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The Evolution of Exploitation in Humans: ‘Surrounded by Strangers I Thought Were My Friends’1


  • Clara B. Jones

    1. Department of Psychology, Fayetteville State University, Fayetteville, NC, USA
    2. National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent), Duke University, Durham, NC, USA
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Clara B. Jones, Department of Psychology, College of Basic and Applied Sciences, Fayetteville State University, 1200 Murchison Road, Fayetteville, NC 28301, USA.


Early humans were obligately social, living in nested kin groups or close associations of related individuals. Theoretical and empirical research has demonstrated that group life is characterized by both costs (e.g. increased likelihood of disease transmission) and benefits (e.g. enhanced predator defense). This paper addresses the evolution of exploitation in humans (e.g. slavery, infanticide) as a response to within-group competition for limiting resources (e.g. food, mates), a potential cost of living in groups. Exploitation is defined as one individual's use of another for selfish ends, in particular, the acquisition and/or use of another's resources for the optimization of inclusive fitness. It is argued that exploitation is most likely to occur in relationships characterized by asymmetries such as dependence, intimacy, and/or differential access to resources. A simple mathematical treatment assesses exploitation as a facultative response to local competition among relatives, providing insights into the conditions favorable and adverse to exploitation of conspecifics. Possible applications of the formulations are discussed, including the conditions under which intraspecific exploitation may be beneficial to both actor and recipient(s). Constraints on the evolution of exploitation in humans are identified, and suggestions are made for testing hypotheses related to the differential costs and benefits of exploitation to conspecifics. Future studies may promote the mitigation of exploitation's deleterious effects in Homo sapiens, a body of research which may apply, as well, to other social mammals.