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Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others

3.76  ·  Rating details ·  168 ratings  ·  25 reviews
A powerful treatise that demonstrates the existence of altruism in nature, with surprising implications for human society

Does altruism exist? Or is human nature entirely selfish? In this eloquent and accessible book, famed biologist David Sloan Wilson provides new answers to this age-old question based on the latest developments in evolutionary science.
From an evolutio
Hardcover, 192 pages
Published January 13th 2015 by Yale University Press
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Shayan Foroozesh
May 23, 2015 marked it as to-read

It must be a good book. It must be! Because 1) it is written by D. S. Wilson, and 2) it is about my favorite subject tackled in an evolutionary way. Of course everything cultural brought under the spotlight of evolution grabs my attention.

The conversation between Tom Stoppard and D. S. Wilson about altruism, the subject of his latest book (this one I mean), is quite excellent:
John Kaufmann
Jul 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
Almost 5-star territory. Big-idea book. Wilson has long been one of the primary advocates for group-level selection. Here he lays out how altruism, which is hard to explain in standard evolutionary theory, can be explained as the result of multi-level selection (the new terminology for group-level selection) without any intent of altruism. Wilson walks through an example (with simple arithmetic) of how a group with more altruisists can outcompete a group of selfish individuals and thus foster mo ...more
Dec 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
Read this for a review journal and was pleasantly surprised as the subject matter was not on my list of interest. After reading the book, would like to read Wilson's other book, Darwin's Cathedral... as I think his writing style is accessible to the layperson and reads well, not dry. I found the economics chapter rather interesting, esp. his thoughts on Wall Street and Ayn Rand. If you are on the fence, read it, interesting and painless. ...more
Larkin Tackett
May 07, 2018 rated it liked it
The answer to this question is a definitive yes, but not surprisingly needs a more nuanced response when digging into the motivations and context of altruistic decisions. "Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary." Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson wrote this as a summary of sociobiology in a different article, but could have been the description of this book too. He makes the case that action versus feelings, distal ( ...more
Dhaneesh Kumar
Jan 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
It was a very enjoyable and invigorating read. The first half of the book was difficult to navigate, but with time and effort most of the essential machinery and arguments developed there made the second half of the book--which looked at altruism in different situations--very intriguing.

This book makes me want to read more into the subject which I believe is one of the objectives of the book. Looking forward to reading the references listed to gain more insights to supplement what I have alread
Icha Irdhanie
May 20, 2019 rated it liked it
very detailed and after reading this book, it made me want to be more pro society,, faith in humanity restored!!!!
May 31, 2018 rated it really liked it
What can evolution teach us about crafting social policy? When we think of evolution and public policy, sometimes we think of the social darwinism that arose in the late 19th century -- and still dominates a fair amount of policy thinking today. But social darwinism is pretty maladaptive from a societal perspective.

David Sloan Wilson explores the role that altruistic actions (in consequence, more than intent -- purely altruistic intent is something that, as he points out, almost never appears i
Daniel Hageman
Wow. Where to even begin with this book, it's actually one of the most straight-forward, succinct explanations of the evolutionary foundation for altruism I could have expected, with just enough depth to secure understanding by the reader but not overload them with evolutionary jargon and a plethora of more resources that need to be investigated to satisfy said understanding. I think it has greatly sharpened my ability to explicate my own worldview.

The seemingly obvious distinction between altru
Dec 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
Wilson uses this short, rambling book to extend his position that the group selection debate is settled, suggesting it's time to get on with revisiting topics such as altruism through the lens of multilevel selection theory. Wilson recounts the growing scientific consensus on his core question to confirm that, Spoiler Alert, altruism exists. This isn't news exactly; in a 2007 paper Wilson and EO Wilson concluded that "Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish group ...more
Per Kraulis
The answer to the title's question is, unsurprisingly, "yes", but the argument supporting the answer is certainly not trivial. Wilson arrives at the answer only after careful analysis, e.g. by making a distinction between altruism in action and altruism in thought. The book is based on the notion of group selection in evolution, a concept recently rehabilitated by, among others, the author himself. Group selection, or more generally, multi-level selection, can occur under fairly well-defined cir ...more
Rajesh Hegde
Nov 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A very well written book on understanding altruism through evolutionary theory. Very concise and comprehensible for a layman. Although it is a standalone book, it is better to read this after you have gone through some popular books on evolution like Dawkin's Selfish gene.

The author unifies all the evolutionary research done in last 3 decades to a make a good case for altruism existing in our human and nonhuman environments and how it can be further developed in the society for greater good. Th
Ann Michael
Feb 13, 2019 rated it liked it
I liked this book but I think it suffers a bit from being part of this series, Yale's Foundational Questions in Science. It is partly detailed regarding studies, research, and evolution and then in other places reads as though geared toward the more casual reader.

In general, I appreciate the effort and claims Wilson puts forth concerning an evolutionary basis for altruism. Eusocial insect/mammal studies bolster a few things, but Ostrum's 8 concepts for improving prosocial behavior is perhaps the
Jul 12, 2020 rated it liked it
The author compared humans with animals, precisely with bees or ants, we know for many examples, altruism works better for groups than for individuals to survival.
It pointed out Dawkins' selish genes to other cooperative species.
Wen Qi
Jan 15, 2021 rated it liked it
“selfishness beats altruism within groups. altruistic groups beat selfish groups. everything else is commentary.”
Aug 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
Aug 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
Sort of a short mini-book just focused on altruism. Yes, it exists, argues Wilson. Our survival relied on us being programed for self-sacrifice--to an extent.
Jan 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

This is an ambitious book full of big ideas, but still a quick and fun read. The implications of these ideas leaves nothing untouched.
Ke Li Yew
Sep 20, 2016 is currently reading it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Ryan Mishap
A dual purpose intent: to provide a beginning guide to the concept and to firmly establish multilevel evolution as the accepted way to discuss/study altruism.

While published as simple introduction, this is not a book for general readers. Some understanding of the scientific method, evolution, and experience reading academic books is required. Indeed, half the book is spent establishing multilevel selection (in group versus between groups) and how it applies here.

The second half looks at altruis
Roberta Gibson
David Sloan Wilson defines altruism as an intentional act that improves the welfare of others at a cost to, or at least no benefit to, the actor. After introducing the ideas of superorganisms and group-level selection, Wilson quickly determines that altruism does indeed exist, but that it is a group-level rather than individual-level phenomenon. He also takes studying altruism to a new place by separating the act of altruism from any apparent motivations for acting (a necessarily murky area). He ...more
Tom Roth
Sep 24, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: evolution, science
Nice, short book about altruistic behaviour. However, some scientific background is necessary to understand the arguments in this book, and some knowledge about evolution does help a lot to understand the book. Only problem of the book for me is that the distinction that Sloan Wilson makes at the start -the distinction altruism in terms of actions vs. altruism in terms of thought/feeling- disappears a little bit towards the end. Especially altruism in terms of thought/feelings remains problemati ...more
Martin Henson
Mar 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
A brief comment on a book that impressed me a good deal. It, along with some other recent reading has made me much less a political idealist and much more a political materialist. I’m not ready to review this book yet, but I wanted to note one thing: I came away from Peter Turchin’s “Ultra society” pondering the thought that the only way to get altruism within a group is to have that group in competition (war) with others. This books makes clear that the situation is much more complex, with such ...more
Deepthi Vure
Jan 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The chapter altruism and religion was really eye opening for me. The idea of super organism to me is as revolutionary as the theory of evolution. Hope and pray thinkers like David Wilson get their much deserved popularity and attention.
Charles Ruddock
Sep 30, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Really enjoyed "Does Altruism Exist". Few could explain a theoretical framework as eloquently and it's practical applications to create a better world then Wilson ...more
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David Sloan Wilson has been a professor of evolutionary biology at Binghamton University for more than twenty years. He has written three academic books on evolution, authored hundreds of papers, some with E.O. Wilson, and his first book for a general audience was Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think. ...more

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