Biology & Philosophy

, 34:4 | Cite as

The many meanings of “cost” and “benefit:” biological altruism, biological agency, and the identification of social behaviours

  • Peter J. WoodfordEmail author


The puzzle of how altruism can evolve has been at the center of recent debates over Hamilton’s Rule, inclusive fitness, and kin-selection. In this paper, I use recent debates over altruism and Hamilton’s legacy as an example to illustrate a more general problem in evolutionary theory that has philosophical significance; I attempt to explain this significance and to draw a variety of conclusions about it. The problem is that specific behaviours and general concepts of organism agency and intentionality are defined in terms of concepts of evolutionary “costs” and “benefits,” and these terms have determined the role that agency should play in evolutionary explanation. However, costs, benefits, and agency are not only or even best conceived through evolutionary effects in a biological context. The paper proceeds as follows: first, I explain how the issue of agency relates to the evolutionary puzzle of altruism. Next, I discuss how questions about agency have figured in recent debates over Hamilton’s legacy. In the final section, I argue that Denis Walsh’s “situated Darwinism,” which attempts to return the organism to central status in biological explanation, offers a more productive route for thinking about different forms of costs, benefits, and agency. Finally, I argue that the upshot of all this is that there may be many different, and equally valid, ways to express what organisms are doing and how they are behaving based on different currencies of cost and benefit—even if these may stand in some tension. I illustrate this through returning to the case of altruism and using examples to show that even in non-humans there can be many forms of altruism, even if they are not all biological altruism as defined in the conventional evolutionary terms.


Altruism Eusociality Inclusive fitness Kin-selection Philosophy of biology Social behaviour 



I would like to thank two reviewers for very insightful comments and suggestions on this article and for pointing me to helpful additional literature. I would also like to thank Tim Clutton-Brock and everyone in the Large Animal Research Group at Cambridge for discussing these issues with me.

Author contribution

All contributions to this article have been made by the author.


The author was funded by a grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Lamont HouseUnion CollegeSchenectadyUSA

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