why is a genetic explanation for altruism problematic

But it's when Wilson turns to the social lives of human beings that his views become more problematic. There are several difficulties. One is that Wilson's multilevel selection theory is so broad, so causally inclusive, that it may well be able to explain nearly anything about people. When a theory allows genetic selection to act at any level in the biological hierarchy and cultural selection to act at any level in the social hierarchy, it's hard to imagine many facts about people that might remain refractory to "explanation" by it. In science, a theory can be a little too pliant for its own good and Wilson may have found one. It would have been helpful had he listed some imaginable observations about people that would force him to seriously question his theory. Just what plausible property of religious practice, for example, might cause Wilson to conclude that multilevel selection played little part in its history? (If the early church had held that each believer should maximise his material well-being and not attend to the welfare of the community, wouldn't Wilson conclude that Christianity spread by cultural evolution at the individual level? )
Also, many of Wilson's insights about society that purportedly follow from multilevel selection are frankly banal. Do we really need mathematical evolutionary theory to tell us that if we want society to successfully pursue a common goal, then individuals shouldn't constantly cheat one another?


Part of the problem here is that Wilson inverts the actual order of logical inference. Evolutionary biologists didn't invent the idea of individual cheaters who subvert the goals of groups. Instead, evolutionists described biological cheaters by analogy with social phenomena that were already familiar. ("This gene acts like a cheater in a game. ") We already knew that people who cheat can compromise the goals of groups and thus must be stopped. That's why armies shoot deserters and why governments chase tax evaders. Reimporting evolutionary theory here does little but dress up these commonsense notions in pseudoscientific garb that seems both uninformative and pretentious. Wilson also sometimes makes things too easy for himself. This is clearest in his attempted demolition of economics, which depends heavily on omission and caricature. Reading Wilson, one would guess that economists engage in a kind of magical thinking when concluding that the pursuit of enlightened self-interest can make the world a better place. That's partly because he never reveals the actual logic of their arguments. In an entire chapter devoted to the absurdities of economic orthodoxy, Wilson never mentions the concepts of comparative advantage or gains from trade despite their importance in economists' arguments. Instead, he heaps ridicule on counterintuitive conclusions mostly by playing up just how counterintuitive they are. This isn't to say that Wilson is necessarily wrong here and economists are right.


But it is to say that it's easy to win a debate when the other side's arguments don't get a fair hearing. Finally, it has to be said that Does Altruism Exist? is marred by Wilson's tendency to self-aggrandisement. In places, for example, he indulges in cringe-inducing claims about how the theory of multilevel selection, like that of Copernicus, was once derided but is now accepted. And he relentlessly insists that his version of evolutionary theory is just what is needed to right our social arrangements and save the planet. It is, I suppose, formally possible that he's right about this. But there is precious little evidence of it in his book. The unfortunate thing is that Wilson's attempt to extend evolutionary theory from biology to all society distracts from his real accomplishment. He, along with many others, has helped to make the logic of natural selection clearer. And that is something. Saving the planet isn't required. Smith's theory of sentiments resembles, at the formal level only however, Becker's egocentric approach. It differs from Becker's at the substantive level. To reconstruct Smith's theory, we have at hand the station of the acting self, S, the station of the recipient other, O, and the station of the would-be impartial spectator occupied by the self reflecting on itself, coined here "spectator self," S s. Figure 1 illustrates such a three-station scenario, where S s examines the utilities of O and S s from a detached, third station whose location is determined by the degree of familiarity.


The occupation of the third station of the impartial spectator by the actor himself has two clear implications. First, when the actor empathizes with the suffering of the other, it is not by imagining such suffering as happening to his own person as supposed by Becker's egocentric view. Second, the judge of the potential action is not an actual spectator for two reasons. The first reason is that the judge is not a disinterested observer according to whose opinion agent S tries to conform. In other words, we do not have here a socialization process where S tries to appease the public and gain its applause. Rather, S adopts the view of S s the impartial spectator who emerges which S examines his own act from a distance. Such a Smithian approach means that, at first approximation, the "self" precedes public opinion or the sociocultural milieu. But, for Smith, the milieu is not totally disregarded. It plays a role when it helps the formation of the self by allowing the agent to reflect on his action as he does on the action of others. Without society, the agent cannot take a look at his action from a distance. So, society acts as a reflection mirror that clarifies and intensifies S 's view of himself. For Smith, while society is essential for the development of the self, it does not act as a construction engineer la Mead.

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