The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness
Lee Alan Dugatkin
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In a world supposedly governed by ruthless survival of the fittest, why do we see acts of goodness in both animals and humans? This problem plagued Charles Darwin in the 1850s as he developed his theory of evolution through natural selection. Indeed, Darwin worried that the goodness he observed in nature could be the Achilles heel of his theory. Ever since then, scientists and other thinkers have engaged in a fierce debate about the origins of goodness that has dragged politics, philosophy, and religion into what remains a major question for evolutionary biology.
The Altruism Equation traces the history of this debate from Darwin to the present through an extraordinary cast of characters-from the Russian prince Petr Kropotkin, who wanted to base society on altruism, to the brilliant biologist George Price, who fell into poverty and succumbed to suicide as he obsessed over the problem. In a final surprising turn, William Hamilton, the scientist who came up with the equation that reduced altruism to the cold language of natural selection, desperately hoped that his theory did not apply to humans.
Hamilton's Rule, which states that relatives are worth helping in direct proportion to their blood relatedness, is as fundamental to evolutionary biology as Newton's laws of motion are to physics. But even today, decades after its formulation, Hamilton's Rule is still hotly debated among those who cannot accept that goodness can be explained by a simple mathematical formula. For the first time, Lee Alan Dugatkin brings to life the people, the issues, and the passions that have surrounded the altruism debate. Readers will be swept along by this fast-paced tale of history, biography, and scientific discovery.
have the gene for altruism, then for every ten of your children you save, you are saving, on average, five copies of the gene in question. If the parent in question has a one-in-ten chance of drowning per rescue, then over ten such rescues, on average, a single copy of the altruism gene (10 × 0.1) will be lost. On an “altruism gene spreadsheet,” that equals five pluses and one minus, for a net gain of four.42 Haldane did not present such an accounting to the reader, but it would have been next to
degree, to give up her medical practice to raise her children. Bill Hamilton was an avid naturalist and led the life of an explorer and outdoorsman from age ten onward, developing an early passion for studying insects. He never had a bed in Oaklea, let alone a bedroom, and during the winter he spent his nights on an army cot in a corner of the dining room. He preferred the warmer months of the year when he could sleep in one of the many sheds surrounding the cottage where, according to his
no experience doing field work outside of the United States, in the spring of 1973 Emlen, along with his wife, Natalie Demong, headed to Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya to study these birds, in part to see whether Hamilton’s rule could help explain their extraordinarily cooperative social system.5 Studying kinship and altruism in bee-eaters is a laborintensive job. Each year in the early spring, Emlen and his team of assistants arrive and mark all the birds that have not already been tagged
the evolution of cooperation between unrelated individuals, imagine that a crime has been committed and the police have arrested two suspects whom they believe are responsible. The suspects are interrogated in separate rooms by the police, and they have two options, or strategies, available to them: to cooperate with each other (that is, stay quiet and tell the police nothing) or to defect (that is, “squeal” and inform the authorities that the other suspect is guilty). Further imagine that absent
Green, 1932). 29. Haldane, Causes of Evolution. 30. E. Mayr, “Haldane’s Causes of Evolution after 60 Years,” American Naturalist 67 (1992): 175–86; J. Maynard Smith, “In Haldane’s Footsteps,” 347–56 in Studying Animal Behavior: Autobiographies of the Founders ed. D. Dewsbury (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985). 31. Haldane, “A Mathematical Theory of Natural and Artificial Selection, Part II” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 1 (1924): 158. 32. Haldane, Possible