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Does Altruism Exist? A Short Introduction to a New Synthesis

I am pleased to announce my newest book, Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes and the Welfare of Others, which is published by Yale University Press in collaboration with the Templeton Press as the first in a series of short books on foundational questions in science.

I welcomed the opportunity to write a short book (149 pages) on the foundational question of altruism, which has been pondered throughout the ages and has been a central question in evolutionary theory since Darwin. A short and accessible introduction is needed because I think it is legitimate to say that a new synthesis is at hand.

Other moments in the history of evolutionary thought that claimed the title “synthesis” include the modern synthesis in the 1940’s and the study of social behavior from a unified evolutionary perspective, which E.O. Wilson covered in his 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. A 2010 edited volume titled Evolution—the Extended Synthesis, based on a widely publicized workshop that I was fortunate to attend, led to a lively debate over whether even the modest claim “extended synthesis” was warranted. What gives me the chutzpah to claim that a new synthesis is at hand for the topic of altruism?

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One reason is because the issues surrounding multilevel selection, after over a half-century of debate, have at last been largely resolved. This does not mean that multilevel selection theory is right and other theoretical frameworks such as inclusive fitness theory are wrong. It means that all of the major frameworks offer different perspectives on a single set of causal processes regarding evolution in multi-group populations. The concept of equivalence is part of the new synthesis and is accorded a chapter in Does Altruism Exist? The resolution of the multilevel selection controversy enables me to describe how altruism evolves in a way that makes one wonder in retrospect what all the fuss was about.

Second, most of the thinking on altruism is not from an evolutionary perspective—but needs to be. Foundational ideas were established by thinkers who lived before Darwin or by contemporaries who did not fully absorb the implications of his theory. Even the modern philosophical and psychological literature is often not from an evolutionary perspective and fails to carve the subject of altruism at the right joints, to use a venerable philosophical phrase. In other words, it often fails to make distinctions that are foundational from an evolutionary perspective, such as between proximate and ultimate causation. When altruism is viewed from an evolutionary perspective, some questions that appeared central become peripheral and other previously ignored questions become central, which is the hallmark of a new synthesis.

Third, the study of evolution in relation to human behavior and culture has come of age. This is important because altruism is inextricably linked to the functional organization of groups, which is central to all branches of the human social sciences. When E.O. Wilson published Sociobiology in 1975, his final speculative chapter on humans caused an uproar. Today, nobody blinks when an article on a human-related subject from an evolutionary perspective appears in Science, Nature, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or the many dozens of specialized academic journals. The scientists engaged in this pursuit number in the hundreds and thousands, although this is still a tiny fraction of the worldwide academic community. A new synthesis has arrived–and many more people need to know about it.

Fourth, the study of altruism is not just an academic pursuit. It is needed to improve the quality of life at all scales, from the development of a single child to the global economy and environment. The statement “nothing about public policy makes sense except in the light of evolution” (to paraphrase Theodosius Dobzhansky’s famous dictum about biology) would mystify most politicians and public policy experts, but it is firmly part of the new synthesis and the raison d’etre of the Evolution Institute.

Here is how I describe the new synthesis toward the end of Does Altruism Exist?.

Most of the ideas that I have reported in this book are recent, especially when compared to the history of thinking on altruism. The concept of major evolutionary transitions, which merges the concepts of organism and society, wasn’t proposed until the 1970’s. Multilevel selection’s road to reacceptance was so long that this is one of the first books to offer a post-resolution account. The use of evolution to justify social inequality and ruthless competition stigmatized the study of evolution in relation to human affairs for decades following World War II. A renewed effort didn’t gather steam until late in the 20th century. The first book-length treatments of religion from an evolutionary perspective didn’t appear until the start of the 21st century. Rethinking economics and public policy from an evolutionary perspective is more recent still. For the vast majority of politicians and policymakers today, evolution is a word to be avoided. If it stands for anything, it is the cruel policies that became associated with the term Social Darwinism in the first half of the 20th century.

These recent ideas are as foundational as the ideas associated with the Enlightenment and the early days of evolutionary theory…

That qualifies as a new synthesis in my book, which I describe as concisely as possible for a broad audience. If I have done my job well, then the reader will understand why evolutionary theory is essential for accomplishing the altruistic goal of making the world a better place.


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  1. Economist Bryan Caplan pointing out that the free rider problem for collective action actually provides plentiful evidence for altruism:
    link to

  2. I’d like to agree with your point that “nothing about public policy makes sense except in the light of evolution” — and in particular I’d reference grand strategy (national security strategy).

    Grand strategies tend to rest on judgments about social evolution — who is gaining strength, progressing faster, posing new challenges, etc. Thus, what a grand strategist thinks — or fails in thinking — about social evolution can make a decisive difference.

    Yet, grand strategy and social evolution are rarely paired for their relatedness. Instead, grand strategists tend to think grandly about strategy — but only selectively and piece-meal about political, economic, military, and other aspects of progress (and regress), at home and abroad.

    Examples of ideas that connect grand strategy with social evolution via one aspect or another include containment theory in the 1950s, modernization theory in the 1960s, and democratic enlargement in the 1990s. Also, in the 1990s two ideas that touch on social evolution — the “end of history” and the “clash of civilizations” — gained influence among strategists. In the 2000s, however, grand strategic thinking about the “war on terrorism” became notable for its presumptuous naiveté about imposing democratic evolution in strife-torn societies, as seen in U.S. policies in Iraq.

    If this sounds relevant, there’s more here:
    link to

  3. Asgard says:

    Well, not everyone agrees that the multilevel selection debates have been resolved.

    link to

  4. Rosana says:

    Let me try at altruism-To person wanting their health improved-I am requesting your help after another Walgreen’s encounter. I requested a piece of paper from a Walgreen’s tech and then she had trouble doing this. I assumed she knew what she was doing so I did not inquire. After wasting much of my time, it turned out she had trouble refilling all my prescriptions! It was amazing and I was in utter shock. After having only 2-3 hours of sleep, this is not good and I was a bit goofy trying to figure something out with Home Depot.

    To remedy Walgreen’s poor service, I am asking a favor of you. Please look into They are very informative in improving health. I should take between 15 to over 200 grams Vitamin C! It is exciting how much better my health will be! I just took 11,120 grams of sodium ascorbate. The lingo is tricky, but you will do fine figuring it iut as you make yourselves healthy. And then get back at Walgreen’s for me! Our bodies supposedly should have stores of Vitamin C in them. None of us make our own Vitamin C so you all should know which way those stores of Vitamin C are going!

    In addition, our bodies should have stores of iodine in them. We do not make our own iodine and the same outcome in with iodine. There is Dr David Brownstein, MD in Michigan. He is a leader on iodine supplementation and you could gather information from his website.

    Last, but not least is the water we drink. Please contact David Rieben,, 503 871 2388, FAX 503 463 1127, Enagic Co., Ltd. “CHANGE YOUR WATER, CHANGE YOUR LIFE”. David will give you a water demonstration, will give you Kangen water for free as long as you pick it up, and or will deliver Kangen water for free for two months. Mention my name Rosana Sherwood to him. This is the way good Japanese companies do business. Please do not be misled by other companies water machines. They are so inferior compared to Kangen!

    It is 10:44PM. I am to finish dinner (Yes, I know.) and give Cat a bath. She is 21-23 and had been destroyed by Monsanto’s GMO’s and Roundup (by an incompetent apartment manager and neighbor). Another thing you can do to improve your colon that is being destroyed so much by environmental factors is to contact your governmental legislatures to stop Monsanto. Germany kicked out Monsanto. Canada kicked out Monsanto. We can destroy Monsanto for ruining our colons, etc.

  5. Rosana says:

    Whoops-11,120 grams is actually 11.12 grams. I will learn metric even without enough sleep.