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

David Sloan Wilson. Yale Univ., $27.50 (192p) ISBN 978-0-300-18949-0
Wilson (The Neighborhood Project), president of the Evolution Institute, declares that the debate between proponents of kin selection and group selection has been firmly resolved in favor of the latter. Many in the kin selection camp will continue to disagree; still, Wilson's argument is fascinating. Biologist Lynn Margulis posited in the 1960s and 1970s that humans are in part the sum of organisms merging—multicellular organisms being "a group of groups of groups, whose members led more fractious lives" eons past. Examining superorganisms of varying levels of complexity, Wilson concludes that altruism within a group trumps selfishness. "Higher-level superorganisms such as nucleated cells, multicellular organisms, and eusocial insect colonies dominate their lower-level competitors," Wilson writes, noting that "when an ant colony moves into a rotten log, most of the solitary invertebrate species... are quickly displaced." He also clarifies that no organisms demonstrate pure altruism, though humans are capable of it. Alone among primates, humans transformed "from groups of organisms to groups as organisms," and represent "a major evolutionary transition." The rub: when altruistic groups beat selfish groups, they get bigger, and thus harder to manage. Still, Wilson thinks there will be "planetary altruists" yet. This is a fascinating, if inconclusive, take on altruism. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 03/16/2015
Release date: 01/01/2015
Genre: Nonfiction
Open Ebook - 191 pages - 978-0-300-20675-3
Paperback - 192 pages - 978-0-300-21988-3
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