olfactory signature. Which doesn’t mean the other mouse in the enclosure is treated as a foe. It’s a mouse, after all. But other animals have their own olfactory signatures, and that’s another story. 

Canto: And there are other forms of kin recognition. Get this – birds recognise their parents from the songs sung to them before they were hatched. Birds have distinctive songs, passed down from father to son, since its mostly the males that do the singing. And as you get to more complex species, such as primates – though maybe they’re not all as complex as some bird species – there might even be a bit of reasoning involved, or at least consciousness of what’s going on. 

Jacinta: So that’s kin selection, but can’t we superior humans rise above that sort of thing? Australians marry Japanese, or have close friendships with Nigerians, at least sometimes. 

Canto: Sometimes, and this is the point. Kinship selection is an important factor in shaping behaviour and relations, but it’s one of a multiple of factors, and they all have differential influences in different individuals. It’s just that such influences may go below the level of awareness, and being aware of the factors shaping our behaviour is always the key, if we want to understand ourselves and everyone else, human or non-human.

Jacinta: Good to stop there. As we’ve said, much of our understanding has come from reading Sapolsky’s Behave, because we’re old-fashioned types who still read books, but I’ve just discovered that there’s a whole series of lectures by Sapolsky, about 25, on human behaviour, which employs the same structure as the book (which is clearly based on the lectures), and is available on youtube here. So all that’s highly recommended, and we’ll be watching them.


R Sapolski, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst. Bodley Head, 2017






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