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Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior New Ed Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674930476
ISBN-10: 0674930479
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In Unto Others, philosopher Elliott Sober and biologist David Sloan Wilson bravely attempt to reconcile altruism, both evolutionary and psychological, with the scientific discoveries that seem to portray nature as red in tooth and claw. The first half of the book deals with the evolutionary objection to altruism. For altruistic behavior to be produced by natural selection, it must be possible for natural selection to act on groups--but conventional wisdom holds that group selection was conclusively debunked by George Williams in Adaptation and Natural Selection. Sober and Wilson nevertheless defend group selection, instructively reviewing the arguments against it and citing important work that relies on it. They then discuss group selection in human evolution, testing their conclusions against the anthropological literature.

In the second half of the book, the question is whether any desires are truly altruistic. Sober and Wilson painstakingly examine psychological evidence and philosophical arguments for the existence of altruism, ultimately concluding that neither psychology nor philosophy is likely to decide the question. Fortunately, evolutionary biology comes to the rescue. Sober and Wilson speculate that creatures with truly altruistic desires are reproductively fitter than creatures without--altruists, in short, make better parents than do egoists.

Rich in information and insight, Unto Others is a book that will be seriously considered by biologists, philosophers, anthropologists, and psychologists alike. The interested amateur may find it difficult in places but worth the effort overall. --Glenn Branch --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Do people help others because they think they will get pleasure from doing so (hedonism), or because they have an ultimate desire to help another (true altruism)? Sober and Wilson argue that evolutionary biology can shed light on this problem. They do not say that human traits that evolved by individual selection are hedonistic and those that evolved by group selection are truly altruistic. Their argument is more subtle than that...[This book] will stimulate thought about important questions. (John Maynard Smith Nature)

Unto Others, a collaboration between Elliott Sober, one of the founders of the modern philosophy of biology, and David Sloan Wilson, one of the most creative theoreticians in evolutionary studies, wades into this turbulent stream [of evolutionary biology ideology] at precisely the point where so many other adventurers have been swept away: the problem of the origin of altruistic behavior...At first sight Unto Others appears to be a reformulation of the now orthodox view of the evolution of altruism. It is, however, a great deal more subversive than that, for, if its alternative scheme is taken seriously, evolutionary biologists should stop characterizing the process as one in which genes drive organisms to develop particular characteristics that maximize their fitness...Unto Others is precisely that combination of radical reexamination of a system of explanation, an examination from the roots, with a rigorous technical analysis of both biological and epistemological questions that we all are supposed to engage in. What marks off their intellectual production is not its ideology but the seriousness with which they have taken the intellectual project. The hinge of Sober and Wilson's argument is a rejection of the prejudice that natural selection must operate directly solely on individuals. They point out that groups of organisms may also be the units of differential reproduction...A large part of Unto Others is taken up with a classic problem in philosophy and psychology that is analogous to the evolutionary question of whether the appearance of altruism at the individual level is really selfishness at the genic level. Is human altruism really egoism, or even pure hedonism, in disguise?...In the end, Sober and Wilson are entirely forthright in saying that they have consciously adopted a pluralistic perspective. (R. C. Lewontin New York Review of Books)

Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson are clear that there are two notions of altruism, as well as two challenges to its possibility, stemming from quite different sources, but their wide-ranging book is intended to tackle both. They begin with biological altruism, offering their own perspective on how this puzzle should be resolved, and discussing the ways in which natural selection of social structures may have figured in the history of our species. In the second half of Unto Others, they turn to psychological altruism, arguing that debates between those who believe that human beings are sometimes other-directed and their sceptical opponents cannot be settled either by philosophical arguments or by psychological experiments... Sober and Wilson offer a distinctive approach to the problem of biological altruism, one that attempts to incorporate the accepted solutions within a unified theory. For two decades, Sober, an internationally prominent philosopher of biology, has provided welcome clarification of the concept of natural selection, while, for an even longer period, Wilson, a well-known theoretical biologist, has campaigned to rehabilitate one of the most vilified views about the nature of selection...[In this book] they have considerably clarified what is at stake in the debate about psychological altruism, and have demonstrated how an evolutionary perspective might bear on it. (Philip Kitcher London Review of Books)

Unselfish action is a hallmark of humanity. We may sacrifice our lives for the good of our children, for the good of our nation, and sometimes even for the good of a stranger. What motivates such altruistic acts? To a biologist, this question has two very different answers. There is the proximate answer that explains our psychological reasons for acting altruistically, and there is the ultimate answer that explains how an unselfish act increases our Darwinian fitness relative to some selfish alternative. Through the two more-or-less independent sections of Unto Others, Sober and Wilson discuss both proximate and ultimate explanations. They use both sections to also emphasize their belief in the value of pluralistic hypotheses, with natural selection driven by multiple levels of causation and behavior driven by multiple desires... Sober and Wilson...have the laudable goal of stimulating research into levels of selection and motivation as applied to humans and their culture. (Leonard Nunney Science)

[A] tour de force about the multitrack selection processes that have shaped life's creatures, including human behaviour, that dispels once and for all that peculiarly mystifying belief among gene selectionists that 'group selection' is risible and unworthy of intellectual consideration... Sober and D. S. Wilson are two of the leading thinkers in evolutionary biology who have made group selection respectable again and rescued altruism and many other supposedly counter-intuitive behavioural traits, from that contortionist potpourri of selfish-genery, inclusive fitness theory and game theory...[Unto Others] is a step in the right direction towards a truly new Darwinism. (Gabby Dover Times Higher Education Supplement)

Unto Others is an important, original, and well-written book. It contains the definitive contemporary statement on higher-level selection and the evolutionary origin of cooperation. (E. O. Wilson)

This provocative, important book outlines an evolutionary theory of altruism, examining past theoretical problems--in particular, how to distinguish altruism and selfish (or hedonistic) motives. Drawing deeply and judiciously on research in theoretical biology, social psychology, philosophy, and anthropology, Sober and Wilson--both long-standing and eminent participants in controversies about the evolution of altruism--make two major claims: first, that 'natural selection is unlikely to have given us purely egoistic motives,' second, that the much-maligned concept of group selection--the idea that natural selection sometimes operates at the level of the group--may be a mechanism for the evolution of altruism...Readers will be impressed by the breadth of the analysis and, especially, the extraordinary clarity of the presentation. This will most likely be regarded as a landmark, if controversial, work. It is a testament to the authors' understanding and skill as writers that it is also fun to read. (R. R. Cornelius Choice)

Unto Others, written by two eminent scholars, a philosopher (Elliott Sober) and a biologist (David Wilson) who have thought long and hard about unselfish cooperative behavior and group selection, is bound to have a long-lasting and strong influence on the field of evolutionary biology...In this book, philosophical and biological discourse are tightly woven together into an easy-to-read package. The major appeal of this book to those interested in he comparative and evolutionary study of behavior centers on the broad range of material that Sober and Wilson consider in arguing for group selection...All in all, Unto Others is a good read...I'm sure all readers will come away from this stimulating book having learned a lot and having had their own views challenged by this thoughtful and very timely essay. (Marc Bekoff Ethology)

Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; New Ed edition (October 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674930479
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674930476
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #954,474 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Altruism has always been a problem for evolutionists. How does one explain a creature giving up something for another, sometimes its very life? Why, for example, will a monkey give a warning cry that alerts other members of the troop, but that gives away its own position? How could genes governing such behavior persist in the relentless competition for a place in the genome?
The kinds of reasoning used to explain behavior that is good for the group but perhaps not so good for the individual performing it is as old as Darwin. Until George Williams demolished whole classes of argument in his lovely 1966 book, "Adaptation and Natural Selection", it was common to invoke "group selection" as an analog to individual selection, and explain, in a vague, hand-waving sort of way, how altruistic behavior could arise by enhancing the survival of the herd, or school, or flock. And after Dawkins, both the individual and the group were banished from consideration, and the selfish gene reigned supreme.
Only one category of altruism has been taken as consonant with the unit of replication being the gene, namely "kin selection". This is the favoring of relatives: since relatives share genes, helping a gene-mate helps one's own genes, whether or not it benefits one's self. Yet much altruism in nature goes unexplained by kin selection. Think of the soldier who falls on the hand grenade so his (unrelated) buddies can live. There are many more examples from the lives of many creatures, most of whom never saw a war movie. How does one explain the clear patterns of altruistic behavior in animals at all levels of consciousness and cuddliness?
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Format: Hardcover
For more than a generation now, students of evolutionary biology have been taught that natural selection is a process that works on individuals. Where there is a conflict between the good of the individual and the good of the community, the selfish almost always prevails. There are good theoretical reasons to believe this should be so. Most of the work that has been done in the last century to turn Darwin's theory into a quantitative science seems to point in that direction. Individual selection should be fast and efficient; group selection slow and unreliable. Yet the biological world that we see seems to fly in the face of this conclusion. So much of the adaptation we see in the natural world looks like it benefits the community or the species, often at the expense of the individual. So the pure individual selectionists (99% of evolutionary biologists today) have had to concoct a series of excuses, kluges, and workarounds. There are a multitude of reasons! that what looks like a group adaptation is really an individual adaptation. Most of our community has unthinkingly adopted the view that the "selfish gene" perspective holds a key to understanding the "illusion" of group selection. Wilson has been working for 20 years to reform this situation, and to restore common sense. If it looks like a group adaptation, it probably is a group adaptation. No surprise here - except to that 99% of the academic community who has been raised to think that "group selection" is a dirty word - something like "Lamarckism" or "Creationism". Wilson's book is just the kick in the pants that the 99% of us need. It is readable, yet meticulously documented.Read more ›
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Is there empirical, biological, and evolutionary justification that mankind acts with unselfish behavior? The authors approach the subject of human altruism and the biological advantages of multilevel (group) selection vis-a-vis human egoism, hedonism, anti-functionalism, and individual functionalism from an interdisciplinary, but primarily evolutionary, approach.

The first half of the book deals with biology, genetics, and anthropology that provide the empirical grounds and logical inferences for believing that multi-level functionalism (groups and stratification) as opposed to individual-only and anti-functionalism evolved through natural selection by rewarding the fittest group selection, social norms, group adaptation, and cultural evolution, just as it rewards the fittest individual. Ergo, just as natural selection favors the fittest individuals, so it favors those individuals who cooperate in the traits of the fittest groups that survive over many generations.

The second section of the book takes the multi-level functionalism and altruism of the first half and evaluates arguments for and against it from psychological, motivational, and philosophical perspectives. While largely armchair speculation (due to lack of empirical studies confined to products of evolution rather than the actual process of evolution), the authors conclude again that natural selection again favors the fittest group, multi-level functionalism, and altruism over egoism, hedonism, selfishness, and individual selection only.
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