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The Altruism Equation The Altruism Equation

By Rebecca Hernandez

After reading Lee Alan Dugatkin’s The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness, I had the brilliant idea of concocting a joke involving Dugatkin’s characters and the subject of altruism.

Charles Darwin, Walter Allee, T.H. Huxley, William Hamilton, Petr Kropotkin, George Price, and J.B.S. Haldane are stranded on a desert island. This is how my joke would begin. The problem was, I couldn’t think of a punch line. I realised, however, that this was actually quite appropriate, because the book itself has no punch line.

The Altruism Equation does not solve the “altruism equation”. Part science, part history, part biography, it is a well-written, intriguing account of a group of scientists who spent their whole lives attempting to resolve the curious disconnect between altruism and evolution. But at no point do they actually come up with the solution.

Dugatkin begins with the basics: Darwin’s theory of evolution and survival of the fittest. He explains a problem with this theory as “a small difficulty with honeybees”. If evolution was truly about survival of the fittest as an individual, as Darwin’s theory originally suggested, why are there so many honeybees (and, as it turns out, other species as well) who would just as soon commit suicide than let anything dreadful happen to their hive?

Darwin attempted to explain this difficulty by rationalising that these kamikaze honeybees were in fact protecting their family, which could be thought of as an individual unit rather than a group of individuals. Sacrifice yourself to save your kin; your kin survives to procreate. Survival of the fittest at work, right?

If only life were so simple. In the remainder of The Altruism Equation, Dugatkin proceeds to cleverly illustrate the complications involved in the altruism debate in a series of readable, entertaining stories about the six other scientists and their theories of altruism, kinship, and evolution.

The Russian anarchist Petr Kropotkin observed non-kin altruism in Siberia, throwing Darwin’s kinship theory right into the Black Sea. Insect-obsessed Englishman William Hamilton actually invented a mathematical formula for predicting altruism (which I have laminated and now keep handy in case of emergencies). And born-again Christian George Price explained the evolution of altruism’s opposite and more interesting cousin: spitefulness.

Dugatkin does not appear to form any persuasive opinions regarding the altruism debate. What he does instead is create fascinating and personal stories about these different scientists’ lives and backgrounds, and explain how their theories were shaped by who they were, not just what they studied.

In a truly altruistic act, I’d sacrifice my copy of this book to pass on this quite interesting story. In return, I ask only for a great ending to my joke.

Lee Alan Dugatkin (2006).
The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness. Princeton University Press, ISBN: 0691125902.

This book is available from the Null Bookshop.  Just click here to buy, or here if you want to pay in dollars.

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Image: James White

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