Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior

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9780674930469: Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior

No matter what we do, however kind or generous our deeds may seem, a hidden motive of selfishness lurks--or so science has claimed for years. This book, whose publication promises to be a major scientific event, tells us differently. In Unto Others philosopher Elliott Sober and biologist David Sloan Wilson demonstrate once and for all that unselfish behavior is in fact an important feature of both biological and human nature. Their book provides a panoramic view of altruism throughout the animal kingdom--from self-sacrificing parasites to insects that subsume themselves in the superorganism of a colony to the human capacity for selflessness--even as it explains the evolutionary sense of such behavior.

Explaining how altruistic behavior can evolve by natural selection, this book finally gives credence to the idea of group selection that was originally proposed by Darwin but denounced as heretical in the 1960s. With their account of this controversy, Sober and Wilson offer a detailed case study of scientific change as well as an indisputable argument for group selection as a legitimate theory in evolutionary biology.

Unto Others also takes a novel evolutionary approach in explaining the ultimate psychological motives behind unselfish human behavior. Developing a theory of the proximate mechanisms that most likely evolved to motivate adaptive helping behavior, Sober and Wilson show how people and perhaps other species evolved the capacity to care for others as a goal in itself.

A truly interdisciplinary work that blends biology, philosophy, psychology, and anthropology, this book will permanently change not just our view of selfless behavior but also our understanding of many issues in evolutionary biology and the social sciences.

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Review:

In Unto Others, philosopher Elliott Sober and biologist David Sloan Wilson bravely attempt to reconcile altruism, both evolutionary and psychological, with the scientific discoveries that seem to portray nature as red in tooth and claw. The first half of the book deals with the evolutionary objection to altruism. For altruistic behavior to be produced by natural selection, it must be possible for natural selection to act on groups--but conventional wisdom holds that group selection was conclusively debunked by George Williams in Adaptation and Natural Selection. Sober and Wilson nevertheless defend group selection, instructively reviewing the arguments against it and citing important work that relies on it. They then discuss group selection in human evolution, testing their conclusions against the anthropological literature.

In the second half of the book, the question is whether any desires are truly altruistic. Sober and Wilson painstakingly examine psychological evidence and philosophical arguments for the existence of altruism, ultimately concluding that neither psychology nor philosophy is likely to decide the question. Fortunately, evolutionary biology comes to the rescue. Sober and Wilson speculate that creatures with truly altruistic desires are reproductively fitter than creatures without--altruists, in short, make better parents than do egoists.

Rich in information and insight, Unto Others is a book that will be seriously considered by biologists, philosophers, anthropologists, and psychologists alike. The interested amateur may find it difficult in places but worth the effort overall. --Glenn Branch

From the Back Cover:

[This book] will stimulate thought about important questions.-John Maynard Smith, Nature

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Sober, Prof. Elliott, Wilson, Prof. Davi
Published by Harvard University Press (1998)
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Prof. Elliott Sober; Prof. David Sloan Wilson
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