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Reproductive skew theory provides a predictive theory of the extent of reproductive sharing that is expected to occur in societies consisting, at least potentially, of multiple co-breeders. Here, we discuss some of the challenges that skew theory faces as it attempts to form the basis of a unified theory of social evolution in birds. These include the problem of distinguishing potential versus actual reproductive roles, encompassing extra-group parentage and sexual conflict, predicting the distribution of group size, and determining the appropriate null model against which to test empirical results. Despite these and other problems with skew theory as currently developed, a compilation of prior studies indicates some degree of consistency with the predictions of concession or optimal skew theory. More surprisingly, a meta-analysis indicates that interspecific patterns of sociality offer reasonably good matches to the predictions of the concession model of reproductive skew. Strong support for skew theory remains lacking, and experimental tests sufficient to reject alternative skew models have yet to be performed in birds. Nonetheless, these results offer encouragement that additional theoretical work in this field may eventually yield a useful framework for understanding the remarkable diversity of avian sociality.
An irony of kin-selection and inclusive-fitness theory (Hamilton 1964) is that these concepts, conceived primarily as a solution to the paradox of altruism, should turn out to be so useful in providing a framework for interpreting conflict among close relatives. Indeed, as more social species have been studied in detail, it has become clear that cooperation and conflict go hand in hand in most, if not all, societies.
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