Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior

Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior

No matter what we do, however kind or generous our deeds may seem, a hidden motive of selfishness lurks–or so science has claimed for years. This book, whose publication promises to be a major scientific event, tells us differently. In Unto Others philosopher Elliott Sober and biologist David Sloan Wilson demonstrate once and for all that unselfish behavior is in fact an important feature of both biological and human nature. Their book provides a panoramic view of altruism throughout the animal kingdom–from self-sacrificing parasites to insects that subsume themselves in the superorganism of a colony to the human capacity for selflessness–even as it explains the evolutionary sense of such behavior.

Explaining how altruistic behavior can evolve by natural selection, this book finally gives credence to the idea of group selection that was originally proposed by Darwin but denounced as heretical in the 1960s. With their account of this controversy, Sober and Wilson offer a detailed case study of scientific change as well as an indisputable argument for group selection as a legitimate theory in evolutionary biology.

Unto Others also takes a novel evolutionary approach in explaining the ultimate psychological motives behind unselfish human behavior. Developing a theory of the proximate mechanisms that most likely evolved to motivate adaptive helping behavior, Sober and Wilson show how people and perhaps other species evolved the capacity to care for others as a goal in itself.

A truly interdisciplinary work that blends biology, philosophy, psychology, and anthropology, this book will permanently change not just our view of selfless behavior but also our understanding of many issues in evolutionary biology and the social sciences.

In Unto Others, philosopher Elliott Sober and biologist David Sloan Wilson bravely attempt to reconcile altruism, both evolutionary and psychological, with the scientific discoveries that seem to portray nature as red in tooth and claw. The first half of the book deals with the evolutionary objection to altruism. For altruistic behavior to be produced by natural selection, it must be possible for natural selection to act on groups–but conventional wisdom holds that group selection was conclusively debunked by George Williams in Adaptation and Natural Selection. Sober and Wilson nevertheless defend group selection, instructively reviewing the arguments against it and citing important work that relies on it. They then discuss group selection in human evolution, testing their conclusions against the anthropological literature.

In the second half of the book, the question is whether any desires are truly altruistic. Sober and Wilson painstakingly examine psychological evidence and philosophical arguments for the existence of altruism, ultimately concluding that neither psychology nor philosophy is likely to decide the question. Fortunately, evolutionary biology comes to the rescue. Sober and Wilson speculate that creatures with truly altruistic desires are reproductively fitter than creatures without–altruists, in short, make better parents than do egoists.

Rich in information and insight, Unto Others is a book that will be seriously considered by biologists, philosophers, anthropologists, and psychologists alike. The interested amateur may find it difficult in places but worth the effort overall. –Glenn Branch

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3 Comments so far »

  1. James R. Mccall said,

    Wrote on July 27, 2011 @ 3:48 am

    38 of 39 people found the following review helpful:
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    The Invisible [Helping] Hand?, September 11, 2001
    By 
    James R. Mccall (Libertyville, IL USA) –
    (REAL NAME)
      

    This review is from: Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (Paperback)

    Altruism has always been a problem for evolutionists. How does one explain a creature giving up something for another, sometimes its very life? Why, for example, will a monkey give a warning cry that alerts other members of the troop, but that gives away its own position? How could genes governing such behavior persist in the relentless competition for a place in the genome?

    The kinds of reasoning used to explain behavior that is good for the group but perhaps not so good for the individual performing it is as old as Darwin. Until George Williams demolished whole classes of argument in his lovely 1966 book, “Adaptation and Natural Selection”, it was common to invoke “group selection” as an analog to individual selection, and explain, in a vague, hand-waving sort of way, how altruistic behavior could arise by enhancing the survival of the herd, or school, or flock. And after Dawkins, both the individual and the group were banished from consideration, and the selfish gene reigned supreme.

    Only one category of altruism has been taken as consonant with the unit of replication being the gene, namely “kin selection”. This is the favoring of relatives: since relatives share genes, helping a gene-mate helps one’s own genes, whether or not it benefits one’s self. Yet much altruism in nature goes unexplained by kin selection. Think of the soldier who falls on the hand grenade so his (unrelated) buddies can live. There are many more examples from the lives of many creatures, most of whom never saw a war movie. How does one explain the clear patterns of altruistic behavior in animals at all levels of consciousness and cuddliness? Wilson, a biologist, and Sober, a philosopher, dare to think the unthinkable, or at least the unfashionable: is it possible that individuals or groups really do play a replicator role in evolution? They believe that group selection deserves another chance, but this time more rigorously specified.

    I was very impressed with the first half of the book, in which they justify a group-selection model for adaptive evolution that can explain a persistent strain of altruism. What they show is that selection can take place at the level of a group of individuals in many more sorts of situations than were thought possible. (A nice bonus of this approach is that kin selection can be explained more simply using this more general context of the group.) Groups, however ephemeral, do have a role to play in selection.

    The second half of the book is less convincing, as it involves psychological and philosophical arguments for “psychological altruism” in humans (that is, you not only behave unselfishly, but “want” to behave unselfishly), which, by its very nature, is hard (or very hard) to tease out in experiments, or to introspect to. However, the authors are reasonably convincing that nature would most likely not employ some Rube Goldberg-type of mental devices that depended on hedonism (pleasure-and-pain-driven behavior) to accomplish important tasks, such as child-rearing, but rather build in directly the mechanism to make a parent care to care for its child. In that way, the care of its child would be a primary motivation, rather than an intrumental one (sorry about the jargon!) on the way to getting pleasure or avoiding pain. Parents will find this convincing, as the desire to take care of one’s children seems not to depend on how much we “enjoy” doing it.

    This book is detailed, conscientious and well-written, but it covers a lot of ground and many of its arguments, especially in the second part, are subtle. So I recommend reading it more than once: this is contentious material. While the authors do not make anything of the political and social implications of their work, these are always waiting in the wings. Altruism, after all, is in direct opposition to selfishness. Many people see in this a political point, and a social point. Those issues are not properly a part of such a work, but do give great interest to its arguments and conclusions. And whether or not its conclusions finally survive intact, this book’s arguments and approach seem exemplary and fruitful.

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  2. Francis F. Kilkenny "france_8" said,

    Wrote on July 27, 2011 @ 4:45 am

    42 of 49 people found the following review helpful:
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    An antidote to what we’ve been taught about group selection, July 18, 1998
    By A Customer

    For more than a generation now, students of evolutionary biology have been taught that natural selection is a process that works on individuals. Where there is a conflict between the good of the individual and the good of the community, the selfish almost always prevails. There are good theoretical reasons to believe this should be so. Most of the work that has been done in the last century to turn Darwin’s theory into a quantitative science seems to point in that direction. Individual selection should be fast and efficient; group selection slow and unreliable. Yet the biological world that we see seems to fly in the face of this conclusion. So much of the adaptation we see in the natural world looks like it benefits the community or the species, often at the expense of the individual. So the pure individual selectionists (99% of evolutionary biologists today) have had to concoct a series of excuses, kluges, and workarounds. There are a multitude of reasons! that what looks like a group adaptation is really an individual adaptation. Most of our community has unthinkingly adopted the view that the “selfish gene” perspective holds a key to understanding the “illusion” of group selection. Wilson has been working for 20 years to reform this situation, and to restore common sense. If it looks like a group adaptation, it probably is a group adaptation. No surprise here – except to that 99% of the academic community who has been raised to think that “group selection” is a dirty word – something like “Lamarckism” or “Creationism”. Wilson’s book is just the kick in the pants that the 99% of us need. It is readable, yet meticulously documented. He traces the history of our prejudice against group selection, and exposes the faulty logic in those kluges and workarounds. Group selection really is necessary to explain what we observe in nature. Then, he goes on to offer us the th! eoretical foundation we need to make group selection plausi! ble. There are mechanisms overlooked by the quantitative theorists that make group selection a far more viable process than they give it credit for. If you’re a lay person, you may think “of course – what’s the big deal.” But if you’re an academic evolutionist educated in the last 30 years, you need this book; your thinking about altruism and fitness of communities will be changed forever. All this is in the first half of the book. The second half, presumably contributed by Sober, is much less focused and scientific, more apt to dwell on definitions and philosophical distinctions. The attempt to connect the sound conclusions of the book’s first half to attitudes about human cultures is both more speculative and somehow less ambitious and important than the book’s first half.

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  3. Anonymous said,

    Wrote on July 27, 2011 @ 4:50 am

    11 of 13 people found the following review helpful:
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    good science swamped by storytelling, April 27, 2005
    By 
    Francis F. Kilkenny “france_8” (Charlottesville, VA USA) –
    (REAL NAME)
      

    This review is from: Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (Paperback)

    I am speaking from the point of view of graduate student studying evolutionary biology.

    The first section of this book is one of the clearest written accounts of group selection theory. Group level selection happens when traits are selected BECAUSE they are helpful to that group (usually a group of organisms, but some point out that individuals themselves are groups of cells). Sometimes this level of selection can be antagonistic to traits selected for at the individual level. It is well known that genetic inheritance passes through individuals. Hence the reason why existence of altruism, where an individual sacrifices its fitness for the good of group, is such a controversial topic. Of specific importance to this topic is Wilson and Sober’s presentation of the Price equation, which outlines the neccessary states for group level selection to occur. Essentially, variation BETWEEN groups must be greater than variation WITHIN groups. This equation is elegant and fundamentaly irrefutable. Another important topic that Wilson and Sober present in this section is the averaging fallacy, averaging out fitness without regard to group structure. People have used this type of averaging to say that because indivduals do better when they help their group that selection is really happening at the individual level. The use of this average DOES say that those individuals are more fit but it DOES NOT say anying about levels of selection, because the averaging method ignores group structure from the outset and thus excludes the possibility that group selection could explain the results!

    As the above comments reflect, Wilson and Sober have gathered together a very comprehensive set of solid theory on levels of selection. Where the book goes wrong is when Wilson and Sober start telling stories (after having promised not to do exactly that). The last two chapters of the first section deal with cultural inheritance, and such things the low cost of punishment within a group. The book degenerates severely from there in terms of scientific quality, and relies on anecdotal evidence (stories). Some of this is fun to think about, but it should be taken with many grains of salt.

    Overall, Wilson and Sober have presented and communicated a set contemporary work that shows very clearly that group level selection can and probably does occur. Unfortunately, they have muddied this important contribution by trying to overreach their thesis by creating too tenuous a link between altruism based on genetic inheritence and human culture, and then using human culture as a metaphor for the evolution of altuism in other organisms. Read this book for the real and important contributions, but read it critically and do not swallow every argument whole. As John Maynard Smith said of the book, “to do so would be disaterous.”

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