First Impressions: Unto Others: the Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior


I remember a period around the time I graduated from college when I was going back and forth between the works of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, trying to locate their most fundamental differences and deciding who had the better empirical and logical support. I often had the feeling that Gould got the better of the argument, but only because Dawkins was making larger claims. At the same time, Gould’s vision never struck me as thoroughly developed, while Dawkins’s was almost hermetically tight.

In 1998, unbeknownst to me, Elliot Sober and David Sloan Wilson came along with a meta-perspective on both evolutionary paradigms, which they spelled out in Unto Others: the Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. The book is a painstaking unpacking of assumptions underlying common arguments regarding the processes of evolution and the nature of human motivation. Though tedious at points, it’s ultimately well worth while because it turns out that many of those assumptions, while not exactly wrong, obscure important details.

Case in point, Dawkins relies on a definition of evolution—change in gene frequencies—that is blind to the processes that account for those changes. Specifically, by only attending to the outcomes of genetic competition, researchers inevitably miss the fact that group selection has occurred (yes, group selection!) To illustrate, Sober and Wilson offer an analogy with a case brought against the University of California at Berkley in the 1970’s. The percentage of women applicants who were accepted there was less than that of men. But when the University did a department-by-department inquiry they found that there was no discrimination. How is this possible? It turned out that women were disproportionately applying to more selective departments. The outcome is an example of what’s called Simpson’s paradox:

"To see how this can happen, imagine that 90 women and 10 men apply to a department with a 30 percent acceptance rate. This department does not discriminate and therefore accepts 27 women and 3 men. Another department, with a 60 percent acceptance rate, receives applications from 10 women and 90 men. This department doesn’t discriminate either and therefore accepts 6 women and 54 men. Considering both departments together, 100 men and 100 women applied, but only 33 women were accepted compared with 57 men" (25).

It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which a trait that was maladaptive in an individual group (like a department) could emerge in a larger population by this same process. (Well, maybe not so easy to imagine, but possible.)

Those insisting on individuals or genes as the only units of selection can still say that once the context is taken into account one or another trait is more adaptive than another and that is the one which will evolve, an argument Sober and Wilson refer to as the averaging fallacy. But this argument does nothing to illuminate the process scientists are trying to understand—it rather obscures an important element of it. Sober and Wilson convincingly argue that instead of choosing sides over which unit ought to garner the most attention, we should be able to adjust our focus depending on the question we’re trying to answer. They go on to make a case for the evolution of altruism resulting from group selection.

It seems more arguments are poked with holes in Unto Others than are presented as well sealed. The effect is an opening up of the playing field, an epistemic position the authors call pluralism, not to be confused with the other type of pluralism they argue for in the realm of evolutionary processes. On the whole, this leveling is immensely important—and must’ve been even more so in 98. But since so much of the book is given over to a dismantling of undeservedly prominent arguments and assumptions, I was a little frustrated coming away. I wish there had been more examples of what theories derived from a multi-level selection paradigm would look like. Maybe I’ll find them in some of Wilson’s later books.