The Biology of Being Good to Others

Scientists Richard Owen and Thomas Henry Huxley studying a water-baby in a flask; 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


Altruism may seem a good thing—unless you happen to be an evolutionary biologist. Then it may seem a mixture of a mystery and a curse. The reason isn’t hard to see. How could a ruthless process like Darwinian natural selection give rise to altruistic organisms, human or nonhuman, that act in ways that are costly to themselves and helpful to others? Darwin himself was aware of the difficulty and offered some tentative solutions, but it was during the twentieth century that altruism became the subject of nearly fetishistic attention among evolutionary biologists.

One imaginable solution is to deny that altruism really exists in nature or to claim that it’s so rare as to be unworthy of serious attention. Another solution is to construct clever theories that show how natural selection is actually expected to yield altruism. Such theories typically hinge on the level at which natural selection acts. Does it select for fitter organisms, or fitter genes, or populations, or species? Indeed the problem of altruism and the so-called levels-of-selection problem have become nearly inseparable.

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…

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