Science Book a Day Interviews David Sloan Wilson


Special thanks to David Sloan Wilson for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book –Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others

David Sloan Wilson is an American evolutionary biologist and a Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He is a son of the author Sloan Wilson. Wikipedia
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#1 – What was the impetus for Does Altruism Exist?

I was approached by Yale University Press and Templeton Press, who were planning a series of short books on big questions. They suggested the title “Does Altruism Exist?” I welcomed the opportunity to write a short book on the topic, because I think a new synthesis is at hand.

#2 – Briefly, how are genes and altruism related to each other?

First I need to stress that altruism—members of groups doing things for each other–is inextricably linked to the functional organization of groups. My book is as much about “groups that work” as about the kind of self-sacrificial behaviors typically associated with altruism. Before we ask how genes and altruism are related, we need to ask how evolution and altruism are related. Altruism is an evolutionary puzzle because individuals who do things for others are vulnerable to individuals who accept benefits without providing them. Nevertheless, altruism can evolve if altruists can confine their interactions with each other and avoid the depredations of more selfish individuals. In a nutshell: “Selfish individuals beat altruists within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.” Those are the final words of an academic review article on the topic that I wrote with Edward O. Wilson in 2007. The bottom line is that altruism can evolve by genetic evolution under the right conditions, but it can also evolve by cultural evolution under roughly the same conditions. The particular mode of inheritance influences the details but is not the most important consideration. That’s why the subtitle of the book is “Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others.”

#3 – Your book makes the distinction between kin selection and group selection when it comes to altruism, with the latter being more important. What would be one example of evidence to support the group selection hypothesis?

The kin selection vs. group selection debate will interest some readers more than others. I claim that the controversy is over, which enables me to offer a “post-resolution” account that can be easily understood. One reason that the controversy is over is because the two warring theories, kin selection and group selection, have been shown to inter-translatable—more like two languages describing the same causal process than two theories describing different causal processes. One chapter titled “Equivalence” is devoted to this topic.

#4 – What sorts of evidence do you draw on for your book? Is human altruism different than altruism in other animals?

A short book on a big question needs act as a portal to a larger literature. The larger literature provides overwhelming evidence for the evolution of altruistic traits in both humans and nonhumans from a multi-level evolutionary perspective. Part of the new synthesis is an appreciation that group-level functional organization is common—you don’t have to search for a few examples! Two examples for non-human species that anchor my discussion involve sexual conflict in insects (the altruists are males that are nice to females) and the prudent management of food resources in a virus (the altruists are viral strains that have a low reproductive capacity). Examples for humans are drawn from religion, economics, and everyday life. Humans and nonhuman species differ in the proximate mechanisms that cause altruism (e.g., bees don’t have religious beliefs!) but not in the basic selection pressures, which evolutionists refer to as ultimate causation. That’s why religious believers can easily (and truthfully) compare their communities to a single organism or a beehive. One service of my book is to explain the evolutionary distinction between proximate and ultimate causation for readers who are not already familiar with it.

#5 – Are you working on any projects/books that you can tell us about?

My next book is titled “The New Social Darwinism” and will be published sometime next year. It shows that evolution needs to serve as a general theoretical foundation for public policy formulation (including but not restricted to economics) as it already does for the biological sciences. If that sounds threatening, remember that cultural evolution is a big part of modern evolutionary science, so it’s not a matter of “nature vs. nurture” or “biology vs. culture”. It’s a matter of becoming “wise managers of evolutionary processes”. All public policies have the goal of accomplishing positive cultural change. Almost none draw explicitly on modern evolutionary science. That’s what my next book will attempt to change. For a preview, please visit the website of the Evolution Institute and its two communication outlets, This View of Life and the Social Evolution Forum.

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