You are here


First, I would like to introduce myself. I have been a biologist for my whole professional career studying the properties of muscle. When I retired recently, I developed an interest in the sociality of vertebrates, which I then studied by delving into the literature on the subject. This book is, therefore, a look from the outside into the ideas of animal behavior, established by professionals on the inside. It may lack, to some degree, the kind of sophistication that specialists develop, but it may also offer a fresh perspective on the field.

I was impressed by the ingenuity of the ideas that explained how an animal could fulfill Darwin’s dictum of “survival of the fittest” while at the same time supporting another individual at some cost to itself. The explanation, offered half a century ago, was that altruism could, in some circumstances, be donated to close relatives since they, like progeny, carried many of the same genes as the donor and could pass these down to later generations as proxies for direct descendants. This hypothesis, called kin selection or the selfish gene, has been expanded to cover all sociality between animals of the same species and is the generally accepted dogma of animal behavior. There have been a few sceptics, but their voices have been drowned out by the volume of supporting views.

As I dug deeper into the field, I began to question both the logic of the argument and the limited degree of support provided by field studies of animal behavior in the wild. Confirmation of the hypothesis has been remarkably meager, while contrary observations have often been ignored. It is now clear that most social groups include many unrelated individuals and that altruistic behavior does not necessarily require significant kinship. I also believed that the requirements for the operation of the theory represented an unwarranted extension of Darwinian principles and described the actions of animals in artificial ways.

Finally, I felt that the problem resided in the emphasis that the hypothesis placed on fitness, both for progeny and for other kin. Fitness is normally defined as the number of offspring that an animal produces and nurtures to full maturity. It is, of course, vital for the evolution of the species, but does not require that animals spend their lives working assiduously towards that goal. Nature is more subtle and may achieve its effects indirectly. It seemed to me that the consideration of the motivation of animals might prove to be a productive alternative approach to understanding sociality, and that is the road I follow here.

This book is aimed toward a general professional audience including both experts and specialists as well as naturalists, sociologists, students, wildlife interests, and inquisitive laypersons. For this reason, I have tried to make it accessible to those who are not immersed in the arcana of research literature. I have, whenever feasible, used language that does not require interpretation, or given an explanation for it when needed. At the same time, I have made no attempt to popularize the book, but have presented observations and interpretations as rigorously as I felt feasible.