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The Altruism Equation

The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness

Lee Alan Dugatkin
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Altruism Equation
    Book Description:

    In a world supposedly governed by ruthless survival of the fittest, why do we see acts of goodness in both animals and humans? This problem plagued Charles Darwin in the 1850s as he developed his theory of evolution through natural selection. Indeed, Darwin worried that the goodness he observed in nature could be the Achilles heel of his theory. Ever since then, scientists and other thinkers have engaged in a fierce debate about the origins of goodness that has dragged politics, philosophy, and religion into what remains a major question for evolutionary biology.

    The Altruism Equationtraces the history of this debate from Darwin to the present through an extraordinary cast of characters-from the Russian prince Petr Kropotkin, who wanted to base society on altruism, to the brilliant biologist George Price, who fell into poverty and succumbed to suicide as he obsessed over the problem. In a final surprising turn, William Hamilton, the scientist who came up with the equation that reduced altruism to the cold language of natural selection, desperately hoped that his theory did not apply to humans.

    Hamilton's Rule, which states that relatives are worth helping in direct proportion to their blood relatedness, is as fundamental to evolutionary biology as Newton's laws of motion are to physics. But even today, decades after its formulation, Hamilton's Rule is still hotly debated among those who cannot accept that goodness can be explained by a simple mathematical formula. For the first time, Lee Alan Dugatkin brings to life the people, the issues, and the passions that have surrounded the altruism debate. Readers will be swept along by this fast-paced tale of history, biography, and scientific discovery.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4143-1
    Subjects: Psychology, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

  1. CHAPTER ONE A Special Difficulty That Might Prove Fatal
    (pp. 1-11)

    While writingOn the Origin of Speciesin the late 1850s, Charles Darwin was unencumbered by the strict editorial rules that apply to scientists today. He had the liberty to indulge in wide-ranging digressions that at times became streams of consciousness.¹ This freedom allowed him the scope to tackle issues that he might otherwise have avoided. In particular, Darwin was not afraid to address problems associated with his theory of evolution by natural selection. He did so often, and at length.

    This book is about one of Darwin’s problems. It began as a small difficulty with honeybees. At first glance,...

  2. CHAPTER TWO Darwin’s Bulldog versus the Prince of Evolution
    (pp. 12-36)

    England, 1888: Slowly adapting to life in his home away from home, former Russian prince and well-known anarchist Petr Kropotkin stays vigilant, always keeping an eye out for the Russian secret police, who he rightly believes are out to capture him and place him where they think all anarchists belong—in a dark, dingy jail cell. Having been in and out of Russian and French prisons for his political positions, Kropotkin knows what life in such cells is like—indeed, just a year earlier, he had written a whole book on that subject.¹ To keep his sanity and avoid paranoia,...

  3. CHAPTER THREE The Greatest Word from Science since Darwin
    (pp. 37-60)

    Petr kropotkin published his book-length manifestoMutual Aidin 1902. And while Kropotkin lectured on the subject for years after that, things were fairly quiet with respect to new work on altruism and its relation (or lack of relation) to kinship after the turn of the twentieth century. This changed in the early 1920s, when American ecologist Warder Clyde Allee¹ picked up where Kropotkin left off; only Allee was an experimentalist to the core. Like Kropotkin, he believed that altruism and cooperation lay at the heart of social behavior in nonhumans and humans, and that this cooperation was divorced completely...

  4. CHAPTER FOUR J.B.S.: The Last Man Who Might Know All There Was to Be Known
    (pp. 61-85)

    J.b.s. haldane was a man fond of one-liners. Scientist, science writer, and science fiction writer wrapped into one, Haldane once summarized his views on life by noting, “My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”² Legend has it that when asked about our own little planet, and more specifically about what evolutionary biology might tell us about God, Haldane cracked that God must have “had an inordinate fondness for beetles,” which seems a rather strange thing to say, until you realize that there are over 350,000 known species...

  5. CHAPTER FIVE Hamilton’s Rule
    (pp. 86-106)

    William david hamilton grew up in a small British country cottage outside of the small town of Sevenoaks, Kent. The cottage itself was called “Oaklea,” after Hamilton’s father’s old home in New Zealand. Oaklea sat atop a hill named Badger’s Mount—a hill that served as a base for the endless natural history romps that he took as a child. Born on August 1, 1936, Bill Hamilton was the second oldest of Archibald Hamilton and Bettina Collier’s six children. Archibald was an engineer who was best known for his development of the Callender-Hamilton bridge design.² The income from this innovation,...

  6. CHAPTER SIX The Price of Kinship
    (pp. 107-114)

    After he returned from Brazil in 1964, Bill Hamilton worked as a researcher at Imperial College’s field station in Berkshire. This facility, called Silwood Park, had a stellar reputation for insect ecology and population biology, but it housed very few evolutionary biologists. So, when a lectureship in genetics opened at the London campus of Imperial College, Hamilton applied for the job. He obtained the position “with ridiculous ease.” English institutions of higher learning were expanding rapidly in the early 1960s, and, as Hamilton remembers it, “jobs for academics almost fell from the trees.”¹

    Unable to afford a house on the...

  7. CHAPTER SEVEN Spreading the Word
    (pp. 115-122)

    Though his work had a profound impact on people like George Price, Bill Hamilton’s ideas on blood kinship and altruism would take time to spread to other scientists and to the lay public. Indeed, most people knew nothing of Hamilton’s models on altruism and kinship ten years after they had appeared. This all changed, however, with the publication of two of the most popular evolutionary biology books ever written: Richard Dawkins’sThe Selfish Gene(1976), and E. O. Wilson’sSociobiology(1975).¹

    By the time that Oxford University Professor Richard Dawkins published his bookThe Selfish Gene, the study of behavior...

  8. CHAPTER EIGHT Keepers of the Flame
    (pp. 123-141)

    If there is a focal point for modern work on kinship and altruism, it resides on the third floor of Seeley Mudd Hall at Cornell University. This place houses a group of scientists that, as a unit, have done more work testing Hamilton’s rule than any group, anywhere. Though they shy away from thinking of themselves as having a leader, that distinction falls on the shoulders of the most senior of these scientists, Stephen Emlen. In addition to seniority, Emlen has the added qualification of being part of one of the few true dynasties in the area of behavior and...

  9. CHAPTER NINE Curator of Mathematical Models
    (pp. 142-150)

    When e. o. wilson’sSociobiologywas published in 1975, Bill Hamilton was once again studying insects in the forests of Brazil, this time with his wife, Christine, and their two daughters by his side. When Hamilton returned to England in 1976, he realized that twelve years after starting at Imperial College, and despite the fact that his papers on altruism and kinship were now being recognized as seminal, he still only held the relatively low rank of lecturer. The reasons for his nonpromotion are unclear, but it stemmed at least in part from the fact that although the quality of...