• Condition-dependence;
  • genetic variation;
  • quantitative genetics;
  • selection;
  • social evolution genetics;
  • selection

The paradoxical persistence of heritable variation for fitness-related traits is an evolutionary conundrum that remains a preeminent problem in evolutionary biology. Here we describe a simple mechanism in which social competition results in the evolutionary maintenance of heritable variation for fitness related traits. We demonstrate this mechanism using a genetic model with two primary assumptions: the expression of a trait depends upon success in social competition for limited resources; and competitive success of a genotype depends on the genotypes that it competes against. We find that such social competition generates heritable (additive) genetic variation for “competition-dependent” traits. This heritable variation is not eroded by continuous directional selection because, rather than leading to fixation of favored alleles, selection leads instead to allele frequency cycling due to the concerted coevolution of the social environment with the effects of alleles. Our results provide a mechanism for the maintenance of heritable variation in natural populations and suggest an area for research into the importance of competition in the genetic architecture of fitness related traits.