David Sloan Wilson, one of the world's leading evolutionists, addresses a question that has puzzled philosophers, psychologists, and evolutionary biologists for centuries: Does altruism exist naturally among the Earth's creatures?
The key to understanding the existence of altruism, Wilson argues, is by understanding the role it plays in the social organization of groups. Groups that function like organisms indubitably exist, and organisms evolved from groups. Evolutionists largely agree on how functionally organized groups evolve, ending decades of controversy, but the resolution casts altruism in a new light: altruism exists but shouldn't necessarily occupy center stage in our understanding of social behavior.
After laying a general theoretical foundation, Wilson surveys altruism and group-level functional organization in our own species – in religion, in economics, and in the rest of everyday life. He shows that altruism is not categorically good and can have pathological consequences. Finally, he shows how a social theory that goes beyond altruism by focusing on group function can help to improve the human condition in a practical sense.
Does Altruism Exist? puts old controversies to rest and will become the center of debate for decades to come.
"Wilson argues his corner masterfully, providing a pithy riposte to the belief that natural selection occurs only at the level of the selfish gene [...] Wilson's fascinating gallop through religion, economics, politics and everyday life reveals many ways to activate altruism."
– Kate Douglas, New Scientist
"Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson's Does Altruism Exist? [is a] brilliant contribution to this branch of socio-political discourse."
– Herbert Gintis, Nature
"David Sloan Wilson has a nose for important problems and his writing is always interesting and provocative. This work on altruism – which extends across a range of problems including religion – will enhance his deservedly high reputation. If you read only one book on the topic, make it this one."
– Michael Ruse, Director of the Program in History and Philosophy of Science, Florida State University
"David Sloan Wilson's special take on the evolution of altruism, and how in our species it is fortified by religion and morality, has inspired fierce debate. It is explained here in a most lively and readable manner."
– Frans de Waal, author of The Bonobo and the Atheist
"In this highly readable book a remarkable philosophical mind is at work, inspired by applying evolutionary theory to real life as we know it. The message is that altruism is alive and well, and it can actually be taken into account as we plan a better modern life – as long as we focus on the right kinds of altruism."
– Chris Boehm, University of South California
"In this short and punchy book, [David Sloan Wilson] does an excellent job of explaining the relationship between the different theories and the now substantial evidence that we have indeed evolved to do each other good turns."
– Financial Times
"The encouraging message is that we do have the resources to be better [...] This requires foremost that we believe in the goodness of others. So reading these powerful new books on the existence of altruism could be the first step to making the world a nicer place."
– Stephen Cave, Financial Times
"[Does Altruism Exist?] explores the question of whether altruism exists or if humans are entirely selfish, citing the evolutionary evidence of the functional organization of groups. [It] discusses groups that work; how altruism evolves; equivalence; considering whether altruism exists by examining humans and their distinctive properties in addition to other species [...] "
– Journal of Economic Literature
"This book is an important discourse on not only defining altruism but, more importantly, how it can be used to make a society more sustainable. It is appropriate for undergraduate and graduate students in psychology, political science, and behavioral economics."
– Robert D. Mather, PsycCRITIQUES
"Well written and easy to read [...] Something to think about."
– Jay R. Feierman, ESSSAT News & Reviews
Introduction: Altruism and Evolution 3
1. Groups That Work 7
2. How Altruism Evolves 19
3. Equivalence 31
4. From Nonhumans to Humans 47
5. Psychological Altruism 59
6. Altruism and Religion 75
7. Altruism and Economics 93
8. Altruism in Everyday Life 115
9. Pathological Altruism 133
10. Planetary Altruism 141
Works Cited 159
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David Sloan Wilson is president of the Evolution Institute and SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at the University of Binghamton. He is the author of Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society.