The Biology of Being Good to Others


H. Allen Orr reviews David Sloan Wilson's Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others in the NYRB (illustration designed by Linley Sambourne and engraved by Joseph Swain, from Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby, 1885):

David Sloan Wilson has focused on these twin biological problems for several decades. Wilson, the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University, is widely regarded by biologists as a partisan in this debate. He has been the indefatigable champion of one particular theory, “multilevel selection,” for much of his career. This theory, it seems fair to say, has been a minority view among evolutionists. Ask one how altruism evolves and you are very unlikely to hear “by multilevel selection.”

But Wilson, who has written several books on evolution, does something unexpected in his new book. He announces that the problem of altruism has been definitively solved and that the levels-of-selection debate has been finally resolved. In fact it’s so resolved, he tells us, that it remains of interest only to historians of science. Does Altruism Exist?aims to present this “postresolution” view of how natural selection acts to the general reader.

As you might guess, Wilson’s own theory fares well in this postresolution view. Wilson thinks that multilevel selection (which I’ll explain below) not only accounts for altruism, it also provides a powerful way to think about, and even to help guide, the evolution of human social institutions like economies. The connection between how natural selection shapes the biological world and how human social institutions are arranged may not be obvious, but Wilson believes that the connection is both deep and important.

To begin at the end, Wilson’s answer to his titular question is yes, altruism exists. But getting to this answer requires some work. Wilson starts by distinguishing actions from thoughts. Thoughts, feelings, and rhetoric matter when it comes to altruism only insofar as they motivate actions that actually improve the welfare of a group. The actions that most matter are those that contribute to “group-level functional organization”: altruistic behavior by an individual can contribute to the smooth functioning of some group, whether an ant colony or a band of human hunters.

How can this smooth functioning of a group evolve? Wilson is certain that it’s not by selecting for the fittest individuals within a group, as the popular picture of natural selection would suggest. The reason is simple. Tradeoffs are the norm in life and when individuals act to further their own interests they generally don’t further the interests of the group. Indeed individuals can often do best by cheating, that is by shirking their group duties and looking out for numero uno.

More here.