Press Reviews

A review by David Barash on altruism

Published on June 12, 2015

Mr. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book is “Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science.”

The word “altruism” was coined by Auguste Comte, the 19th-century social philosopher and early founder of sociology. It derives, in turn, from the Latin alter, for “other.” Although most people are grateful that altruism exists, evolutionary biologists have historically had trouble with it—or rather, trouble explaining altruism’s widespread existence in the natural world. The problem is that natural selection is not conducive to benefiting “others.” After all, natural selection is quintessentially a selfish process, in which winning—or at least staying in the game longer than others—is the bottom line.
Evolution proceeds by the differential reproduction of genes, so the challenge is to explain the persistence of a trait that, by definition, leads to an increase in the success of another while not increasing the success of oneself. Selfishness should defeat altruism every time, at least at the gene level.
Some confusion arises because biologists do not define altruism by the intentional state of an actor—benevolent feelings are unnecessary—but rather, by its consequences: whether it enhances the fitness (reproductive success) of the beneficiary while reducing that of the altruist. As a result, we can speak quite seriously about possible altruism in lions, bees and even viruses.

By Matthieu Ricard 
Little, Brown, 849 pages, $30
For that reason, the best scientific explanation for altruism’s existence (and the one accepted by most evolutionary biologists) is that, at the most basic causative level, altruism isn’t really altruism at all, but rather selfishness. When bodies appear to be acting altruistically, what’s actually happening is that “selfish” genes within those seeming altruists are benefiting identical copies of themselves in other bodies, often genetic relatives. Other mechanisms have also been identified, including reciprocity, manipulation, reputation enhancement and, at least in theory, group benefit: Some have proposed, that the herd or colony (or as we might say, community) is the unit of natural selection, rather than the individual organism.

By David Sloan Wilson 
Yale/Templeton, 180 pages, $27.50
This last possibility, although accepted at times in the past, has been largely debunked, with the recognition that, in fact, genes are the entities that reproduce themselves and that persist over time. Moreover, altruism is necessarily overwhelmed by selfishness within a group. In order for natural selection to promote altruism, groups containing altruists would have to reproduce themselves so effectively as to outweigh the selection against altruism among the group’s individuals. It’s a mighty tall order.

David Sloan Wilson, a professor of anthropology and behavioral sciences at Binghamton University, has nonetheless been a persistent advocate for group selection, and “Does Altruism Exist?” is the latest salvo in his rather lonely campaign. Indeed, many evolutionary biologists can hardly believe that such an accomplished researcher can be so stubbornly persistent in a losing cause. “When smart people take a wrong turn at the beginning,” he writes at one point, “they often go a long way before realizing their mistake.” Indeed.

Mr. Wilson begins his argument for group selection by describing research in which tadpoles, when given a choice between foods of varying quality, feed on the higher-quality option, in the process generating tracks that other tadpoles follow. Interesting, but hardly evidence that these animals have been selected to do this for the good of other tadpoles. I do a lot of hiking, and I stay on the trails. This keeps these trails from becoming overgrown, to the benefit of other hikers, but that is not why I walk where I do.Many animals live in social groups and tailor their behavior to maximize their success and that of their relatives within those groups. But it is misleading to describe such individual-level adaptations as having evolved “for the benefit of the group.” Especially absurd is Mr. Wilson’s contention that the very existence of multicellular organisms, including human beings, supports his contention; he claims that each of us is a group whose cells might therefore be congratulated for their coordination and cohesion, as a manifestation of group-selected altruism. The simple reality, however, is that our cells are genetically identical. When a liver cell labors at the unpleasant task of detoxifying blood while leaving all the fun of reproducing to the gonads, that cell isn’t being altruistic at all but rather wholly selfish, since the success of the gonads is biologically indistinguishable from success of the liver cell.
“Does Altruism Exist?” presents a simple arithmetic model purporting to show how altruism can readily evolve by group selection. It does nothing of the kind. The model is based on some simple assumptions, including the rather large one that groups containing altruists are more fit than groups whose members are all selfish. From there, it is easy to see that group selection “works” and that altruism can win out over selfishness, even though individual altruists are less fit than their selfish colleagues. I could similarly demonstrate my ability to outrun Olympic gold medal sprinter Usain Bolt: Start with the assumption that I run 100 meters in 8.9 seconds; the rest is easy.

Although group selection remains exceedingly unlikely as a mechanism driving evolution in non-human organisms, Mr. Wilson may be on the right track for one particular group: human beings. We are unique among animals in our consciousness, of our own selves and of the social groups in which we are immersed. There is no other species that not only punishes selfish “defectors” but is also readily convinced of the desirability of acting, often selflessly, for the benefit of the group.

I agree 100% that “if we want the world to be a better place, we must choose policies with the welfare of the whole world in mind,” as Mr. Wilson writes. But I disagree strenuously with his claim that, in order to become “planetary altruists,” it is necessary to embrace a model based on group selection. In fact, the all-too-human penchant to see things through the distorting lens of our particular groups is, more than anything, a tendency we need to outgrow.

Mr. Wilson deserves a kind of admiration for his lonely battle to resuscitate group selection, even perhaps for his chutzpah, as when he claims that “multilevel selection” (which includes group selection) is “in the same category as other scientific advances, such as the Copernican view of the solar system, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the theory of continental drift.” Nearly as bizarre is his claim that group selection has “won” the scientific battle, which brings to mind the suggestion by Sen. George Aiken, during the Vietnam War, that the United States ought to declare victory, unilaterally, and then leave. At least in that case the U.S. really had won every major battle. Mr. Wilson is of course free to declare his own victory, but his “forces” haven’t achieved anything of the sort.

By contrast, Matthieu Ricard, whose “Altruism” is more than five times longer than Mr. Wilson’s book, doesn’t blow his own horn even once, although he has a lot more to boast about. Mr. Ricard, trained as a molecular biologist, became a Buddhist monk and is now a magisterial figure mediating between Tibetan Buddhism and the West. His book reflects the wisdom of his current calling and is far deeper and richer than Mr. Wilson’s, although it is weakened to the extent that it barely touches upon evolutionary biology. Yet I suspect that when it comes to human altruism, evolutionary science has been largely superseded by uniquely human and humane insights of the sort that Mr. Ricard presents so compellingly. A strength of “Altruism” is that its guiding star is compassion, which for Buddhists—and, increasingly, biologists—derives from recognizing the altogether natural reality that any purported separation among living things is itself artificial and misleading. It’s a truism that “we are all connected,” but it is also fundamentally accurate.

Unlike evolutionists, Buddhists attribute significance to motivation as well as to outcome, and they emphasize that the feeling of compassion is good in itself, albeit better if it leads to benevolent behavior. Buddhists also strongly approve the role of training—including, but not limited to, meditation—as a way of getting in touch with our compassionate selves. Buddhists famously urge altruistic kindness toward all beings, not just those with whom we share genes or who we expect will reciprocate. A key concept in Buddhism is the devout wish—when possible, converted into action as well—that all beings should be maximally freed from suffering and the causes of their suffering.
One cannot escape the conclusion that, when it comes to human beings, purely biological insights, although valuable, don’t tell the whole story. But whereas Mr. Wilson is interested in altruism in part because it serves his purpose—making a case for a scientifically dubious phenomenon (group selection)—Mr. Ricard is simply concerned with altruism for its own sake: He wishes to explore and promote it by whatever means necessary and regardless of the mechanism(s) by which it may be furthered.

“Altruism” is divided into short, cogent chapters, making it surprisingly accessible, despite its massive dimensions. Much of the book is derivative but nonetheless immensely useful, an encyclopedic synthesis of evidence and examples from current events, books, scientific papers and personal experiences. It also includes much wisdom from the Dalai Lama as well as from Shantideva, a seventh-century Indian Buddhist master.

Mr. Ricard explores the complexity of such questions as “Is an action selfish if one benefits from it?” and “Do future beings have rights?” We’ve all heard about Hannah Arendt’s formulation, “the banality of evil.” Mr. Ricard adds “the banality of good,” referring to the often unnoticed examples of selflessness and everyday altruism that enrich most lives. He also examines heroic altruism. The numerous individual stories he recounts are inspiring and often downright gripping, such as the California man who fought off a lion to rescue a small child. Rather than a sloppy, sentimental do-gooder manifesto, “Altruism” is a careful, detailed, hard-nosed assessment of what is needed both for individual happiness and for the welfare of the planet.

“Individualism, in its good aspects,” he notes, “can foster a spirit of initiative, creativity, and going beyond norms and old-fashioned and restrictive dogmas, but it can also very quickly degenerate into irresponsible selfishness and rampant narcissism, to the detriment of the well-being of all. Selfishness is at the heart of most of the problems we face today: the growing gap between rich and poor, the attitude of ‘everybody for himself,’ which is only increasing, and indifference about the generations to come.”
Mr. Ricard touches on many other topics—from “compassion fatigue” to the ethics of eating meat—and he excoriates the selfishness he sees everywhere in modern capitalist society. It may not be immediately clear why a gene should be selfish and a person should not, but Mr. Ricard will convince you at least that the latter is true.

A personal confession: When I agreed to review this enormous book, I had the sneaky, selfish temptation to simply skim it (after all, I already knew a fair amount about the biology of altruism and about Buddhism). But I was waylaid by Mr. Ricard’s erudition, his captivating prose, the depth and the breadth of his material. This book is so rich, so diverse and, yes, so long that it is best kept as an inspiring resource to be consulted over many years.