Does Altruism Exist?

Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others

David Sloan Wilson

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ISBN: 978-0300189490

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.

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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


“[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.”