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Unto OthersReview - Unto Others
The Evolution And Psychology of Unselfish Behavior
by Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson
Harvard University Press, 1998
Review by Charles F. Urbanowicz
Apr 9th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 15)

In 1998, Elliot Sober, a philosopher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and David Sloan Wilson, a biologist at Binghamton University, New York, published the contentious and debatable Unto Others: The Evolution And Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (based on decades of thought) and Unto Others remains contentious and debatable today! René Descartes (1596-1650), once wrote (in translation) the following:

"For the greater number of books, one need only read a few lines and look at a few pictures, in order to know them entirely; the rest is there only to fill up the pages." Cogitationes Privatae. X, 214 [cited on page 20, John M. Morris, 1971, Descartes Dictionary (NY: Philosophical Library).]
Unto Others is clearly a book that needs careful and detailed reading of all pages. Utilizing information from "four disciplines--evolutionary biology, social psychology, anthropology, and philosophy" (page 9), individuals with different backgrounds interpret different things in different portions of the book for different reasons; as Sober and Wilson point out in their concluding chapter ("The Evolution of Psychological Altruism"), "Human beings are capable of forming beliefs about a huge range of propositions" (page 324).

Sober and Wilson wrote of altruism and that at "the behavioral level, it is likely that much of what people have evolved to do is for the benefit of the group [italics in original]" (page 194) but the trouble is, the group (just as Unto Others ) is made up of "individuals" (and individual interpretations) and individuals differ. Can collective "individual behavior" be purported to have evolved to be beneficial to the group? The answer is a definitive maybe!

Consider, if you will, the following: Sober and Wilson cite John Maynard Smith several times, including his 1995 publication (with E.Szathmary) entitled The Major Transitions of Life (NY: W.H. Freeman) and they write (page 191): "The history of life on earth appears to have been marked by a number of major transitions in which previously independent lower-level units coalesced into functionally integrated higher-level units (Maynard Smith and Szathmary 1995)." One should consider, however, the 1998 review that John Maynard Smith (School of Biological Sciences, University of Sussex, United Kingdom) wrote concerning Unto Others: "This book should carry a health warning. Read critically, it will stimulate thought about important questions. Swallowed whole, its effects would be disastrous [stress added]." (Nature, Vol. 393, 18 June 1998, pages 639-640, page 640). On the other hand, John Maynard Smith's review may be compared with that of Christopher Boehm, whom Sober and Wilson cited and wrote about as follows (page 184): "Christopher Boehm is uniquely qualified to comment on the evolution of human social behavior. ... Boehm's grasp of the anthropological literature makes our own sampling of cultures appear paltry indeed, and it is therefore gratifying that he comes to the same conclusions."

Reviewing Unto Others in 1999, Christopher Boehm (University of Southern California) wrote as follows:

"Unto Others is a brilliant effort.... By boldly expanding the ultimate basis for explaining social behavior, Unto Others could be extremely useful in restoring some of our broader anthropological interests in evolutionary issues. ... Unto Others opens up important new possibilities that we cannot afford to ignore and also provides a very good read for cultural anthropologists. For biological anthropologists, the book is a must [stress added]." Christopher Boehm, 1999, American Anthropologist, Vol. 101, No. 3, September pages 702-703, page 703.
One also may read a 1998 review by Leonard Nunney (Department of Biology, University of California, Riverside), not referenced anywhere in Unto Others, who wrote the following about Unto Others:
"Although I agree with much of what the authors say and what they hope to achieve, this book is more focused on debate than science. The book's two long arguments are interesting when viewed as such, but anyone looking for novel scientific insight will be sadly disappointed [stress added]." Leonard Nunney, 1998, Science, Vol. 281, 11 September, pages 1620-1621, page 1621.
What does one make of this? Obviously, one brings to a reading of Sober and Wilson (or a reading of "anything") precisely what one believes in! One's own personal evolution" (or adaptation), as part of the cultural group, conditions us to see (and interpret) phenomena and not necessarily for the benefit of the group. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) stated, among many things, that "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world" (1921, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, #5.6) and anthropologists, biologists, psychologists, and philosophers see the world through different lenses which, at times, magnifies (and distorts and sometimes alters or destroys) the object under scrutiny.

As a reader of this review, what should you consider about Sober and Wilson's thesis on altruism? Read Unto Others carefully and thoughtfully, for John Maynard Smith's admonition holds: "Read critically, it [Unto Others] will stimulate thought about important questions. Swallowed whole, its effects would be disastrous." Is Unto Others a good book? Yes. Is it an earth-shattering book, akin to Darwin's 1859 publication of the first edition of (what was to be known as) Origin? No.. With some 337 pages of text, 24 pages of references (403 in all), and an eight-page index, Sober and Wilson cover too much in the two major sections: Evolutionary Altruism (Chapters 1-5), Psychological Altruism (chapters 6-10), as well as the concluding chapter entitled "Pluralism." Those who wish to pick Unto Others to death can readily do so and those who think it is a "brilliant effort" will obviously think so.

Unto Others provides a great deal of background information which allows the reader to go beyond Sober and Wilson and form a personal opinion; unfortunately, in this reviewer's mind, Sober and Wilson's phrase "multilevel selection theory" strikes this reader as nothing new, when they write on pages 118 and 132 as follows: "Multilevel selection theory allows us to see possibilities that have not been obvious from other perspectives. ... We have shown that natural selection is a multilevel process that sometimes molds groups into adaptive units [stress added]" (pages 118 and 132). This, in my mind, is similar to Howard Gardner (Harvard University) and his 1999 opus Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences (based on double-decades of thought, going back to 1983 and Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences). Natural selection, diversity, and evolution are real (and evolution means diversity) and in 1999 Gardner wrote:

"As educators, we face a stark choice: ignore these differences or acknowledge them. Sometimes they are ignored out of ignorance, sometimes they are ignored because educators are either frustrated by the differences, or convinced that individuals are more likely to become members of a community if they can be more alike. But those who ignore the differences are not being fair--and are typically focusing only on the language-logic mind.... To the extent that the student and the teacher share that focus, the student will do well and consider herself [or himself!] smart. But if the student has a fundamentally different kind of mind, she [or he] is likely to feel stupid--at least while attending that school [or that particular class]. What is the alternative? One possibility is individually configured education--an education that takes individual differences seriously and, insofar as possible, crafts practices that serve different kinds of minds equally well. ... The crucial ingredient is a commitment to knowing the minds--the persons--of individual students. This means learning about each student's background, strengths, interests, preferences, anxieties, experiences, and goals, not to stereotype or to preordain but rather to ensure that educational decisions are made on the basis of an up-to-date profile of the student [stress added]." Howard Gardner, 1999, Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences (NY: Basic Books), pages 150-151.
How can the reader of this review profit if one is interested in mental health, psychopathology, or anything? The recomendation is that you definitely obtain a copy of Unto Others, read it slowly and carefully (with the knowledge that there is great debate about the ideas of Sober & Wilson), and then consult the references and form your own opinion! Use the references to build upon and go beyond! Please read and consider, for example, some of the brilliant words of George C. Williams that Sober and Wilson cite, or Robert Axelrod, or even Charles Darwin (1809-1882) (whom Gardner cites as an example of "naturalist" intelligence!). Is every reader of this review aware that Darwin published six editions of Origin in his lifetime, each one different from the other? And in every edition published in his lifetime, from the second edition of 1860 until the sixth edition of 1872, he included the phrase "by the Creator" as indicated below:
"Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator [Stress added] into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."
What "Darwin" do you know and cite? Even the recent (and otherwise excellent) 1999 Lucy's Legacy: Sex And Intelligence in Human Evolution (Harvard University Press), by Alison Jolly (Princeton University) has the erroneous statement that Darwin "kept the last paragraph of his masterpiece unchanged through all successive editions of the Origin" (page 15). What previous "beliefs" do you bring to a reading of Darwin or Sober and Wilson or anything? Please question and think about those assumptions and you will get the most out of Unto Others.

Finally, in 1972, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) published an impressive collection of essays entitled Steps to an Ecology of Mind and his 1972 words are as true today as they were then: "The unit of survival [or adaptation one adds] is organism plus environment. We are learning by bitter experience that the organism which destroys its environment destroys itself." (page 483.) What more can one say concerning dealing with any individual within any situation? An understanding the organism and the environment in which it is surviving (or adapting and reproducing) is everything; anything else is a footnote!


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