International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Unto Others: Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behaviour

by Elliott Sober , David Sloan Wilson

Introductory Essay by Stephen G. Post

This widely acclaimed book investigates the concepts of altruism and selfishness in evolutionary biology, psychology and philosophy. It builds a case for group selection theory as the basis of genuine psychological altruism. The repudiation of group selection theory, while dominant in the closing decades of the twentieth century, is shown to be unable to adequately explain many animal behaviors. As the authors state, one a philosopher and the other a biologist, “it is likely that much of what people have evolved to do is for the benefit of the group” [194].  At the psychological level, they argue persuasively that “some people at least some of the time have the welfare of others as ends in themselves” [228]. Whereas psychological egoism claims that all human motives are directed at self-interest, the “altruism hypothesis” says that at least some human desires are genuinely other-regarding. Sober and Wilson gather a wealth of biological and social scientific information to show that the human motivational substrate is at least pluralistic and inclusive of altruistic motives. In the process, they reveal the remarkable extent to which scientists have simply assumed that nothing other than psychological egoism could possibly be true. The position these authors show to be true is “motivational pluralism,” which “says that the ultimate desires that people have include both egoistic and altruistic motives. People may want to avoid pain as an end in itself, and they also may have their own survival as an ultimate goal, but, in addition, they sometimes care irreducibly about the welfare of others” [297].  The best of current biological and social science removes genuine altruistic motivation and action from the wastebasket of reductionism.

Few books have had as much influence on moral psychology, evolutionary thought, and ethics as this one. It has been the most widely cited study of its kind since its publication. Wilson in particular has gone on to write with E.O. Wilson and others who have followed his lead to some extent in moving away from a purely individual selection theory to one that is pluralistic. Wilson has also gone on to use the framework of group selection theory to explain many of the details of various religions. Together, Sober and Wilson’s classic text is the finest example of integrative and innovative work at the interface of science and philosophy that we have available today. It is considered a classic, and rightly so. Moreover, the book retrieves Darwin from the hands of reductive individual selection theorists, for Darwin too recognized that our prosocial behaviors and motivations most likely emerge from a competition between groups, rather than between individuals. To the extent that any group has within it the evolved resources of kindness, helping activity, and altruism, it is more likely to prosper in the great scheme of evolutionary history.

This is the one book that no one interested in the theology or philosophy of the human motivational substrate can afford to ignore, for it is a masterpiece of integrative thought that stands high above any other existing book, and has been received as such.