Does Altruism Exist by David Sloan Wilson

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection ( fell like a nuclear weapon into Victorian consciousness. The implication for many thinking people was that the whole of the living world is engaged in a brutal, pitiless competition for survival. Worse than this realisation is that if Man is co-terminus with the natural world, then we too are caught up in the whole hideous nightmare.

Deep anxieties were being felt even before the publication of On the Origin of Species. Discoveries in geology and the natural sciences had already unsettled the prevailing world view. Alfred Lord Tennyson, a mouthpiece for the preoccupations of his age, wrote the following lines in his poem In Memoriam A.H.H.‘ (1850). He is referring to Man when he says:

‘Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed’

If the theory is right, and our worries are justified, how do we account for altruism? Altruism appears to sacrifice the interests of the individual in favour of others. How could the pitiless processes of evolution bring this about? It is a conundrum that has perplexed philosophers and scientists for at least 150 years, and there have been some very interesting attempts to tackle the problem. I would recommend The Origins of Virtue (1996, by Matt Ridley, and to follow up the references in that volume.

David Sloan Wilson ( is the latest to take on the problem. The key to understanding the existence of altruism, he argues, is by understanding the role it plays in the social organization of groups. Groups that function like organisms indubitably exist, and organisms evolved from groups. Evolutionists largely agree on how functionally organized groups evolve, ending decades of controversy, but the resolution casts altruism in a new light: altruism exists but shouldn’t necessarily occupy centre stage in our understanding of social behaviour. After laying a general theoretical foundation, Wilson surveys altruism and group-level functional organization in our own species – in religion, in economics, and in the rest of everyday life. He shows that altruism is not categorically good and can have pathological consequences. Finally, he shows how a social theory that goes beyond altruism by focusing on group function can help to improve the human condition in a practical sense.

Enquire at your local library or available at

Also listen to the podcast of a Start the Week edition of 12 April 2015 ( on Radio 4 which covers the subject and features David Sloan Wilson among others.

I hope it all leaves you with a surge of loving kindness (without, or possibly with, the expectation of some reward).

224 pages in Yale University Press

First published 3 March 2015

ISBN 978-0300189490

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David Sloan Wilson

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