Simulating the evolution of the human family: cooperative breeding increases in harsh environments.
Verbal and mathematical models that consider the costs and benefits of behavioral strategies have been useful in explaining animal behavior and are often used as the basis of evolutionary explanations of human behavior. In most cases, however, these models do not account for the effects that group structure and cultural traditions within a human population have on the costs and benefits of its members' decisions. Nor do they consider the likelihood that cultural as well as genetic traits will be subject to natural selection. In this paper, we present an agent-based model that incorporates some key aspects of human social structure and life history. We investigate the evolution of a population under conditions of different environmental harshness and in which selection can occur at the level of the group as well as the level of the individual. We focus on the evolution of a socially learned characteristic related to individuals' willingness to contribute to raising the offspring of others within their family group. We find that environmental harshness increases the frequency of individuals who make such contributions. However, under the conditions we stipulate, we also find that environmental variability can allow groups to survive with lower frequencies of helpers. The model presented here is inevitably a simplified representation of a human population, but it provides a basis for future modeling work toward evolutionary explanations of human behavior that consider the influence of both genetic and cultural transmission of behavior.