Royal Society Publishing

Review Paper: Are reproductive skew models evolutionarily stable?

Hanna Kokko


Reproductive skew theory has become a popular way to phrase problems and test hypotheses of social evolution. The diversity of reproductive skew models probably stems from the ease of generating new variations. However, I show that the logical basis of skew models, that is, the way in which group formation is modelled, makes use of hidden assumptions that may be problematical as they are unlikely to be fulfilled in all social systems. I illustrate these problems by re-analysing the basic concessive skew model with staying incentives. First, the model assumes that dispersal is an all–or–nothing response: all subordinates disperse as soon as concessions drop below a certain value. This leads to a discontinuous‘cliff–edge’ shape of dominant fitness, and it is not clear that selection will balance a population at such an edge. Second, it is assumed that subordinates have perfect knowledge of their benefits if they stay in the group. I examine the effects of relaxing these two assumptions. Relaxing the first one strengthens reproductive skew theory, but relaxing the latter makes evolutionary stability disappear. In cases where subordinates cannot accurately measure benefits provided by the individual dominant with which they live, so that their behaviour instead evolves as a response to population–wide average benefits, the logic of reproductive skew models does not apply. This warns against too indiscriminate an application of reproductive skew theory to problems in social evolution: for example, transactional models of extra–pair paternity assume perfect knowledge of paternity, which is unlikely to hold true in nature. It is recommended that models specify the mechanisms by which individuals can adjust their behaviour to that of others, and pay attention to changes that occur in evolutionary versus behavioural time.

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