Greenbeard Genes: Theory and Reality

Philip G. Madgwick, Laurence J. Belcher, Jason B. Wolf

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

18 Citations (SciVal)


Greenbeard genes were proposed as a cartoonish thought experiment to explain why altruism can be a selfish strategy from the perspective of genes. The likelihood of finding a real greenbeard gene in nature was thought to be remote because they were believed to require a set of improbable properties. Yet, despite this expectation, there is an ongoing explosion in claimed discoveries of greenbeard genes. Bringing together the latest theory and experimental findings, we argue that there is a need to dispose of the cartoon presentation of a greenbeard to refocus their burgeoning empirical study on the more fundamental concept that the thought experiment was designed to illustrate.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1092-1103
Number of pages12
JournalTrends in Ecology and Evolution
Issue number12
Early online date2 Sept 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We would like to thank David Haig and Chris Thompson for helpful discussions, as well as Andy Gardner and three anonymous referees for constructive comments. We would also like to thank our funders: South West Biosciences (SWBio; Doctoral Training Partnership grant to P.G.M.), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC; grant GW4+ to L.J.B.), and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC; grant BB/M01035X/1 to J.B.W.). This work was partially completed as part of a fellowship from the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin to J.B.W. (also a study visit from P.G.M.).


  • altruism
  • cooperation
  • gene conflict
  • kin selection
  • social evolution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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