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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

SURVIVAL of the NICEST: HOW ALTRUISM MADE US HUMAN and WHY IT PAYS to GET ALONG by Stefan Klein



Published in 2014 by The Experiment

German science writer Stefan Klein looks into the concept of altruism vs. egocentrism and the current thinking behind why people act altruistic or egocentric. This has been a popular topic in many news reports as the idea of a "stingy gene" or a "sharing gene" is discussed. 

Of course, the idea of a single stingy or sharing gene is simplistic, but Klein does spend a lot of time discussing altruistic behaviors and egocentric behaviors and why people actually act as altruistic as they do, even going so far as to donate money to people they will never meet in countries they will never go to. Why is that?

Klein reports that the current thinking is that simple Darwinian competition is too simplistic to explain altruistic behavior - giving away resources or time that could be used to raise one's own offspring makes no sense in a simple Darwinian worldview.

But, when you move out a little bit and look at groups of people and see that groups of people who are willing to give to one another and enforce a set of norms that expect a certain amount of fair play and giving to help the entire group have more success than groups that do not than you see that the Darwinian model may yet have some merit - it is not a single person vs. a single person but groups of people vs. groups of people.

Klein compares the behavior of chimpanzees to people, looks into tests of when young children start to display altruism and into experiments involving games that are supposed to test the altruistic nature of people (to be honest, I had a hard time understanding the value of the games, they were rather poorly explained). 

Survival of the Nicest has its interesting moments but vague explanations of the experiments and games and meandering discussions about other animals like vampire bats made the book an up and down read at best. There are some wonderful ideas in this book and a good editing could have knocked off about 50 pages and made it a tighter, more effective read.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on February 19, 2013.

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