Social traits, social networks and evolutionary biology

D. N. Fisher* (Corresponding Author), A. G. McAdam

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Citations (Scopus)


The social environment is both an important agent of selection for most organisms, and an emergent property of their interactions. As an aggregation of interactions among members of a population, the social environment is a product of many sets of relationships and so can be represented as a network or matrix. Social network analysis in animals has focused on why these networks possess the structure they do, and whether individuals’ network traits, representing some aspect of their social phenotype, relate to their fitness. Meanwhile, quantitative geneticists have demonstrated that traits expressed in a social context can depend on the phenotypes and genotypes of interacting partners, leading to influences of the social environment on the traits and fitness of individuals and the evolutionary trajectories of populations. Therefore, both fields are investigating similar topics, yet have arrived at these points relatively independently. We review how these approaches are diverged, and yet how they retain clear parallelism and so strong potential for complementarity. This demonstrates that, despite separate bodies of theory, advances in one might inform the other. Techniques in network analysis for quantifying social phenotypes, and for identifying community structure, should be useful for those studying the relationship between individual behaviour and group‐level phenotypes. Entering social association matrices into quantitative genetic models may also reduce bias in heritability estimates, and allow the estimation of the influence of social connectedness on trait expression. Current methods for measuring natural selection in a social context explicitly account for the fact that a trait is not necessarily the property of a single individual, something the network approaches have not yet considered when relating network metrics to individual fitness. Harnessing evolutionary models that consider traits affected by genes in other individuals (i.e. indirect genetic effects) provides the potential to understand how entire networks of social interactions in populations influence phenotypes and predict how these traits may evolve. By theoretical integration of social network analysis and quantitative genetics, we hope to identify areas of compatibility and incompatibility and to direct research efforts towards the most promising areas. Continuing this synthesis could provide important insights into the evolution of traits expressed in a social context and the evolutionary consequences of complex and nuanced social phenotypes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2088-2103
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number12
Early online date4 Nov 2017
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017


  • evolution
  • natural selection
  • quantitative genetics
  • response to selection
  • social network analysis
  • social system


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