David Sloan Wilson Asks: Does Altruism Exist?

Our ideas are, of course, colored by our experiences and environment. It seems likely that those of us who spend time studying ants and other social hymenoptera might lean towards thinking about superorganism concepts and multilevel selection. We are also likely to be or become interested in altruism. If that is the case, you might want to take a look at David Sloan Wilson's new book Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others (Foundational Questions in Science).


Right up front, Dr. Wilson only briefly mentions social insects and spends a much greater amount of time laying out the thoughts that economists, philosophers, psychologists, and others have about altruism and human behavior, topics which might not be as familiar to people trained in biology. Dr. Wilson is an evolutionary biologist, however, so he examines human behavior through a recognizable lens.

Wilson defines altruism as an intentional act that improves the welfare of others at a cost to, or at least no benefit to, the actor. After introducing the ideas of superorganisms and group-level selection, Wilson quickly determines that altruism does indeed exist, but that it is a group-level rather than individual-level phenomenon. He also takes studying altruism to a new place by separating the act of altruism from any apparent motivations for acting (a necessarily murky area). He then looks for examples of how this works in religion, in economics, and in communities. He reveals that altruism can at times be pathological, for example in cases of co-dependency. In the final chapter on "Planetary Altruism," Wilson moves into the realm of group-level functions at the level of the world as a whole.

As the author points out in the introduction, this slim volume is the first in a series of "short books on big questions" being published by Templeton Press and Yale University Press. In this case size does matter, which may be frustrating to those who want more than a concise (read narrow?) overview of the topic. Years of thought and research, or whole books are necessarily condensed into single paragraphs, in fact sometimes even into single sentences. It all feels very much like the tip of a very big (and possibly unstable) iceberg.

Because of its complexity and potential for controversy, Does Altruism Exist? really needs to be read deeply and preferably discussed/debated with others. It would be excellent as the basis of a semester-long graduate-level discussion seminar.

Have you read it? What did you think?

Series: Foundational Questions in Science
Hardcover: 192 pages
Publisher: Yale University Press (January 13, 2015)
ISBN-10: 0300189494
ISBN-13: 978-0300189490

Disclosures:  This book review was based on a copy of the book I purchased. I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.

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