Nice Genes

Oren Harman in The New Republic:

Book The saga of man’s quest to crack the mystery of altruism is a weird, uplifting, and sometimes tragic affair. Its heroes include a bearded Russian anarchist prince who thought mankind needed to learn a lesson from the animals; a bushy-browed loner who asked to be laid out in the Brazilian rainforest so that his body could be buried and then eaten by beetles; and the enigmatic suicide in a dingy London apartment of an atheist-chemist turned religious evolutionarymathematician. The tale invites to the stage spitting tadpoles and “free-riding” cuckoo birds, naked blind mole rats, and some over-abused stepchildren of man. It spans the globe from the Siberian tundra to the South American tropics to the African plains, and gallops in time from Aristotle and Aquinas, through Hume and Adam Smith, to the “last man to know all there is to know,” and then all the way to economists, anthropologists, and brain imagers today.

In his slim book, the biologist Lee Alan Dugatkin skillfully presents the fabulous tale of modern biology’s wrestling with the problem of altruism. After Darwin found “altruism” in nature, a debate broke out between his “bulldog” Thomas Huxley and Pyotr Kropotkin about whether competition or cooperation is the norm in the living world. After all, cooperation was an anomaly in a Darwinian world that was all about struggle and survival. But since it was nonetheless observed in nature, people tried to explain how what seemed like acts of kindness could have arisen over evolutionary time. For a while the answer was that “friendly” groups will have a leg up on groups with selfish fellows, a solution that Darwin himself seemed to arrive at years before. But in the 1960s Bill Hamilton punched a great big hole in this feel-good “togetherness” story. Formalizing a quip made by J. B. S. Haldane, he explained “altruism” by looking at the world from an entirely surprising angle: benevolence could arise in nature precisely because selfish genes were running the show.

More here.