Why are we good to one another?

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.

Read full, original article: The Biology of Being Good to Others

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