Reciprocal altruism, rather than kin selection, maintains nepotistic food transfers on an Ache reservation

Wesley Allen-Arave, Michael Gurven, Kim Hill

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89 Scopus citations


Cooperation among relatives is often regarded as evidence of kin selection. Yet altruism not requiring shared genes can also evolve among relatives. If characteristics of relatives (such as proximity, familiarity, or trust) make kin preferred social partners, the primary causes of nepotistic biases may reside principally in direct fitness payoffs from cooperation rather than indirect fitness payoffs acquired from aiding collateral kin. We consider the roles of kin selection and reciprocal altruism in maintaining nepotistic food transfers on an Ache reservation in northeastern Paraguay. Households do not primarily direct aid to related households that receive larger comparative marginal gains from food intake as we would predict under kin selection theory. Instead, (1) food transfers favor households characterized by lower relative net energy production values irrespective of kinship ties, (2) households display significant positive correlations in amounts exchanged with each other, suggesting contingency in food transfers, and (3) kinship interacts with these positive correlations in amounts households exchange with each other, indicating even stronger contingency in sharing among related households than among unrelated households. While kin are preferred recipients of food aid, food distributions favor kin that have given more to the distributing household in the past rather than kin that would benefit more from the aid. Such discrimination among kin accords better with reciprocal altruism theory than with kin selection theory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)305-318
Number of pages14
JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2008


  • Ache
  • Human behavioral ecology
  • Kin selection
  • Nepotism
  • Reciprocal altruism
  • Resource sharing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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