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A powerful treatise that demonstrates the existence of altruism in nature with surprising implications for human society Does altruism exist? Or is human nature entirely selfish? In this elouent and accessible book famed biologist David Sloan Wilson provides new answers to this age old uestion based on the latest developments in evolutionary science   From an evolutionary viewpoint Wilson argues altruism is inextricably linked to the functional organization of groups “Groups that work” undeniably exist in nature and human society although special conditions are reuired for their evolution Humans are one of the most groupish species on earth in some ways comparable to social insect colonies and multi cellular organisms The case that altruism evolves in all social species is surprisingly simple to make   Yet the implications for human society are far from obvious Some of the most venerable criteria for defining altruism aren’t worth caring much about any than we care much whether we are paid by cash or check Altruism defined in terms of thoughts and feelings is notably absent from religion even though altruism defined in terms of action is notably present The economic case for selfishness can be decisively rejected The uality of everyday life depends critically on people who overtly care about the welfare of others Yet like any other adaptation altruism can have pathological manifestations Wilson concludes by showing how a social theory that goes beyond altruism by focusing on group function can help to improve the human condition

10 thoughts on “Does Altruism Exist?

  1. says:

    It must be a good book It must be Because 1 it is written by D S Wilson and 2 it is about my favorite subject tackled in an evolutionary way Of course everything cultural brought under the spotlight of evolution grabs my attentionThe conversation between Tom Stoppard and D S Wilson about altruism the subject of his latest book this one I mean is uite excellent

  2. says:

    Almost 5 star territory Big idea book Wilson has long been one of the primary advocates for group level selection Here he lays out how altruism which is hard to explain in standard evolutionary theory can be explained as the result of multi level selection the new terminology for group level selection without any intent of altruism Wilson walks through an example with simple arithmetic of how a group with altruisists can outcompete a group of selfish individuals and thus foster altruists in the entire population Some of the rationale is difficult; Wilson does a pretty good job of explaining it but it was tedious at points I got bogged down momentarily but the big idea kept my ploughing my way through The end result was very rewarding

  3. says:

    Read this for a review journal and was pleasantly surprised as the subject matter was not on my list of interest After reading the book would like to read Wilson's other book Darwin's Cathedral as I think his writing style is accessible to the layperson and reads well not dry I found the economics chapter rather interesting esp his thoughts on Wall Street and Ayn Rand If you are on the fence read it interesting and painless

  4. says:

    The answer to this uestion is a definitive yes but not surprisingly needs a nuanced response when digging into the motivations and context of altruistic decisions Selfishness beats altruism within groups Altruistic groups beat selfish groups Everything else is commentary Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson wrote this as a summary of sociobiology in a different article but could have been the description of this book too He makes the case that action versus feelings distal environmental factors vs proximate physical basis or the number of other prosocial folks around are additional factors that should be used to determine the deeper reasons of altruistic acts

  5. says:

    It was a very enjoyable and invigorating read The first half of the book was difficult to navigate but with time and effort most of the essential machinery and arguments developed there made the second half of the book which looked at altruism in different situations very intriguing This book makes me want to read into the subject which I believe is one of the objectives of the book Looking forward to reading the references listed to gain insights to supplement what I have already gained in this book

  6. says:

    very detailed and after reading this book it made me want to be pro society faith in humanity restored

  7. says:

    What can evolution teach us about crafting social policy? When we think of evolution and public policy sometimes we think of the social darwinism that arose in the late 19th century and still dominates a fair amount of policy thinking today But social darwinism is pretty maladaptive from a societal perspective David Sloan Wilson explores the role that altruistic actions in conseuence than intent purely altruistic intent is something that as he points out almost never appears in culture or religion are an essential part of group cohesion Cooperation he argues is a key part of what differentiates us as a species Alone among primate species we crossed the threshold from groups of organisms to groups as organisms And as he likewise notes Understanding how groups become functionally organized is a prereuisite for making the world a better place The conditions for such functional organization are pretty much what one would expect and are ancillary to most of his arguments but Sloan Wilson's systematic approach to the issue is what makes the book such a worthwhile read

  8. says:

    Wow Where to even begin with this book it's actually one of the most straight forward succinct explanations of the evolutionary foundation for altruism I could have expected with just enough depth to secure understanding by the reader but not overload them with evolutionary jargon and a plethora of resources that need to be investigated to satisfy said understanding I think it has greatly sharpened my ability to explicate my own worldviewThe seemingly obvious distinction between altruism 'defined at the level of action' and psychology based altruism 'defined at the level of thoughts and feelings' is so critical to consider when thinking about the pragmatics of altruism within a society Because the latter is so much less transparent when it comes to empirical research it's often in our best interest to maintain our focus how altruism manifests itself in a way that we care about namely that of actions within society As with any moral judgements the psychological intentions seem to be important insofar as they are predictive of future behavioractions The apt analogy used by Wilson that worrying about psychological altruism being possible or not is akin to obsessing whether your friend pays you back for a loan with cash or check What we mainly care about is getting paid back just as we mainly care about the actions of others we interact withThe distinction between ultimate and proximate causes of altruistic actions as analogous to adaptations within the evolution of biological creatures was also a fantastic parallel to better understand how altruism can and should be discussesThere is also a great coverage of the the relevant views that Adam Smith held with respect to economics and the 'invisible hand effect' how we have the capacity to 'play our role without knowing our role' and where the limitation lie with this idea in economics individual evolutionary fitness and group based selection With this Wilson goes on to beautifully disembowel the ideology that is 'Ayn Rand fundamentalism' highlighting exactly where the extrapolation of 'greed for the individual as being necessarily beneficial to society as a whole' goes awry He then precisely highlights the parallels of such an ideology as a secular religion with those of classical theologies and why they are eually incorrect yet remain effective at various levels of groups within a society based on the allure they have namely that being selfish is moralwoot and by being altruistic I achieve eternity in paradisewoot This is explained alongside the origin of the term 'altruism' as coined by Auguste Comte living with a pre darwinian worldview seeks to develop a humanist morality that was superior to contemporary theologies and why his attempt failed to catch on while the false ideologies continued to flourishThe only caveat I have in this 5 star rating is that I recognize the idea of group selection within the field of evolutionary biology has been an extremely controversial topic for decades and any easy pitfalls I might fall into as a non expert reader are certainly things I would be vulnerable to Namely the claim is the depending on the dynamics of the groupsociety individual altruism can be detrimental to the individual but allow the group to outcompete other groups Selfishness typically beats altruism within groups Altruistic groups beat selfish groups Everything else is commentary This parallel is noticed in bees ants and many other species where a collective of individuals can be seen as a 'superorganism' Nonetheless Wilson does his due diligence in explaining why the paradigm shift reluctance persisted for so long regarding group selection theory and why it doesn't undermine selfish gene theory inclusive fitness theory kin selection and evolutionary game theory Overall I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the scientific origins of altruism as well as an overview of how its manifested in religious communities political ideologies and at various tiers within any social hierarchy

  9. says:

    Wilson uses this short rambling book to extend his position that the group selection debate is settled suggesting it's time to get on with revisiting topics such as altruism through the lens of multilevel selection theory Wilson recounts the growing scientific consensus on his core uestion to confirm that Spoiler Alert altruism exists This isn't news exactly; in a 2007 paper Wilson and EO Wilson concluded that Selfishness beats altruism within groups Altruistic groups beat selfish groups Everything else is commentary Apparently commentary is necessary because DS Wilson continues to beat the drumAlthough Wilson states his book is intended for all audiences it is loaded with concepts and terminology that demand some prior knowledge He also assumes interest in the 50 year academic controversy about group selection theory The third chapter 14 of the book's 149 pages is an essay on euivalence revisiting the group selection controversy to advance the idea that two theories can co exist This may be interesting to his academic audiencebut really? 14 pages?Like many who missed the controversy only joining the conversation in the past 10 years I came to this book agreeable to the premise of multilevel selection Nonetheless I am not convinced Wilson makes the case for altruism except narrowly defined as an evolved prosocial behavior Selfishness beats altruism within groups Altruistic groups beat selfish groups Sure so altruism is any adaptive thing that increases the fitness and success of the group The fact that human groups everywhere always have altruistic type behaviour baked into their organizing functions reveals the essential role of that adaption As revealed in this book and most of Wilson's work the challenge begins when we try to put that diverse thing into words to attempt to rationalize something we can see And of course there is disagreement on definitions Ultimately much of this book reads like a tiresome fight over semantics Rather disappointing given Wilson is so adamant that it's time to move onBonus points for the slap down of the Ayn Rand cult

  10. says:

    The answer to the title's uestion is unsurprisingly yes but the argument supporting the answer is certainly not trivial Wilson arrives at the answer only after careful analysis eg by making a distinction between altruism in action and altruism in thought The book is based on the notion of group selection in evolution a concept recently rehabilitated by among others the author himself Group selection or generally multi level selection can occur under fairly well defined circumstances overriding or modifying ordinary individual selection Rather than disproving the selfish gene theory Wilson clarifies why and how that theory is not and cannot be the whole answerWilson also ventures into the arena of politics and philosophy which is a dangerous thing for biologists and evolutionists in particular to do But he pulls it off admirably The discussion centers around Elinor Ostrom's theory of how the tragedy of the commons can be avoided a prime example of altruism in action and the connection of this concept to evolutionary mechanisms is explored An interesting and provocative observation is that altruism is actually a modern concept and does not figure in the major religions at least not under the definition used by Wilson