44 of 53 people found the following review helpful
An antidote to what we've been taught about group selection,
By A Customer
This review is from: Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (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. He traces the history of our prejudice against group selection, and exposes the faulty logic in those kluges and workarounds. Group selection really is necessary to explain what we observe in nature. Then, he goes on to offer us the th! eoretical foundation we need to make group selection plausi! ble. There are mechanisms overlooked by the quantitative theorists that make group selection a far more viable process than they give it credit for. If you're a lay person, you may think "of course - what's the big deal." But if you're an academic evolutionist educated in the last 30 years, you need this book; your thinking about altruism and fitness of communities will be changed forever. All this is in the first half of the book. The second half, presumably contributed by Sober, is much less focused and scientific, more apt to dwell on definitions and philosophical distinctions. The attempt to connect the sound conclusions of the book's first half to attitudes about human cultures is both more speculative and somehow less ambitious and important than the book's first half.