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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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  • by i kan reed (749298) on Monday February 17, 2014 @04:13PM (#46269885) Homepage Journal

    You've just reinvented "enlightened self-interest" under the 1 millionth new name! Click here to claim your prize.

    • "You've just reinvented "enlightened self-interest" under the 1 millionth new name! Click here to claim your prize."

      I also wish they'd get their economics straight. Exploitation is not "capitalist". Exploitation tends to occur even more in non-capitalist economies. In fact, exploitation of others is directly contrary to Smithian capitalism and free markets, which depend on purely voluntary exchanges. Exploitation is rather the opposite of "voluntary".

      • 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.

        • by Livius (318358)

          Maybe exploitation isn't a strictly either-or concept.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          "You can exploit the hell out of people with their "consent" when they're left with no other options"

          Nonsense. That isn't "consent". There's nothing "voluntary" about that at all. Coerced behavior is not "voluntary", in any sense of the term. They are mutually exclusive.

          "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"

          Smith described the provably best economic system the world has ever seen, which led to a smaller percentage of people starving than ever in history. Can you somehow show that is not true? I doubt it, since it is a fact.

          Even China has fewer starving people now that it has adopted more elements of Capitalism.

          History doesn't lie: no eco

          • You're reaching.
            It comes off as "Consent is defined the exactly the set of things I need it to be for my world-view to be ideal, rather than the conventional definition"

            • by drinkypoo (153816)

              Nonsense. Those people are forced into suboptimal actions by others taking actions which limit their choices, for their own benefit. It's exploitation, there is no consent in that situation on any side.

            • "Voluntary" means something you VOLUNTEER to do. If you are forced or coerced into it, that isn't volunteering so it isn't voluntary. It's that simple.
              • Yeah, and if you volunteer for something becaues your options are "A. take this specific offer, however constraining or B. die from starvation/preventable illness" it doesn't fit the 'classic' model of coercion, and the libertarian crowd would be all for it.

      • You see that gold mine over there? Imma exploit the shit outta that bitch, and getting your panties in a twist over nomenclature ain't gonna stop me!
        • "You see that gold mine over there? Imma exploit the shit outta that bitch, and getting your panties in a twist over nomenclature ain't gonna stop me!"

          "Nomenclature" aside, exploiting a piece of ground is different from exploiting people. Some people might use them together but they are not the same things.

      • Exploitation is rather the opposite of "voluntary".

        What utter nonsense. Many people are exploited in their jobs. Yet they could give up the job.

        The antonym of exploitation is fairness.

        • "What utter nonsense. Many people are exploited in their jobs. Yet they could give up the job."

          Exploit n. To take advantage of (a person, situation, etc), esp unethically or unjustly for one's own ends

          If you don't leave, then you are consenting. Freely given consent implies voluntary. There is no contradiction there. However: if the consent is not freely given, then it may not be voluntary.

          Just so we don't get caught up in a scuffle over terminology: when I wrote "exploit" I meant it in the sense of "to coerce".

          A coerced agreement may be consent but it is not FREELY GIVEN consent. That is

          • by drinkypoo (153816)

            If you don't leave, then you are consenting.

            But if you do leave, then you may wind up homeless, which is essentially a crime in the USA. And it's non-trivial to leave the country — just try, say, walking across Mexico. Or even driving across it, without some prior planning, not to mention funding.

          • Example: American cable TV and internet companies. In most parts of the U.S., their use can be said to be coerced because there are few if any other choices.

            Right, and the same thing applies to work for many people. The are exploited, the could resign, as it's not slavery. Yet they don't have any other choice of work, at least none that isn't equally exploitative. And without work, they and their families starve.

            Now I'm glad that you don't consider that these people are doing those jobs voluntarily, but most right wingers and libertarians would say they do.

            As I said, a better antonym for exploited is fairness (or to be treated fairly).

    • I should add: he also seems to have the mistaken impression that Austrian economics is somehow anathema to altruism, which is ridiculous.

      To be blunt, either the author or OP needs a lot of schooling in both politics and economics. One of the two is -- or perhaps both are -- conflating completely separate ideas into a great, hopeless muddle.

      Based on this review, I think this is a book that can be safely ignored without negative consequences.
      • Well, Austrian economics is easy to take apart as pseudo-scientific bullshit based on fundamentally flawed assumptions rather than empiricism, so forgive my lack of concern over that quibble, especially since the neoliberal policies that are treated as the conclusion of the theory are fundamentally an anathema to altruism.

        • "Well, Austrian economics is easy to take apart as pseudo-scientific bullshit based on fundamentally flawed assumptions rather than empiricism, so forgive my lack of concern over that quibble, especially since the neoliberal policies that are treated as the conclusion of the theory are fundamentally an anathema to altruism."

          Nice troll. You didn't address the actual point but used it as a jumping off point to change the subject and rant about your lack of education in economics.

          Please give us an actual example of these fundamental flaws you describe, rather than painting with such broad, vague brushes. I can say any school of economics is based on flawed assumptions, but without an actual example it amounts to nothing more than hot air.

          Also, despite Wikipedia's use of the word, Austrian economics pre-dated "neo-liberalism

          • Re:Congratulations. (Score:4, Informative)

            by i kan reed (749298) on Monday February 17, 2014 @07:16PM (#46271369) Homepage Journal

            You didn't address the actual point but used it as a jumping off point to change the subject and rant about your lack of education in economics.

            Yeah, thinking Austrian school has no bearing on reality is reaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaal "uneducated" of me. Yep.

            an example of a fundamental flaw, for the pedantic and self-righteous:
            The fundamental "axiom"(note this bizzare and outlandish term used for hypotheses, that in science would be tested, not assumed) of action, which posits:
            "human beings take conscious action towards chosen goals."

            Now... if you've ever met a person, you would no the frequently make no effort or action towards their personal goals. You might say "well that's just people being lazy, economics is for people who work," but almost every major praxology in the of Austrian economics takes the axiom of action as an assumption about the entire population.

            Now people throw in post-hoc and ad-hoc justifications for why these things don't matter like the efficient market hypothesis, but in the end, the Austrian school has no empircal roots and can basically be considered bunk in a non-hypothetical world.

            • "Yeah, thinking Austrian school has no bearing on reality is reaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaal "uneducated" of me. Yep."

              Yep. Austrian economists INVENTED many of the principles and equations that other schools of economics use as fundamental tools. But you didn't seem to be aware of that.

              But... nice example! It just so happens, that Keynesian economics and Neo-Classical economics (which together make up the majority of "mainstream" economists today) ALSO rely, at their very roots, on the fundamental principle that "human beings take conscious action towards chosen goals."

              Which means that to the extent Austrian economic

              • by khallow (566160)

                They teach you in Econ 101 that an underlying assumption of all of economics is that human beings make rational choices to maximize their own benefit.

                A statement which is not actually true. For example, the Austrian school doesn't make that assumption and a lot of economic behavior studies are about how humans appear to deviate from rational choice making.

                • "A statement which is not actually true. For example, the Austrian school doesn't make that assumption and a lot of economic behavior studies are about how humans appear to deviate from rational choice making."

                  (1) I didn't claim Austrian economics includes that idea, GP did. My comment referred to other schools of economics.

                  And (2) show me an Econ 101 class in a U.S. university that teaches Austrian economics. I've never heard of one. I don't necessarily think it's a bad idea though.

                  Regardless, just about all the equations in macroeconomics are based in the idea that people are making rational decisions. They HAVE TO be: you can't predict the outcome of irrational behavior. Assuming irrational behavior woul

              • Yeah, I had a feeling the phrase "econ 101" would come up, because that's as far as any Austrian dipshits ever seem to pay attention.

                • "Yeah, I had a feeling the phrase "econ 101" would come up, because that's as far as any Austrian dipshits ever seem to pay attention."

                  That seems like a pretty arrogant ad-hominem for somebody who couldn't find a real reason for claiming Austrian economics is wrong.

                  Get back to me when you have an actual argument to make.

                  • I made an actual argument, and you haven't defended the notion of axiomatic idiocy at all. Because guess what: sane economists, contrary to your delusions, don't use it.

                    • "I made an actual argument, and you haven't defended the notion of axiomatic idiocy at all. Because guess what: sane economists, contrary to your delusions, don't use it."

                      I could find 100 authoritative sources, but I'm not going to bother.

                      From Wikipedia's page on "economics" [wikipedia.org], paragraph 1, sentence 1:

                      "Economics is the social science that studies how rational individuals, groups, and organizations (called economic actors, players, or agents), manage scarce resources"

                      [emphasis added]

    • Re:Congratulations. (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Livius (318358) on Monday February 17, 2014 @05:52PM (#46270749)

      It still astonishes me that people can so readily embrace the fact that humans are like other animals and yet fail to understand that humans are social animals and are most like other social animals.

      • by cusco (717999)

        This should seriously piss off the Libertardian Social Darwinists.

        • What doesn't? When nothing short of people starving to death(as if that's the way people would choose to go out when crime is an option) will satisfy you, you aren't going to be satisfied in any society that works.

    • by argStyopa (232550)

      We're good on the "self interest" bit. It's the "enlightened" part that we seem to have so much trouble with.

  • 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)

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

  • Yes, the meek inherit a 3-by-8 foot plot of the earth.
  • 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.

    • Gandhi and Hitler were alike in the aspect that they got a lot of peoples attention. There are a lot of people in the world good or bad who just fail to get much attention. In that case, being extreme good would just make them a pushover, and extreme bad they would be locked up in jail, or killed.

    • by Immerman (2627577)

      Such reductionist claims also tend to overlook the fact that the rules change as society scales. Back when everyone in town knew everyone else game theory was far more applicable - you'll be playing various social "games" with these people your entire life, and so everyone can develop a pretty good sense of your character which impacts future dealings, and outsiders are regarded with understandable suspicion - after all they have no reputation to engender trust, and will likely leave before they develop en

  • ...just because scientists can't explain it, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. We have been struggling to explain and model altruistic behaviors for centuries, and our failure has caused many to claim that altruism does not exist. However, this obviously clashes with the reality that we observe every day. This dissonance is shown most vividly in the tragic story of George R. Price [wikipedia.org]. "Survival of the Nicest" seems like a refreshing attempt to explain what we can observe, instead of giving up and declaring t

    • Altruism isn't unexplained. It's explained by the selfish gene. It even explains why we care more for people close to us than people further away.

      We are most altruistic to the people we share most genes with - close family, then extended family, then people in out tribe, then race, then members of our species, and as species get less and less closely connected to ours, the less we care.

      Survival of the most genes like ours is what we strive for. That's what explains altruism.

      • Kin selection explains a narrow subset of altruistic behaviors. There are a host of other altruistic behaviors that it does not explain, and people regularly behave contrary to its predictions. I'm good friends with people who come from far-away countries, and I've done more for them than for my own cousins. I'm sure the same is true for you. I vote in ways that benefit people who have only the most basic genetic material in common with me, at the expense of my close relatives. There are countless other exa

        • There are counter examples to everything. Evolution isn't perfect. But the tendency I described to be more altruistic the closer the genes are to your own is trend that far outweighs those exceptions.

          If you have your own explanation for those exceptions I'd be glad to hear it.

          I guess there are cultural pressures such as religion and political alignments that have evolved in man because of different genetic reasons. But such conscious drives to conform to a culture seem less powerful than the instinctive one

  • 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?

  • by ideonexus (1257332) on Monday February 17, 2014 @05:18PM (#46270431) Homepage Journal
    In his book "The Selfish Gene" Richard Dawkins uses the Prisoner's Dilemma to construct a quasi-mathematical proof that judicious altruism beats greed as an evolutionary strategy [ideonexus.com]. Also, Hamilton's Rule [wikipedia.org] provides quantification to why altruism makes sense for the species.
    • I was hoping someone would point this out. Thanks for links..

      Author Steven Wright took this idea and gave it a historical perspective in his book Non-Zero... where the title means that Non-Zero transactions (ie both parties win) have more evolutionary value than Zero transaction (ie predator/prey).

  • As a better educated society (mainly in economic efficiency theory and morality) we can change our thinking about how we relate to one another.

    why would those in power want to let that happen?

    just sayin'

    • As a better educated society (mainly in economic efficiency theory and morality) we can change our thinking about how we relate to one another.

      why would those in power want to let that happen?

      They wouldn't. They are already helping each other and (mostly) fighting for each other against the rest of the population. And they pay a pittance to a few "peasants" to do the the dirty jobs they don't want to do, so they are set. They don't really care about the "lower classes" as long as the lower classes don't get in their way. And for the few that do get in their way, they have the resources to neutralize the threat.

  • "survival" of the fittest is mostly a euphemism for reproduction. Numbers matter, but so does quality for it influences grandchildren and beyond.

    So, are the scarce-gametes (women) attracted to nice guys? I don't see any evidence amongst all the feel-good unsupported normative prescriptions. I strongly suspect women are looking for men practicing optimum predatation. Although I doubt they are aware of this "goldilocks".

    • by cusco (717999)

      My own observation is that the nice guys end up with the more stable relationships, which tend to produce fewer but higher-achieving offspring. Speaking as someone who just celebrated our silver anniversary.

    • So, are the scarce-gametes (women) attracted to nice guys? ... I strongly suspect women are looking for men practicing optimum predatation

      My girlfriend of many years freely admitted that I was the "rational" choice rather than the "chemistry" choice. Later she also admitted to other advantages of choosing me over a man "practicing optimum predation".

  • and the amazingly effective Tit-for-Tat strategy...

    In politics we have one party that spews whatever unscientific nonsense bubbles up to the surface of their collective consciousness on a particular day. The other party tries to the be adults in the room and, if we've learned one thing over the last 30 years, that doesn't work.

    It's counter-intuitive but the way to deal with irrational people is to match crazy with crazy, with forgiveness. So, if they want to stop the crazy and work on something sane,

    • by mi (197448)

      The other party tries to the be adults in the room

      Both of America's major parties would say this about themselves — and the other guys.

      But also willing to match crazy statement with crazy statement.

      But if you happen to represent the party in power currently, then it must be the "crazy" stage right now — and for the last 6 years at least. America has rapidly slipped in both — economic freedom [rt.com] and in press freedom [rsf.org] during the period. The Party — and the President — calling themsel

      • The index of economic freedom is a ridiculous partisan effort from a well known extremely radical organization.

        Complete bullshit really.

        http://www.heritage.org/index/... [heritage.org]

        Press freedom in the US has been under pressure for a long time, and rankings from JWB are notoriously volatile. For example the US had a large INCREASE in press freedom rankings last year, going from 47th to 33rd. It's preposterous to draw a partisan political conclusion from results that depend primarily on a couple of cases in from of the

        • by mi (197448)

          Complete bullshit really

          Oh, well, that's a reassuring statement. Everything is fine then, right? I shall not worry my pretty little head about a thing...

  • by mi (197448)

    and haters everywhere

    When I hear the word "haterz", I call my air force. (Same reaction to the word "community", BTW -- I don't know, why.)

  • by PPH (736903)

    Dogbert [dilbert.com]

  • I can lie, cheat and steal but I'll be nice about it...

"Look! There! Evil!.. pure and simple, total evil from the Eighth Dimension!" -- Buckaroo Banzai

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