In all honesty, I found this book to be a slog. It is part of the “Foundational Questions in Science series” and, as such, is written by a well-respected leader in this field, David Sloan Wilson. He took the opportunity to reflect over the vast quantity of literature in this area and attempt to distill what is currently known or unknown and some of the implications of the field. Wilson's writing style, while lucid and concise, is very academic rather than grippingly narrative. He typically writes abstract philosophical arguments, illustrated eventually with a few real-world examples. The reader needs to be willing to really concentrate as she reads to watch the argument gradually build. Thus, the appropriate audience likely will be more students than lay readers. The book is predominantly human-centered, with few references to other species. I expected this to be a case-by-case examination of seemingly altruistic behaviors throughout the animal kingdom, so I was disappointed, but examining other species was clearly not Wilson's original goal. Why focus so intently on the human species in this book? Beyond the obvious self-interested reason, Wilson claims that “Alone among primate species, we crossed the threshold from groups of organisms to groups as organisms…. Our ancestors managed to suppress disruptive forms of within-group competition, making benign forms of within-group selection and between-group selection the primary evolutionary forces” (p. 49).
Altruism, as defined by Wilson, is “a concern for the welfare of others as an end in itself” (p. 3), which often incurs an unreciprocated cost to the one providing the benefit. As such, the behavior has seemed an evolutionary mystery in many respects. How could natural selection, which should promote traits that increase survival and reproduction of the individual, have produced altruistic behaviors? Behaving for the good of society typically does not maximize relative fitness within the group (even if absolute fitness might increase), and in evolutionary biology, relative fitness is what counts because evolution by natural selection results from fitness differences. Indeed, some scientists claim that there may be “seemingly altruistic acts but question whether they are based upon altruistic motives” (p. 3) – in other words, is concern for others really what drives the behavior? Wilson argues that the motives are irrelevant, only the resulting behavior matters, and the levels of selection are critical: one must examine natural selection acting both within and between groups. As he and E. O. Wilson succinctly stated: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary” (p. 23).
Wilson covers topics as wide as religion and economics, and smaller-scale issues such as what makes certain group-work successful. Still, I was disappointed that the book did not take on a wider range of species. Additionally, some of Wilson's declarative statements seem easily arguable, yet he does not address those obvious protests. For instance, discussing the religion of the Hutterites, Wilson categorizes phrases in the text into a 2 × 2 table of effects on self × effects on others, and lists “obedience,” “sacrifice,” and “surrender” in the +/+ category. It is clear as to why something like “brotherliness” would be in that category, but without an explanation as to why “sacrifice” has a benefit, his ensuing claim that “the top left quadrant of the table (negative for self, positive for others) … [was] empty” (p. 84 and fig. 6.1) falls flat. It is empty only because it appears he has misassigned behaviors, unless he explains his reasoning. Other claims that conveniently fit his trajectory similarly seem arguable: “There's a world of difference between socially dominant individuals in most primate groups, who simply appropriate the best mates and resources for themselves, and high-status individuals in small-scale human societies, who must earn their status by cultivating a good reputation” (p. 49). This seems highly prejudiced (and overly optimistic) toward humans as a species. I can think of some powerful human leaders who seem to have also just “appropriated” what they wanted, regardless of reputation. I would have liked to see some concrete examples to back up this claim. However, these small issues notwithstanding, most of Wilson's arguments are laid out well.
There is much fodder for reflection on a wide variety of aspects of human society. Wilson argues that the question of why altruism exists is one that is just entering its resolution phase and will be something that future scientists look at and wonder how smart people could have floundered while pondering this straightforward question for so long. Wilson provides many chapter endnotes with a plethora of good-quality references for those interested in delving deeper into certain areas. While Does Altruism Exist is not a book to read in small segments or right before drifting to sleep, this is a work that will make you reflect on your own behavior and how evolution has influenced many aspects of human society, so much of which depends on group-functioning. For someone interested in reading biological philosophy (or philosophical biology): you will be intrigued.