The Selfless Gene

Whence altruism? Powell's reviews the book, Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness, which describes a grand historical hunt for the answer to that question using the lives of work of seven scientists, from Darwin to E.O. Wilson, who have searched for a biology of selflessness. The review:

In his slim book, the biologist Lee Alan Dugatkin skillfully presentsthe fabulous tale of modern biology's wrestling with the problem of altruism. After Darwin found "altruism" in nature, a debate broke out between his "bulldog" Thomas Huxley and Pyotr Kropotkin about whether competition or cooperation is the norm in the living world. After all, cooperation was an anomaly in a Darwinian world that was all about struggle and survival. But since it was nonetheless observed in nature, people tried to explain how what seemed like acts of kindness could have arisen over evolutionary time. For a while the answer was that "friendly" groups will have a leg up on groups with selfish fellows, a solution that Darwin himself seemed to arrive at years before. But in the 1960s Bill Hamilton punched a great big hole in this feel-good "togetherness" story. Formalizing a quip made by J. B. S. Haldane, he explained "altruism" by looking at the world from an entirely surprising angle: benevolence could arise in nature precisely because selfish genes were running the show.

Attending Pop!Tech last month, Ethan Zuckerman wrote up a presentation by the book's author, University of Louisville professor Dr. Lee Alan Dugatkin, that you might find interesting.

Wayne