Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Altruism Equation: seven scientists search for the origins of goodness

by Lee Alan Dugatkin

I enjoy science books, and one of my particular science interests is evolution; I'm also a cynic, and I don't really believe in (philosophical or pure) altruism. Evolutionary biology has catalogued plenty of examples of behavior that appears altruistic, at least when one considers animals as individuals, but the altruism often vanishes when the behavior is framed in social or genetic terms. I pretty much take it for granted, but not everyone — scientists included — agrees with the major tenets of Richard Dawkins' argument in his book The Selfish Gene.

All that is just a long way of saying I was very interested to read this book, which explores the historical and contemporary scientific discourse on altruistic, or apparently altruistic behavior. The approach taken is to examine the lives and studies of seven researchers, with the intention, I presume, to make the scientific story more compelling by adding more of a plot (so-called literary nonfiction being all the rage the last couple of years). Unfortunately, it doesn't quite make the grade. It's quite dry and, well, science-y. OK for the academically inclined, or those actually doing school work, but not so great for the dabbler.

And since we're on the subject, I did once upon a time read some of The Selfish Gene. I was supposed to read it over the summer between high school and college, because my college had stuck me in its honors program, and they were making all the honors students read the book and attend a lecture/Q&A with Dawkins himself. Looking back, I squandered the opportunity, but back then my scientific interests hadn't matured — plus, what kind of hopeless nerd wants to read a science book the summer after graduating high school?! I remembering feeling as if I mostly understood most of what I read in the book, but I didn't really have the context to understand why the ideas were controversial or paradigm-changing. (Shortest possible version: genes want to reproduce themselves, and every other biological apparatus — from viral coats to eukaryotic cells, to simple multicellular organisms, all the way to complex organisms such as humans and bees and sequoias — has evolved in order to further that goal of reproducing genes, rather than reproducing the organism itself; in other words, people don't really have babies to make more people, they have babies because the genes inside people make more genes by making people want to have babies.) Also, as I said in my review of another Dawkins book (here), he's not the greatest writer.

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