By David Sloan Wilson


Yale University Press, New Haven 2015





3 – Even opening a door for someone requires a tiny expenditure of time and energy. So it is altruistic.


4 – The word ‘altruism’ didn’t exist until Auguste Comte coined it in 1851.


Evolutionary biologists have long been puzzled by altruism, when all is selfish gene reproduction.


6 – To better understand evolution and policy, he created the ‘evolution institute.’




There are two meanings of altruism – the first refers to how people act. 

8 – The second refers to thoughts and feelings.


The relationship is complicated. There may be many reasons I might engage in the same altruistic act.   This is a one to many relationship.


And we prefer some thoughts and feelings for the actions they produce.


9 – ‘Does altruism exist?’ is a strange question in some respects.  We can no more survive on our own than an ant separated from its colony.


In fact, we’re so well organized that our society could be called a ‘superorganism.’


10 – This claim is justified with reference to how complicated an aircraft carrier is.  The workers are redundant so that some can be called away without compromising the performance of the aircraft. 


11 – The workers do perception and turn it into physical action, just like brain cells.  And they’re coordinated like a brain. 


Elinor Ostrom was given the nobel prize in economics in 2009 for her work on ‘the tragedy of the commons.’  This is the situation wherein if all share there is enough, but if one takes too much, all is ruined, so all must be restrained. 


12 - She found 8 factors that predicted successful Common-Pool Resources (CPR) management.


1.       Strong Group Identity and understanding of purpose.

The identity of the group, the boundaries of the shared resource, and the need to manage the resource must be clearly delineated.


2.       Proportional equivalence between costs and benefits.

People who do more must get high status or disproportionate benefits. Unfair inequality poisons collective efforts.


3.       Collective – Choice Arrangements:

People hate being told what to do but will work hard for group goals to which they have agreed.  Decision making should be by consensus or another process that group members recognize as fair.


4.       Monitoring

A commons is inherently vulnerable to free-riding and active exploitation.  Unless these undermining strategies can be detected at relatively low cost by norm-abiding members of the group, the tragedy of the commons will occur.


5.       Graduated Sanctions

Transgressions need not require heavy-handed punishments, at least initially.  Often gossip or a gentle reminder is sufficient, but more severe forms of punishment must also be waiting in the wings for use when necessary.


6.       Conflict resolution mechanisms

It must be possible to resolve conflicts quickly and in ways that group members perceive as fair.


7.       Minimal recognition of rights to organize

Groups must have the right to conduct their own affairs.  Externally imposed rules are unlikely to be adapted to local circumstances and violate principle 3.


8.       For groups that are part of a larger social systems, there must be appropriate coordination among relative groups. 

Every sphere of activity has an optimal scale.  Large-scale governance requires finding the optimal scale for each sphere of activity and appropriately coordinating the activities.


[Wilson under emphasizes #1]

13 – Beehives are pictured on Utah’s road signs because Mormons admire the industry of bees.  But Wilson is more interested in their ability to make decisions.


14 - Collective decision is made on the basis of social interactions that take place on the surface of the swarm.


15 – Adult female African buffaloes (but not juveniles or males) vote on where to graze at night by standing up and pointing their heads.


16 – In this chapter we looked at altruistic thoughts v. action.  And making the world a better place requires group-level functional organization, people coordinating their activities to this end.  And, this exists in human and non-human societies.




The first principle here is that natural selection is based on relative fitness.  If you survive just a tad better than the other fellow, you win.


20 – You may be better off if you get $1,000 in monopoly, but not if everyone else gets $2,000. 


The second principle is behaving for the good of the group typically does not maximize relative fitness within the group.  If you’re altruistic, it may harm you within the group.  But, it can still benefit the group.


21 - Therefore, the evolution of group-level functional organization cannot be explained on the basis of natural selection operating within groups.  On the contrary, natural selection operating within groups tends to undermine group-level functional organization. 


This holds not only for altruistic groups, but for low-cost coordination of behaviors for the good of the group, such as deciding upon the best nest cavity.


So how does group-level function organization evolve, if not by natural selection within groups? 


The third principle: Group-level functional organization evolves primarily by natural selection between groups.  


22 – If there are two groups and one is 20% no cost altruists and the other 30%, both will thrive, but the 30% will win in intergroup competition.


Now what if, in one group there is selfish behavior because it increases relative fitness in the group.  And, and altruistic when it helps the group, but makes the one helping at a relative disadvantage.   The altruistic behavior will spread, because of between group competition.


23 - This is a summary of all sociobiology: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups.  Altruistic groups beat selfish groups.  Everything else is commentary.”


Two communities of water striders. One of gentlemen, the other rapists.  The rapists will succeed, but – because the women have no time to eat - the women won’t breed. 


25 – If you allow the groups to mix, a blend will occur.


Viruses wipe out bacteria’s sometimes via overpopulation.  Then less prolific strains emerge.


28 – For millennia intellectuals have compared societies to superorganisms.  The comparison is no longer metaphor.  There is a single theory of functional organization that can be applied to all levels of a multitier hierarchy of units.


Any level can become functionally organized, to the extent that selection operates at that level.  (29) Lower level selection tends to undermine higher –level functional organization. Higher-level selection causes lower- level entities to become organ like.


The fact that the organisms of today were the groups of past ages was beyond Darwin’s imagination. It wasn’t proposed until the 1970s and didn’t become generalized until the 1990s.


29 – To answer the book’s question, “Does altruism exist?”  “When altruism is defined in terms of action and in terms of relative fitness within and between groups, it exists wherever there is group-level functional organization.”




31 – In the Descent of Man, Darwin wrote, “It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over other men of the same tribe, yet that an increase in the member of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another.  A tribe including many members who, from possessing a high degree of the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes, and this would be natural selection.   At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one important element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase.”

[This is a false statement because he injects morality.  It is the willingness to sacrifice in battle that is key].


32 – Darwin fails to mention that this morality within tribes sets the scene for immorality between tribes.


Efforts to explain the evolution of altruism without invoking group selection, went under the names of inclusive fitness (kin selection) theory, selfish gene theory, and evolutionary game theory.  


34 – But they all had to invoke group selection in all but name.  “The controversy over group selection is receding into the past and eventually will be forgotten except from a historical perspective.”


35 – Equivalence is the idea of multiple level explanation. Different models co-exist and can be, though they needn’t be, incommensurable (having no common standard of measure).


37 – There can be multiple accurate theories, frameworks, or paradigms.


38 – We have 2 groups:  A is 20 % altruists and B is 80 % altruists.

In both group the altruists decline as a percentage of the population.

But the altruistic group produced more offspring.

Between the two the more altruistic will win.


40 – If we add the two groups together, A increased in frequency. They went from 50% (8of 10 + 2 of 10) to 56%.  But, this is a different way of accounting. 

In the second method we lose information.  We don’t know if it was between groups or within groups that made this gain.


42 – Evolutionary game theory does the second method (it averages individual payoff across groups). 


43 – We can also average across individuals, this is the accounting basis of the selfish gene theory.


Kin selection is another kind of math. 


45 – For multilevel selection theory, the division is based on relative fitness within and among groups.  For kin selection , the division is based on whether an individual incurs an absolute net cost in providing benefits to others.


And, if I thrive because I am helped by altruists, it doesn’t mean – even if my genes increase – that I’m selfish.




Many think Darwin speaks to sex and the urge to eat in humans, but little else.  But to see beyond this wee must understand major evolutionary transitions: these refer to the evolution of the balance between levels of selection.


On rare occasions, mechanisms evolve that suppress disruptive forms of selection within groups.  This causes benign within-group selection and then between – group selection becomes dominant. When this happens, all is so organized that they become an organisms in their own right. 


48 – This explains the first multi-cellular organisms, the first bacterial cells, and eusocial insect colonies, and perhaps the origin of life itself.


Major transisions have hallmarks: They are rare, have momentous consequences, and – the suppression of within group controversy is only partial, not complete.


49 – We are evolutions latest major transition.  Only we crossed the threshold from groups of organisms to groups as organisms.


Other primates cooperate, but internal fighting is too intense for superorganisms levels of cooperation. Our ancestors managed to suppress this disruptive forces. Making benign within group competition and real between group selection the main drivers of our evolution.


The needed social control is key.


50 – This superorganisms view was the dominant one in early social sciences.  But (51) after that, methodological individualism took over. It dominates economics, much of sociology, and psychology.


It informed Thatcher. 


52 – The communication of thoughs symbolically, and transmission of info across generations are communal.  He used the “cooperation came first” method to explain the rise of symbolic speech and cultural transmission.  Now he calls this theory “group-level functional organization came first.”  It needn’t look like cooperation.


Primates are intelligent, but their intelligence is predicated on distrust .


53 – You can pair the word  “cheese” and food to a monkey.  But, it disappears when the food stops.  We think of cheese forever, even when we get none.  


Thus we have a ‘sumbotype.”  (like a symbolic phenotype).


54 – People dismiss this sort of not being random and so not properly natural selection.  This is because it seems Lamarkian and non-Darwinian.  But there is nothing heretical about a goal-directed evolutionary process.


57 – But regardless of whether a phenotype is genetically inherited, learned, or culturally derived, it can spread by benefitting some individuals compared to others or some groups compared to others.   


Extending the hierarchy downward, cultural traits can spread at the expense of individuals, just like cancer cells.




He worked with a guy, Elliot, on evolution, psychology, and unselfish behavior.  But, came less to care about what people think than what they do.


62 – Many desert creatures turn sand colored.  They do so by different mechanisms.  Camouflage is the ultimate causation; the phenotype and method are proximate causes.


65 – People became lactose tolerant, but by different means in different dairy dependent regions.


68 – One of Elinor Ostrom’s discoveries was that CPR groups implemented the design principles she outlined in different ways, drawing upon different motives, norms and social conventions.


1) With such a realization, we must study ultimate and proximate causation in conjunction with each other.   This is different than approaches that focus on proximate causes and ignore ultimate causes. 


2) (69) Proximate mechanisms need not resemble functional consequences in any way whatsoever.  The functional reason apple trees bloom in the spring is that they need the right amount of sun to make fruit.  The proximate cause is the lengthening of days.


3) Cultural evolution plays a strong role in the evolution of proximate mechanisms that motivate altruistic actions, not just genetic evolution.  We sometimes assume that proximate psychological mechanisms that operate in one culture must operate in all.  That assumption is most certainly false.   Remember that many mechanisms lead to sand color in desert animals, there is a many-to-one relationship between proximate and ultimate.  The mechanism that leads to altruism in once culture may not work in another.


4) (70) The evolutionary fate of a given psychological mechanism that leads to altruistic action depends critically on the environment, including the human-constructed environment. 


Though it doesn’t seem conventionally, psychologically, altruistic; Ostrom found that the most successful CPR groups are those that can defend themselves against actions that benefit some individuals at the expense of others within the group.


71 – Jonathan Haidt said that ethics is not something that can be taught to an individual. Ethics is the property of a whole system.  (


Again, we’re looking at relative, not absolute fitness.


72 – Low cost altruism, door opening, and high cost, sacrifice for the group.


No account of altruism that doesn’t explain the differences, as well as the similarities, between humans and other species. 


73 – We can work with unrelated individuals, with symbolic thought, across generations.  This all resulted from the major evolutionary transition that suppressed within-group selection and made between-group selection key to us. “Teamwork is the signature of our species.”




75 – He wrote “Forgiveness from an Evolutionary Perspective” with Christopher Boehm.  They see religion and evolution as hand-in-hand.


77 - The New Atheists attack religion. 


78 – Durkheim was the son of a Rabbi!  He claimed religions had great secular utility. 


Now we identify group level adaptations by between group selection. 


79 – Some parts of religion are byproducts (our tendency to attribute agency) and some are adaptations for cultural evolution (concepts of god that motivate behavior).


Most enduring religions promote altruism expressed among the members of the religious community, defined in terms of action.


81 – Turn the other cheek is low-cost altruism as long as no one takes advantage.  Hutterites used brotherly correction and then escalated. 


82 – Religious folks are not motivated to help as a matter of altruism for personal costs.


83 – Religious folks believe in the good of the group, but not as a cost to themselves.   They promote healthy behaviors and discourage unhealthy ones.


86 – Most religions are functionally similar in that they created highly motivated and well-organized groups.  But, the proximate mechanisms are variable.


An adaptive worldview has two requirements: 1) It must be highly motivating psychologically: 2) (87) the actions motivated must outcompete the actions motivated by other worldviews.


89 – Altruism is a messy character as it pits self and other regarding preferences against each other.  A more motivating approach is to portray all actions as win-win or lose-lose. 


89 – This brings us to Comte’s attempt to create a moral system that did not require a belief in god, a “Religion of Humanity.”   It would be based on science and altruism.


90 – Comte said altruism was ‘innate.’  He saw this view as a direct contradiction of the Catholic doctrine which saw all human nature as sinful. 


91 – It is ironic that he coined altruism to attack the Church.  It is also ironic that it failed to get adherents and work as a religion.  It didn’t move people to action.




94 – He has written on Evolutionary theory and economic policy. 


95 – That an economy can run itself without having anyone at the helm is a central theme of economics.  Smith was not a real Laissez Fair guy.


97 – Smith only used the term “invisible hand” three times in his entire body of work.


99 – Thorstein Veblen attacked the idea of ‘homo economicus.’ This self-maximizing greedy rationalizer model of man.


100 – Friedman and Hayek used Darwinian language. 


101 – Hayek pioneered the concept of cultural group selection.  He was on the right track by emphasizing self-organization, distributed intelligence, and cultural group selection.


102 – Why the power of Ayn Rand?  As the Hutterites, she relies on the idea that actions are either good for everyone or bad for everyone.


103 – People love hearing that it is okay to be selfish  and that it, in fact, is the right way to be.


104 – To spread, good or ill, ideas need only be motivating and outcompete the actions motivated by other worldviews.


105 – The invisible hand metaphor includes two criteria 1) societies function well as a collective unit and 2) without the members of the society having its welfare in mind.


106 – Bee colonies that did not make the right move are not among the ancestors of today’s bee colonies. 


The invisible hand works for higher-level selection, like a beehive.  When it operates, lower-level elements work for the common good without necessarily having its welfare in mind.  When higher-level selection doesn’t operate, the society ceases to function as a collective unit.


107 – We have minds, beliefs and motivations, but the function of societies is still group level selection.  Preferences and abilities of the Homo sapiens variety rather than the homo economicus variety evolved by virtue of causing some groups to survive and reproduce better than other groups. 

Our preferences include self-interest and not wanting to be pushed around by others. They also include norms of acceptable behavior by consensus and a willingness to punish norm violators (even ones you don’t know). 


109 – He profiles a guy who felt zeal at stopping corruption on Wall Street.


110 – But this only works if there are enough punishers who can do so at low cost to themselves.   This is commonly done in small groups.  But, Wall Street is stacked against moralistic punishers. 


111 – Ecosystems are not units of selection. That is why you see no cooperation in them, really.  You do within groups.


112 – Neuroimaging shows those who become indignant take pleasure in seeking revenge. 


113 – Societies function well when they are a product of society-level selection.  The proximate mechanisms that evolve need not require having the welfare of the society in mind.  In nonhuman societies, they don’t even need minds.


114 – Large societies function well due to proximate mechanisms that evolved by cultural evolution and interface with our genetically evolved mechanisms.   We have an invisible hand quality to our society.  But, this does not mean that it self-organizes on te basis of individual greed.


Social arrangements need intentional planning.  This doesn’t necessarily mean centralized planning.  It can be the smart design of decentralized processes. 


Some structure must be imposed to coordinate action and prevent exploitation from within.  For this structure to function at the global level, welfare at the global scale must be the selection criterion.  Anything less will result in the dysfunctions inherent in multilevel selection theory.  In our role as selection agents, we must function as altruists of the highest order.




115 – He has used his hometown of Binghamton, NY as a lab. 


116 – They helped the Binghamton School District create a Developmental Assets Profile (DAP).


117 – They measured how “PROSOCIAL” students were.  This involves attitudes, behaviors or institutions oriented towards the welfare of others or society as a whole.


118 – They mapped where people were altriuistic and where people didn’t care.  This map is like those done by conservation biologists, seeing where plants grow and then identifying the variables involved.


120 – High-PROs expect to succeed when they work with other High-PROs.  Otherwise they would expect their efforts to be wasted.


There was a high overlap between the individual’s prosocial orientation and that of their social environment.  Those who gave received also.  And, the orientation wasn’t totally individual.


121 – They correlated this with behavioral measures like dropping an envelop and seeing if anyone mailed it.


122 – The richest aren’t necessarily the most PROSOCIAL.  They don’t need it.  The poorest are the least prosocial. They have no resources and are lone wolves.


Every childhood experience can have lifelong consequences.  The burgeoning field of epigenetics shows that environmental effects can alter the expression of genes in ways that are transmitted across generations.


123 – A snail quickly withdraws into its shell when it senses danger and emerges just as quickly when danger passes.


When grad students looked at photos of these hoods they became less prosocial in attitude.  We can transform from a high-pro to a low-pro in the blink of an eye.


124 – They tested people who moved to see if the prosociality of the neighborhood rubbed off on them – it did. 


125 – They designed a high school with Ostrom’s principles in mind.  Including that students, teachers, and staff should have a strong sense of purpose. 


They added a ninth, to create an atmosphere of safety and security since fear antagonizes long-term learning.


127 – These at-risk kids scored on par with the rest of Binghamton. 


Their PROSOCIAL scores went up, but not enough to be statistically significant. 


The Triple P (positive parenting Program) in Australia elps kids at $11 a pop.  It reduced hospital visits and foster care.  This is just one of many positive models.


128 – So he teamed with others to create “Evolving the Future: Towards a Science of Intentional Change.”   The need for prosociality begins before birth and continues throughout development.  Most of the ‘individual’ personality factors we measure are highly social.


129 – Many of these prosocial activities are self-organized, families, neighborhoods, churches, and businesses, locally.


130 – Greed isn’t all.  Many business folks are great givers.  Adam grant found that Givers (high-pro folks) freely offer their services without expectation of return.  And, they do well.  That is as long as they surround themselves with other givers and avoid takers.


131 – But making high-pro people requires a high-pro environment and we should build it.




133 – He co-edited Pathological Altruism with Barbara Oakley, Ariel Knafo and Guruprasad Madhavan. 


Adaptations are seldom categorically good. They can contribute to survival in one environment and harm in another.


135 – Low pros were shot at more than high pros.  But, when high pros were shot at, they considered it more stressful. 


High-pros are likely to feel guilty at the misfortune of others, even when it is not their fault. This can lead to depression, post traumatic stress disorder and OCD.


Oakley followed one woman whose pathological altruism led her to having to shoot her husband.


136 – In cold blooded kindness, Oakley also found passionate advocacy murders objectivity and truth seeking.  Battered women activists see no nuance.


137 – My selfishness can be bad for my family, but my family-level altruism can be bad for the clan, clan-level altruism can be bad for the nation. And nation level-bad for the ‘global village.’


We involved with strong small group allegiances. In a controlled experiment, few ratted on cheaters.


138 – In their altruism efforts, helping the parents worked. But getting the truant kids together in a group increased their deviant behavior.


Rivalry at one level of a corporation can hurt it at another level.




141 – Our neighborhoods work as well as they do due to prosocial folk.  But, if everyone was altruistic, it all might collapse. 


143 – He wants to relaunch Comte’s efforts with our modern evolutionary knowledge.


144 – The degree of regulation required for an organism to survive and reproduce is mind boggling.  Hundreds of metabolic processes must be regulated.


Natural selection gave our ancestors the ability to function as super organisms. 


But the terms selfish and altruistic don’t explain the complexity herein.  That is why both concepts must yield center stage to the term ‘organism.’


The invention of agriculture made it possible for human groups to become larger.  But the actual historical process was one of multilevel cultural evolution. 


145 – Larger groups created new problems for coordination and the suppression of disruptive self-serving behaviors.

Some groups did this better than others.  History shows us such in cultural fossils.


145 – Many believe that human nature can be reduced to list of psychological universals. This is how evolutionary biologists study the diversity of life. 


But these inherited traits result in cultural diversity, not uniformity.    We need to focus on how cultures adapt to their environments.


The question of how human groups become functionally organized as far as proximate causation is concerned probably has no single answer.


146 – Now we are the point in history when we need to accomplish functional organization at a larger scale than ever.  The selection of best practices must be intentional because we cannot wait for natural selection and there is no between-planet selection to select for us.


The need to manage self-organizing processes might seem like a contradiction, but it follows directly from evolutionary theory. 


147 – Most systems are self-organizing, but there needs to be selection.  [We have no such mechanism, he thinks??]


Elinor Ostrom’s work highlights the importance of small groups as units of functional organization.  They regulate themselves locally. So we need to be multicellular.    And, the more we participate in small groups, appropriately structured, the happier we are. 


Ostrom pioneered the concept of polycentric governance.   This notes that human life consists of many spheres of activity and that each sphere has an optimal scale.    Optimal governance requires finding the optimal scale for each sphere of activity. 


148 – Most government does not think this way.  This is a benefit of thinking of society as a multicellular organism.  It leads to polycentric governance.


We have been stymied by the WW II application of Social Darwinism (last full page of the book, second to last paragraph’s end sentence). 


149 – We must remember proximate versus ultimate causation to change the concept of altruism.  And, multilevel selection theory makes it crystal clear (to him) that if we want the world to become a better place, we must choose policies with the welfare of the whole world in mind.  As far as our selection criteria are concerned, we must become planetary altruists.


[His major flaw in this Pollyanna end is that it assumes China and Islam won’t kick our universalist butts.]