Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Other Sellers on Amazon
+ $3.99 shipping
+ $3.99 shipping
Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others (Foundational Questions in Science) Hardcover – January 13, 2015
"Children of Blood and Bone"
Tomi Adeyemi conjures a stunning world of dark magic and danger in her West African-inspired fantasy debut. Pre-order today
Frequently bought together
Customers who bought this item also bought
Customers who viewed this item also viewed
About the Author
Top customer reviews
There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.
This elegant, concise volume contains many surprises. It’s not commonly known, for example, that religions do NOT generally draw on altruism at the level of thoughts and feelings to motivate people’s altruism. Instead, religions promote altruism through actions. (p. 89) In other words, the old saying “It’s the thought that counts” gets things backwards. Careful research, well-explained by Wilson’s to-the-point descriptions, reveals that it’s the act that counts. (Let that be a lesson to us.)
Wilson approaches his understanding of altruism through the prism of evolutionary theory, which provides a dramatic, scientifically grounded new perspective. This is important—often, we imagine we know what works in helping others, and so we set up frameworks for examining altruism that serve as a bulwark for our own beliefs. Evolutionary theory provides a much broader, and in surprising ways, more compassionate way of viewing and understanding altruism that also allows us to form models of practical, workable, “organism level” (p. 144) altruism. In fact, approaching matters through evolutionary perspectives can allow us to see symbolic thought itself as a nongenetic inheritance system (pp. 54-56).
August Comte coined the word altruism in the mid-1800s while he was trying to create a moral system without belief in God. As Wilson notes apropos Comte: “Happiness and progress were…a matter of promoting universal altruism through a purely scientific religion of humanity.” (p. 90). Comte’s experiment, sadly, was a failure. This isn’t at all to say that religion is the sine qua non for altruism—but rather, that there is something deeper than meets the eye in social structures that promote altruism.
These “deeper than meets the eye” aspects of altruism are carefully explored in the 150 beautifully written pages of this book. We get a succinct and pithy overview of one of evolutionary biology’s long-time controversies—that of group selection. As Wilson neatly summarizes: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.” (p. 23). The wonderfully consilient scientific paradigm of equivalence is put forth to help explain the controversy. It seems in science that some seemingly divergent perspectives can ultimately be proven to be different sides of the same coin.
This book leaves us with an outstanding framework to help us understand one of the greatest issues of modern times—how to organize societies, and not necessarily from top down, so they function well at larger and larger scales.
Wilson asks in the title of his provocative volume—Does Altruism Exist? I think you’ll be more than satisfied with his answer.
Applying scientific principles to human society is hard. Society is a perfect example of a complex dynamical adaptive nonlinear system. Moreover, it is non-ergodic: rapid technical change, increased population density and globalization mean that we cannot reliably predict the future from the past. Even human nature, forged in the remote Pleistocene, turns out to be stunningly plastic.
Wilson's question is: does altruism, or actions mainly benefiting unrelated others at personal cost, exist? How could anyone doubt it? We give to charity, vote for public education even when we have no children, volunteer to fight and die in war. People regularly conform to social norms even when no one is looking, and sanction the anti-social behavior of others even when it is costly to do so. Yet for decades a countervailing theory has held in biology and economics.
Richard Dawkins, in his wildly popular The Selfish Gene, reflects the current opinion among biologists in 1976: "Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish." Some 45 years later, in a letter to Nature, 134 prominent evolutionary biologists petitioned that "natural selection leads organisms to become adapted as if to maximize their inclusive fitness" -- meaning that even in the most highly social species, individuals limit helping others as much as possible to genetic relatives. In fact, natural selection does nothing of the kind. Inclusive fitness maximization is a pious wish of many population biologists that has never been validated in theory or fact.
Wilson has struggled for decades against this received wisdom. His basic principle, delivered in a joint 2007 paper with Edward O. Wilson, is the group selection credo: "Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary." So within each social group, selfish individuals will do better than their altruistic counterparts, but groups with many altruists can outcompete groups with few. As Darwin noted in Descent of Man (Murray, 1871), a hunter-gatherer band with many brave, altruistic soldiers will triumph over a group with mostly selfish cowards, even though the best thing of all for an individual is to be a coward surrounded by brave compatriots. The mathematics supports this scenario.
It is fashionable to question this view, but the difficult theoretical issues have been resolved for decades. I go through the details in my article "Inclusive Fitness and the Sociobiology of the Genome," Biology & Philosophy 29,4 (2014):477-515. Groups do not mate or produce offspring, and hence do not have biological fitness. Rather, the particular social organization of a species, its mating patterns and social groupings, is inscribed in the genomes of members of the species. Groups with more successful social organization tend to enhance the fitness of their members, whose genomes code for this social organization. Altruism can evolve in such groups provided altruists tend to be grouped preferentially with other altruists, in which case their biological fitness can on average be at least as high as that of selfish types.
As Wilson shows, another important source of our success as a species is that human cultures stress cooperation within the group, and so punish antagonistic individuals. This has led to humans "domesticating themselves", favoring a human nature that is relatively docile and dependent upon the company of and approval of others. You can find the details in Ann Gibbons, "How we Tamed Ourselves-and Became Modern," Science 346,6208 (2014):405-406. But Wilson's book stands alone as a great introduction to the subject of human cooperation and prosociality.
Moreover, humans have evolved to be collaborative, coordinating their behaviour through each member of a team "reading the minds" of the others and identifying with common goals. This is described well in Michael Tomasello, A Natural History of Human Thinking (Harvard University Press, 2014).