Cooperation and selfless behaviour appear to be obvious and necessary characteristics of the human condition, but are they merely enlightened self-interest in disguise? David Sloan Wilson’s new book, Does Altruism Exist?, is a vehicle which promotes his views on the evolution of selflessness, especially, but not exclusively, within human communities. It is a topic of considerable interest to evolutionary biologists, such as the author, because altruism as a concept appears to run contrary to the idea of “The Selfish Gene” conceptualised by Richard Dawkins. But altruism has broader appeal as it raises fundamental questions about human nature, notably, what, if anything, makes us different from other species; in addition, the common assumption is that altruism in the right dosage makes the world a better, safer place. Wilson’s broad conclusion is that human societies represent “evolution’s latest major transition”, with the individuals in a group functioning rather like the specialised cells of a complex multicellular organism.
Although the question posed in the title is considered to be complex and controversial, for all practical purposes it is surprisingly easily answered by considering altruism in terms of actions, regardless of whether such actions are prompted by altruism as defined by “psychological motive”. Most religions, for example, promote the idea of people caring for one another which often results in altruistic behaviour. But such notions of care are often backed up by a system of rewards and sanctions which blur the issue of personal motivation.
Having persuaded us that altruism, defined as actions, does exist, the book moves on to considering the more perplexing question of how altruism evolves. Wilson’s background allows him to draw on examples from the worlds of viruses, insects and non-human primates before applying his conclusions to humankind and the implications for religion, our understanding of micro and macro-economics (concluding that greed is not good) and, finally, our planet as the ultimate “common pool resource”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for an author deeply ingrained in the academic world, the style is like a series of lectures with each chapter beginning by telling us what we are going to learn and ending by reminding us how far we have journeyed to understand that particular topic. The emphasis is on the first person, singular and plural; tutor and pupils.
Wilson sums up his answer to the question of how altruism evolves by stating that “selfishness beats altruism within groups; altruistic groups beat selfish groups”. Individuals within a group who behave selfishly will, according to the rules of selection, become dominant unless rules are introduced which suppress selfish behaviour and encourage cooperation. He then argues that competition between groups selects for those groups whose members cooperate successfully; these then grow and develop at the expense of groups whose members are mostly selfish. Applying these ideas to human history, Wilson concludes, altruism can be thought of as a process of “multi-level cultural evolution supported by mechanisms of group level functional organisation”, and that these mechanisms are themselves mechanistically diverse.
The concept of group selection is not widely accepted in the field of evolutionary biology, nor is the idea, implied in this book, that there is a genetic basis to belief in God. Most other work in the area emphasises reciprocity, loosely translated as ”you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”, as the key driver for the evolution of altruistic behaviour. Such ideas are treated here as if they are attacks upon Wilson’s hypothesis rather than the well-evidenced mainstream scientific view that they genuinely represent. In any field of study several theories may be proposed which attempt to explain current understanding. Such theories are described as being “equivalent” when they represent merely different perspectives with the same outcome. Equivalent theories, therefore, may co-exist whereas alternative theories, which anticipate different outcomes, may not. Readers of this book will have to decide whether “reciprocity” and “group selection” are equivalent or alternative theories of how altruism evolves in man and other species. The weight of scientific opinion appears to support the latter and prefers reciprocity over group selection.