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Neoproterozoic ‘snowball Earth’ glaciations and the evolution of altruism


Corresponding author: R. A. Boyle. Tel.: 01603 591373; fax: 01603 591327; e-mail


We hypothesize that a demographic and ecological effect of Neoproterozoic ‘snowball Earth’ glaciations was to increase the fitness of group-level traits and consequently the likelihood of the evolution of macroscopic form. Extreme and repeated founder effects raised genetic relatedness – and therefore the influence of kin selection on the individuals within a group. This was permissive for the evolution of some highly costly altruistic traits, including those for macroscopic differentiation. In some eukaryotic species, the harsh and fluctuating abiotic conditions made a macroscopic physiology advantageous, perhaps necessary, for collective survival. This caused population-wide group viability selection, whereby non-altruist ‘cheat’ genotypes killed the groups they were in, and therefore themselves, by reaching fixation. Furthermore, dispersal between refugia would reach zero under anything near a ‘hard snowball’, which would protect altruists at high local frequency from the influx of cheats from neighbouring groups. We illustrate our hypothesis analytically and with a simple spatial model. We show how removal of between-group dispersal, in a population with initial between-group variation in cheat frequency, causes the relative frequency of altruists to increase while the population as a whole decreases in size, as a result of group death caused by cheat invasion. This may be of particular relevance to animal multicellularity because irreversible differentiation (highly altruistic in that it imposes a high fitness cost on the individual cell) is more prevalent than in other multicellular eukaryotes. The relevance of our hypothesis should be scaled by any future consensus on the severity of snowball Earth, but it is theoretically plausible that global-scale glaciations had a systematic influence on the level of selection during Earth history.

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