Lee Alan Dugatkin’s new book The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness was sitting on my doorstep a few days ago (too big to fit in the mailbox). Dugatkin is a biologist at the University of Louisville. That evening I sat down to read the first chapter, and ended up polishing off half the book. It’s quite an engaging read.
Dugatkin recounts the history of various attempts to solve the problem of altruism in evolutionary biology. In this context “altruism” should be viewed as a technical term referring to behavior that benefits others but incurs some personal risk. Superficially such behavior is a challenge for the idea of evolution by natural selection. Since selection only understands immediate reproductive advantage, altruistic behavior should be ruthlessly unselected. Yet many instances of altruistic behavior can be found in nature.
Dugatkin traces the history of attempts to solve this problem from Darwin to the present. Darwin himself weighed in on the subject, describing it as potentially a serious problem for his theory. His main solution was to argue that selection could operate at the level of a whole family, and not just at the level of the individual. He did not attempt to develop this into a full-blooded theory, but his ideas mesh very well with modern thinking on the subject.
Next up are Thomas Huxley and Petr Kropotkin. Not for nothing was Huxley known as Darwin’s bulldog. Huxley endorsed Darwin’s thinking on this subject, and argued that altruism in nature was largely illusory. He emphasized the important role of family relatedness in explaining apparent altruism. Dugatkin quotes him as follows:
From the point of view of the moralist, the animal world is on about the same level as a gladiator’s show. The creatures are fairly well treated, and set to fight; whereby the strongest, the swiftest and the cunningest live to fight another day. The spectator has no need to turn his thumb’s down, as no quarter is given…The weakest and the stupidest went to the wall, while the toughest and the shrewdest, those who were best fitted to cope with their circumstances, but not the best in any other sense, survived. Life was a continual free fight, and beyond the limited and temporary relations of the family, the Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence. (p. 12)
This sort of thinking was repugnant to Kropotikin, who emphasized cooperation and selflessness as the general rule in nature. His classic book on this subject is Mutual Aid, which provides numerous examples to back up his view of nature. Dugatkin makes an interesting point about how the environments in which Huxley and Kropotikin lived likely affected their view of this issue:
When Darwin published the Origin, Russia made up one-sixth of the earth’s dry land mass, with Siberia alone being forty times larger than Great Britain and Ireland combined. Yet this vast expanse was inhabited by a mere 82 million people (as compared with the 35 million inhabitants of the British Isles), in part owing to the very harsh weather, in which vast sections of the country would “stay frozen eight months out of ten…while the rivers freeze all the way to the black Sea.” In such a world, underpopulation, not overpopulation, was the most pressing problem. And Darwin’s direct competition did not stem from underpopulation; hence, instead of evolution via overpopulation leading to nature’s cycle of slaughter as per Malthus and then Huxley, underpopulation opened the door to altruism and cooperation for Russian scientists like Kropotkin. And underpopulation allowed the Russians to take evolutionary processes proposed by Darwin and derive altruism from them. (p. 22)
Warder Clyde Allee was next. He tended to see things in a fashion similar to Kropotkin, and his work tried to document examples of altruism that was not related to kinship. He also emphasized group selection as a possible solution to this problem. Number five on Dugatkin’s list is JBS Haldane, who contributed the first serious ideas for constructing a mathematical model for the relationship between kinship and altruism. Rounding out the list are William Hamilton, who ran with Haldane’s vague suggestion and developed the first, full-blooded, testable, mathematical model for the altruism problem, and George Price, who brought still further mathematical sophistication in the form of covariance analysis and game theory. Actually, I’m only pretty sure they are the seven scientists in question, since more than seven people receive serious discussion in the book.
Dugatkin also discusses some of the field experiments that have largely confirmed Hamilton’s thinking on this subject. There is also a chapter discussing the importance of books like Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in spreading the word about Hamilton’s ideas. The relationship between altruism and kinship is now firmly entrenched in modern biology.
Speaking as someone who frequently argues with creationists, one thing that impresses me about this is the strong match between theory and reality. Hamilton’s mathematical models are based entirely on the cold, hard logic of natural selection. Likewise for Price’s application of game theory to ethology. The success of these models in predicting the results of field experiments strikes at two common creationist shibboleths. First, it is strong evidence that the behaviors being studied really were formed by natural selection, thereby providing yet another line of evidence in support of evolution. Second, the difficult field work that has been done to test these models illustrates the nonsense of claiming that scientists just assume evolution as an axiom. After all, Hamilton’s and Price’s logic was impeccable. If scientists were the dogmatists creationists say they are, one wonders why they bothered to test the models at all.
Dugatkin has a pleasant writing style, and at a mere 150 pages the book is a fast read. It is more of a history of science book than a science book. Indeed, my one criticism is that I would have preferred a bit more technical detail in the discussion of Hamilton’s work. Since this is a popular level book, I suspect one of Dugatkin’s editors warned him of the perils of including toomuch mathematics. I notice that he has written other books on animal behavior, and I suspect he covered the more technincal aspects of the subject there.
At any rate, I heartily recommend the book both as an interesting look into the history of an important question, and for a window into the real world of professional evolutionary biology. It looks nothing like the caricature you get from the creationists or ID folks.