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Abstract One of the enduring puzzles in biology and the social sciences is the origin and persistence of intraspecific cooperation and altruism in humans and other species. Hundreds of theoretical models have been proposed and there is much confusion about the relationship between these models. To clarify the situation, we developed a synthetic conceptual framework that delineates the conditions necessary for the evolution of altruism and cooperation. We show that at least one of the four following conditions needs to be fulfilled: direct benefits to the focal individual performing a cooperative act; direct or indirect information allowing a better than random guess about whether a given individual will behave cooperatively in repeated reciprocal interactions; preferential interactions between related individuals; and genetic correlation between genes coding for altruism and phenotypic traits that can be identified. When one or more of these conditions are met, altruism or cooperation can evolve if the cost-to-benefit ratio of altruistic and cooperative acts is greater than a threshold value. The cost-to-benefit ratio can be altered by coercion, punishment and policing which therefore act as mechanisms facilitating the evolution of altruism and cooperation. All the models proposed so far are explicitly or implicitly built on these general principles, allowing us to classify them into four general categories.