The Role of Altruism in Human Evolution

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The origin of altruism is one of the most interesting topics in contemporary evolutionary debate. Are human beings essentially selfish, transcending their instincts so as better to live together? Or are they basically altruistic, only selfish in response to the ups and downs of social living?

David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University has built his reputation with nuanced and profound contributions to this debate. His new book, Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others, explores the idea that altruism plays a key role in the social organization of groups. The book, co-published by the Templeton Press and Yale University Press, is part of a series titled Foundational Questions in Science.

“Wilson provides the clearest explanation I have seen yet of how selfish-gene theorists, evolutionary-game theorists, and kin selectionists all employ group-selection logic without realizing or admitting it,” writes Oren Harman of Bar-Ilan University in The Chronicle of Higher Education. And all have the same goal, he says: to put to rest millenniums of debate concerning the nature of man, good or bad. Harman’s review also mentions the Science of Generosity Initiative, another project funded by the Foundation, which has worked to link generosity and altruism and herald the resulting benefits.

Economist Herbert Gintis hails the book as “a brilliant contribution to this branch of sociopolitical discourse” in Nature, and Bob Grant of The Scientist attests that Wilson “argues that the social phenomenon does indeed exist and constructs a solid theoretical foundation for how the selfless behavior evolved and operates in social animals, especially humans.”

“This work on altruism…extends across a range of problems including religion,” says science philosopher Michael Ruse. “If you only read one book on the topic, make it this one.”