Does Altruism Exist? Great topic, not so great book. I read this book for the Evolution Table discussion group at Franklin and Marshall College.
Every other week, the discussion turned to soldiers and first responders. Why do soldiers throw themselves on grenades and face withering fire to rescue a comrade? What led hundreds of police and fire fighters to enter the doomed towers on September 11, 2001?
This book by David Sloan Wilson has no direct answer.
We read this book because it was written partly as an answer to the Fall Semester book: “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins.
Dawkins says altruism has no place in a discussion of genetics. Wilson says altruism has a genetic basis and that evolution favors altruism in the struggle between and among groups.
I thought Wilson made a convincing argument, but each week we discussed another chapter. And each week the biologists, physicists, psychologists and other researchers in the discussion poked holes in Wilson’s arguments. Interestingly, they poked more and bigger holes in Wilson’s arguments than they did in those of Dawkins the previous semester.
If you read just these two books to decide whether you think Evolution is driven by individuals only or occurs among groups, then Dawkins will win. Of the two, I am much more convinced by Dawkins. I say this as a Believer, knowing that Dawkins dismisses all belief. Evolution is biology, so on the strictly material level, it is interesting to know how and why growth and change occur, which they do everywhere, and all the time. I have no trouble imagining Evolution as a predator, killing the weak and perpetuating itself through strength and power.
That puts nature below spirituality and puts sacrifice above and apart from mere nature. For me, the weakness of Wilson’s argument is his attempt to put a scientific dimension on a metaphysical dimension of life. Mother Teresa is best explained by her passion to honor her Lord and Savior. Mere genetics does not lift lepers from gutters.
Soldiers are trained to save their brothers and sisters on the battlefield while destroying the enemy. But bravery either in rescue or fighting is something beyond mere genetics. Wilson says as much, but is not convincing.