Does Altruism Exist?

Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others

David Sloan Wilson

This title is copublished with Yale University Press as part of the Foundational Questions in Science series. It is only available for purchase through Yale University Press or your favorite bookstore.

David Sloan Wilson, one of the world’s leading evolutionists, addresses a question that has puzzled philosophers, psychologists, and evolutionary biologists for centuries: Does altruism exist naturally among the Earth’s creatures?

The key to understanding the existence of altruism, Wilson argues, lies in understanding the role it plays in the social organization of groups. Groups that function like organisms indubitably exist, and organisms evolved from groups. Evolutionists today largely agree on how functionally organized groups evolve, but the resolution casts altruism in a new light: altruism exists but shouldn’t necessarily occupy center stage in our understanding of social behavior.

After laying a general theoretical foundation, Wilson surveys altruism and group level functional organization in our own species—in religion, in economics, and in the rest of everyday life. He shows that altruism is not categorically good and can have pathological consequences. Finally, he shows how a social theory that goes beyond altruism by focusing on group function can help to improve the human condition in a practical sense.

Does Altruism Exist? puts old controversies to rest and will become the center of debate for decades to come.

Acknowledgments / ix
Introduction: Altruism and Evolution / 3
1. Groups That Work / 7
2. How Altruism Evolves / 19
3. Equivalence / 31
4. From Nonhumans to Humans / 47
5. Psychological Altruism / 59
6. Altruism and Religion / 75
7. Altruism and Economics / 93
8. Altruism in Everyday Life / 115
9. Pathological Altruism / 133
10. Planetary Altruism / 141
Notes / 151
Works Cited / 159
Index / 173

“In this highly readable book a remarkable philosophical mind is at work, inspired by applying evolutionary theory to real life as we know it. The message is that altruism is alive and well, and it can actually be taken into account as we plan a better modern life—as long as we focus on the right kinds of altruism.”

Chris Boehm, University of Southern California

“David Sloan Wilson has a nose for important problems and his writing is always interesting and provocative. This work on altruism—which extends across a range of problems including religion—will enhance his deservedly high reputation. If you read only one book on the topic, make it this one.”

Michael Ruse, Director of the Program in History and Philosophy of Science, Florida State University

“The eternal problem of altruism: is it genuine or fundamentally selfish? It depends on how you ask the question, and David Sloan Wilson has lifelong experience disentangling the answers. His own special take on the evolution of altruism, and how in our species it is fortified by religion and morality, has inspired fierce debate and is explained here in a most lively and readable manner.”

Frans de Waal, author of The Bonobo and the Atheist

Nature

“[A] brilliant contribution to this branch of socio-political discourse.”

Herbert Gintis

New Scientist

“Wilson argues his corner masterfully, providing a pithy riposte to the belief that natural selection occurs only at the level of the selfish gene. . . . Wilson’s fascinating gallop through religion, economics, politics and everyday life reveals many ways to activate altruism.”

Kate Douglas

Financial Times

“In this short and punchy book, [David Sloan Wilson] does an excellent job of explaining the relationship between the different theories and the now substantial evidence that we have indeed evolved to do each other good turns."

"The encouraging message is that we do have the resources to be better. . . . This requires foremost that we believe in the goodness of others. So reading these powerful new books on the existence of altruism could be the first step to making the world a nicer place.”

Stephen Cave

Journal of Economic Literature

“[Does Altruism Exist?] explores the question of whether altruism exists or if humans are entirely selfish, citing the evolutionary evidence of the functional organization of groups. [It] discusses groups that work; how altruism evolves; equivalence; considering whether altruism exists by examining humans and their distinctive properties in addition to other species.”

PsycCRITIQUES, Vol. 60, No. 40, Article 9

“This book is an important discourse on not only defining altruism but, more importantly, how it can be used to make a society more sustainable. It is appropriate for undergraduate and graduate students in psychology, political science, and behavioral economics.”

Robert D. Mather

ESSSAT News & Reviews

“Well written and easy to read. . . . Something to think about.”

Jay R. Feierman

Quarterly Review of Biology, Volume 91

“[David Sloan Wilson] has altered the course of evolutionary theory. . . . [T]here is no one better to write an accessible treatment of these ideas and their impact on evolutionary biology and on our understanding of human beings."

Jason Zinser

Philosophy Now

"Does Altruism Exist? is an impressive and engaging survey of the vast terrain covered by his title question. Anyone intrigued by the subject will find this short book to be highly readable, and often insightful."

Prof. William Irwin

Publisher's Weekly

"Wilson's argument is fascinating."