Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others.

AuthorMontanye, James A.
PositionBook review

Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others

By David Sloan Wilson

New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press; West Conshohocken, Pa.: Templeton Press, 2015.

Pp. x, 180. $27.50 cloth.

Do (or ought) individuals sacrifice their own fitness for the good of others? Theologians cite scripture as proof that altruistic almsgiving is demanded by God. Philosophers argue that altruism is in part a moral duty and in part a matter of eudaemonic ethics. Economists view altruism as an aspect of nonmarket behavior that operates within families, but typically not within firms. Biologists of various stripes (evolutionists, geneticists, behaviorists, etc.) observe that altruism occurs roughly in proportion to kinship, but they often acknowledge as well the need for a better explanation of the phenomenon. A small but perhaps growing minority of biologists claim that a comprehensive explanation is at hand.

In Does Altruism Exist? biologist David Sloan Wilson argues that altruism in its purest form exists where "group-level functional organization evolves primarily by natural selection between groups" (p. 21). More generally, he asserts that (1) "[i]f by altruism we mean traits that evolve by virtue of benefitting whole groups, despite being selectively disadvantageous within groups, then altruism indubitably exists and accounts for the group-level functional organization that we see in nature" (p. 141); (2) "[a]ltruism also exists as a criterion that people use for adopting behaviors and policies, with the welfare of whole groups in mind rather than more narrow individual and factional interests" (p. 141); and (3) "[f]inally, if by altruism we mean a broad family of motives that cause people to score high on a PROSOCIALITY scale [measuring 'altruism at the level of action'] by agreeing with statements such as 'I think it's important to help other people,' then altruism also exists, although more in some people than others" (p. 141, capitalization in original).

Readers who are predisposed toward Wilson's views will find this book affirming. Progressives and communitarians will welcome its proffering of scientific support for neoliberal political agendas, as will individuals seeking scientific arguments by which to claim genetic superiority for particular ethnic and religious groups. Skeptics, by contrast, are unlikely to be persuaded that Wilson's book presages a Kuhnian paradigm shift within biology. Previously uninitiated readers may be confused by the book's discursiveness.

This work is the first underwritten in the John Templeton Foundation book series Foundational Questions in Science. Wilson, who has been publishing on evolution, altruism, and related topics since the 1970s, holds a distinguished professorship in biology and anthropology at Binghamton University. He also heads a research organization, the Evolution Institute, that analyzes and interprets contemporary social issues through the lens of Darwinian natural selection. He characterizes this book as being the first of its kind to resolve altruism's evolutionary status and to link natural selection with public policy.

Wilson characterizes the ostensible importance of his work along the following lines: "If we want to solve the most pressing problems of our age, such as world peace and global environmental sustainability, then more cultural evolution is required and it must be guided by a sophisticated knowledge of evolution.... Future social arrangements need to be based more on intentional planning than ever before. This does not necessarily mean centralized planning; it can also include the smart design of decentralized processes.... The selection of best practices must be intentional because we cannot wait for natural selection and there is no process ... to select for functional organization at the planetary scale.... [W]e need to become wise managers of variation and selection processes ... [and] we must choose policies with the welfare of the whole world in mind" (pp. 88, 114, 146, 149, emphasis in original). His rhetoric implies progressive political liberalism and is faintly reminiscent of progressive...

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