Thursday, December 19, 2013

Survival of the Nicest:How Altruism Made Us Human and Why It Pays to Get Along, by Stefan Klein

The Experiment, ISBN 9781615190904, January 2014

"If you want to be egoist, at least be a smart egoist, and share."

So says science journalist Stefan Klein, in his TEDx talk on this book. Why? Isn't it smarter to look out for our own self-interest, put our own needs first, compete ruthlessly for the greatest advantage for yourself and, by extension, your offspring? Don't altruists give away their advantages to others, and make their altruist genes less successful?

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is no. Klein gathers together the evidence from history, biology, anthropology, psychology, economics: Those who share, who have a strong sense of fairness, justice, and compassion, are overall happier and more successful in the long run. Social groups in which fairness and generosity are valued and widely practiced are more successful than groups which are more "everyone for themselves."

Why? Humans aren't faster or stronger than the species we competed with in our early evolution. Chimps are much stronger than we are. Individually, we're largely defenseless against lions and tigers and bears--not to mention rhinos and crocodiles. The idea of one human being or a single family group bringing down a mammoth is laughable. We're smarter, but individually, that only takes us so far.

Humans survived and thrived by learning to cooperate and share, in more complex ways and across larger and larger groups, than any other species. That's our special edge--what makes us "fit" in evolutionary terms. (Yes, social insects live and cooperate in very large groups by numbers of individuals--but they are all very closely related to each other--mother/daughters/sisters.)

And the more interconnected we are, the more we value and practice fairness, generosity, and justice, not just towards those we know but toward total strangers on the other side of the globe, people whom we'll never meet.

Klein lays out the evidence clearly, readably and persuasively. Read this, and you'll feel better about humanity and yourself--and possibly make decisions that make you happier in life, and feel less pressure to do the "smart" thing against your inclination to do the right thing.

Highly recommended.

TEDx talk on the book:


I received a free electronic galley from the publisher via NetGalley.