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Book Review: Survival of the Nicest 176

Posted by samzenpus
from the read-all-about-it dept.
jsuda writes "In a world of intractable wars and conflicts, spiteful and persistent political gridlock dominating (at least) American politics, rampant bare-knuckle capitalist competition and exploitation, and haters everywhere, Stephen Klein tries to convince us why it pays to get along. In Survival of the Nicest he says that we can be, and ought to be, 'nice' for our personal and social benefits." Read below for jsuda's review.
Survival of the Nicest: How Altruism Made Us Human and Why It Pays to Get Along
author Stefan Klein
pages 272
publisher The Experiment
rating 8/10
reviewer jsuda
ISBN 1615190902
summary Asserts that the key to achieving lasting personal and societal success lies in helping others.
Mr. Klein constructs arguments deriving from current brain research and genetics; economics, history, and social psychology; game theory; and behavioral and anthropological experiments which are intriguing, to say the least. Klein is an acclaimed science writer and writes about complex ideas in an accessible (if not always coherent) manner. He has a remarkable synthetic overview of a large number of elements which condition human economic decisions and behavior. He draws upon individual human stories, social science research, and especially game theory and economic logic to show that purely rational self-interested behavior is rare and probably impossible on a broad, societal level. He implies that the macroeconomic theories of the Austrian school of essential self-interest are reductionist at best. Society would eventually collapse and die off without a substantial amount of altruism particularly when under stress from environmental or competitive pressures.

Emotions, psychology, and cultural conditioning play a huge role in how people interact with each other in terms of selfish versus social decisions and behaviors. He cites natural and social science research which suggests that giving and altruism are essential for happiness itself. (There's even a biochemical basis for this in oxytocin and other substances.) Elements of community-level trust and fairness are probably more prominent than naked economic calculations. He gives many examples of how these elements of trust and fairness run counter and (or are complementary) to what ought to be expected from pure self interested logic and calculation.

He also points out that even the perceived effectiveness of reason and logic strategies depends on often-ignored assumptions like differences in consequences over short, medium, and long terms, the presence of imperfect knowledge, and the like. He sprinkles numerous examples of how game theory favorites like The Prisoner's Dilemma, The Free Rider Game, Ultimatum, and the amazingly effective Tit-for-Tat strategy (where a certain short-term level of--irrational--trust is essential to its success) are relevant for a whole host of social and economic situations.

There are intricate arguments about how game-like stratagems combined with tribalist elements condition self-interest and social-interest behaviors. Surprisingly, he argues how the success of generosity and good-naturedness depend on the presence of some degree of self-interest. Community-wide mores depend on an us-them competitive situation where the tribal effects unify people into efficient social structures where altruism is essential for the group to compete with and/or defeat outsiders. If and when that competition subsides, the group may then develop "freeloaders" who will increase in number in effect and collapse the social interest by rejecting its mores of trust and fairness.

The historical perspective on all of this is not very well developed or very coherent nor are the references to evolutionary theory. Mr. Klein sides with the proponents of the current controversy over group genetic selection position versus the more established individual selection position. He argues that generosity is hardwired into the human species at both the individual and group levels. Nevertheless, Klein shows that the selfish-vs-social attitudes have evolved over the centuries due to advanced philosophical concepts and the influence of condensing world geography, cultural shifts, and globalization-like elements.

He draws upon this evolutionary process to propose that we are in a historical period (The Global Village) where people are becoming more and more interdependent, unified by communication and transportation developments, and less tribal (at the national and cultural levels, at least) than before. These events will likely promote greater elements of trust, converging senses of fairness, and a recognition of the long term efficiencies of social behavior versus that of the mere self-interested personal attitude.

As a better educated society (mainly in economic efficiency theory and morality) we can change our thinking about how we relate to one another. We will recognize the evolutionary advantages to altruism. We can practice habits of fairness and altruism. Interestingly, he refers to science which categorizes humans as comprised of three main groups: about one third are consistently self interested, one-fifth are consistently altruists, and the rest are pragmatic opportunists who act depending on the environmental variables. Optimistically, he states "The Future Belongs to the Altruists."

I don't know how convincing this book can or will be given the enormous tidal wave of selfishness and narcissism which seemingly has infected our world. It seems right that a new way of thinking is a start towards something different, anyway, and this book certainly is intriguing and thought provoking.

You can purchase Survival of the Nicest: How Altruism Made Us Human and Why It Pays to Get Along from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews (sci-fi included) -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.
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Book Review: Survival of the Nicest

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  • Plagiarism (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Freshly Exhumed (105597) on Monday February 17, 2014 @04:14PM (#46269891) Homepage

    The Buddha is really pissed at Stefan Klein and has hired a battery of lawyers to sue his ass off.

  • Not buying it. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by russotto (537200) on Monday February 17, 2014 @04:28PM (#46270007) Journal

    Book is probably written by a selfish asshole trying to convince the rest of us to be pushovers to his advantage.

  • by hey! (33014) on Monday February 17, 2014 @04:41PM (#46270129) Homepage Journal

    It also means that every generalization you can draw about humanity is wrong much of the time. That said, Social Darwinism has enjoyed the popular pseudoscience stage unchallenged for too long.

    The problem with terms like "altruism" and "self-interest" is that they're so vague. Their empirical significance is imprecise at best when applied to a species where an individual's sense of well-being is tied to his social connections.

    Those who reduce a satisfying life exclusively to altruism or self-interest can point to supporting data, but they have only one piece of a much larger puzzle. Looked at dispassionately, Hitler and Gandhi are simply two extreme examples in the range of human character; most people would not be able to stand emulating either of them. As a species we did not evolve to fit in any simple, reductionistic philosophical box.

  • Courtesy (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mendax (114116) on Monday February 17, 2014 @05:02PM (#46270285)

    This book reminds me of a favorite sci fi story from the 1950's by Clifford B. Simak that was dramatized by NBC Radio in the old X Minus One radio series titled "Courtesy". I've never read the story but have listened to the dramatization [archive.org] many times.

    The premise of the story is a human expedition arrives on an alien planet that is inhabited but shows ample evidence of an older civilization that was destroyed by a plague. The humans, arrogant to a man save one, know about the plague and have a vaccine for the plague, except that the ship's doctor's bad eyes misread the expiration date and the vaccine is no good. The crew is doomed to die, yet the natives seem to have an antidote, and the humans are determined to beat it out of them if necessary.

    The ship's doctor goes out to meet with the natives to see if he can learn about their immunity. However, he falls off a cliff and dies on his way back. After the crew recovers the body, they find a piece of paper with a single word written on it: Courtesy. In the mean time the crew starts to die of the plague... except for one man, the man who has some humility and stepped out of the way of a native they'd captured as a matter of courtesy.

    Too late, the captain of the expedition realizes that the natives survived the plague by abandoning their cities and started to live simply and with humility. He and his men, save the one, are going to die because they were not willing to display courtesy.

    In some ways, the way we live now is a kind of a plague that is slowly killing us. Wouldn't life be a lot easier if we simply were respectful to each other without exception?

  • Re:Plagiarism (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mcgrew (92797) * on Monday February 17, 2014 @05:09PM (#46270357) Homepage Journal

    +5 funny, Bhudda wouldn't have sued anyone (great parody, good job) Christ isn't happy either, he doesn't much like lawyers. [mcgrewbooks.com] Or greedy, selfish people, and neither does Bhudda.

    There isn't a single religion I know of except mammon worshipers (the US's primary religion) that have anything good to say about society's actions. It seems society has forgotten everything ever said by any sage or wise man and has become sociopathic.

    Selfishness and greed and having no thought for your fellow man are not normal. [psmag.com] Someone needs to find a cure for our sick society before it succumbs completely to this deadly disease.

  • by i kan reed (749298) on Monday February 17, 2014 @05:31PM (#46270553) Homepage Journal

    You can exploit the hell out of people with their "consent" when they're left with no other options(see modern human trafficking for details), or when you're compelling them in ways that don't happen to be illegal. The pragmatic reality of starvation tends to intrude on Smiths perfect hyper-rational world, and the only laissez faire answer to that is social darwinism. I don't disagree with your implied premise that other systems such as fuedalism, Stalinism, or slavery exploited people in far worse ways, but that doesn't necessarily lead to a path where free-market capitalism is the ideal.

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