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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars good science swamped by storytelling, April 27, 2005
This review is from: Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (Paperback)
I am speaking from the point of view of graduate student studying evolutionary biology.

The first section of this book is one of the clearest written accounts of group selection theory. Group level selection happens when traits are selected BECAUSE they are helpful to that group (usually a group of organisms, but some point out that individuals themselves are groups of cells). Sometimes this level of selection can be antagonistic to traits selected for at the individual level. It is well known that genetic inheritance passes through individuals. Hence the reason why existence of altruism, where an individual sacrifices its fitness for the good of group, is such a controversial topic. Of specific importance to this topic is Wilson and Sober's presentation of the Price equation, which outlines the neccessary states for group level selection to occur. Essentially, variation BETWEEN groups must be greater than variation WITHIN groups. This equation is elegant and fundamentaly irrefutable. Another important topic that Wilson and Sober present in this section is the averaging fallacy, averaging out fitness without regard to group structure. People have used this type of averaging to say that because indivduals do better when they help their group that selection is really happening at the individual level. The use of this average DOES say that those individuals are more fit but it DOES NOT say anying about levels of selection, because the averaging method ignores group structure from the outset and thus excludes the possibility that group selection could explain the results!

As the above comments reflect, Wilson and Sober have gathered together a very comprehensive set of solid theory on levels of selection. Where the book goes wrong is when Wilson and Sober start telling stories (after having promised not to do exactly that). The last two chapters of the first section deal with cultural inheritance, and such things the low cost of punishment within a group. The book degenerates severely from there in terms of scientific quality, and relies on anecdotal evidence (stories). Some of this is fun to think about, but it should be taken with many grains of salt.

Overall, Wilson and Sober have presented and communicated a set contemporary work that shows very clearly that group level selection can and probably does occur. Unfortunately, they have muddied this important contribution by trying to overreach their thesis by creating too tenuous a link between altruism based on genetic inheritence and human culture, and then using human culture as a metaphor for the evolution of altuism in other organisms. Read this book for the real and important contributions, but read it critically and do not swallow every argument whole. As John Maynard Smith said of the book, "to do so would be disaterous."
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