mulitlevel selection

PROSOCIAL: An Overview of David Sloan Wilson’s ‘Does Altruism Exist?’

Does altruism exist, or are humans entirely selfish?

In Does Altruism Exist?, famed biologist and president of the Evolution Institute David Sloan Wilson  answers this age old question with evolutionary theory.

Traditionally, evolutionary scientists have explained the existence of altruism by modelling the evolutionary benefits to the altruist (more specifically the altruist’s genes). Within these models, ‘pure altruism’ — altruism that actively disadvantages an organism — does not exist, as organisms with such propensities would be weeded out by natural selection.

However, David Sloan Wilson is a prominent proponent of multilevel selection (also known as group selection)— a theory that evolution operates at multiple levels, including the group level.

Multilevel selection can summarised by David Sloan Wilson and Edwin Osborne Wilson’s maxim:

Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary. 

Water striders are provided as an example of multilevel selection.

Male water striders vary in their aggressiveness, particularly towards females. Some act as gentlemen. However other water striders act as rapists, attempting to mate with any female without regard to their receptivity. How are these individual differences maintained in water strider populations?

Experiments conducted by David and his colleagues suggests that if within-group selection were the only evolutionary force, the gentlemen would have quickly gone extinct. However, the aggressive water striders prevented females from feeding, which caused them to lay fewer eggs. This effect was so large that the females in groups with only gentlemen laid over twice as many eggs, as compared to females in groups with all rapists. Therefore the groups of gentlemen were more reproductively successful than the groups comprised of aggressive males, despite their within-group disadvantage.

David states that the tug-of-war between levels of selection results in a mix of altruistic and selfish behavioural strategies.

Many interpret evolution as being synonymous with progress. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. Left to it’s own devices, evolution can take us places where we wouldn’t want to go.

There remains some controversy over group selection. However, the game-changer is applying multilevel selection to cultural evolution, as opposed to genetic evolution.

Psychological altruism

When analysing human affairs, David Sloan Wilson defines altruism by prosocial behaviour, rather than peoples’ thoughts and feelings. The rationale is that thoughts and feelings are not only more difficult to measure, but that they have a weak relationship with behaviour. David argues that focusing on actions, rather than cognition and emotions, makes defining and measuring altruism more straightforward.

More fundamentally, David argues that if people act altruistically it doesn’t matter that much what their motivations are. Thoughts and feelings are important only if they actually lead to prosocial actions. “[…][W]e shouldn’t care much about distinguishing among motives, any more than we should care about being paid with cash or a check. It’s not right to privilege altruism as a psychological motive when other equivalent motives exist.” With this, David makes a break from how altruism is traditionally studied by social scientists.

However, David subsequently demonstrates the value of altruism as a psychological construct.

The Neighbourhood Project was an initiative set up by David to improve his town of Binghamton New York, through the application of evolutionary science. As part of The Neighbourhood Project, David and is his team were able to map clusters of prosocial and antisocial school children in Binghamton, using a self-reported survey. Prosociality was measured by the student’s level of agreement to statements such as “I think it is important to help other people”, and “I am trying to make my community a better place”.


A map of prosociality for the City of Binghamton, New York

David and his colleagues were able to confirm that these maps represented actual differences in prosociality between neighbourhoods with follow-up experiments, such as dropping stamped and addressed envelops in the streets of Binghamton and seeing how many people were kind enough to post them.

The prosocial map suggests that people are behaviourally flexible, and calibrate their prosociality according to circumstances. As stated by David Sloan Wilson; “[…] those who reported giving also reported receiving, which is the basic requirement for altruism defined in terms of actions to succeed in a Darwinian world.”

Darwin’s Business

What does this all have to do with business?

Many companies think that hiring principled, conscientious employees will help prevent ethical lapses. Such a premise is intuitively appealing. However if the business environment promotes intra-group competition, altruists will simply lose the Darwinian contest to selfish individualists.

In Give and Take, organisational psychologist Adam Grant documents an impressive body of evidence showing that altruists (‘givers’) are highly successful in the business world, contrary to widespread misconceptions of businessmen being driven only by money. However, Grant’s research also demonstrates that altruists are both businesses’ top and worst performers— altruists are successful as long as they surround themselves with other givers, and avoid the depredations of selfish individualists (‘takers’).

To fully understand what leads to altruistic behaviour, David Sloan Wilson argues we need to study the construction of entire social environments, not just what motivates individual people.

David cites the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who is professor of business ethics at New York University. Jonathan argues that to promote ethical behaviour in business, one needs to understand the properties of a whole system–the individual, the group, and the broader environment– a concept that Haidt is promoting through an initiative called Ethical Systems.


The Core Design Principles

So how can we promote altruism within organisations?

What is essential is to provide a highly favourable social environment for the expression of prosocial behaviour. As stated by David Sloan Wilson; “Everyone thrives in a social environment that causes prosociality to win the Darwinian contest.”

The late Elinor Ostrom was the awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics, for showing that groups of people are capable of managing their own resources and do not inevitably succumb to the tragedy of the commons— but only if they possess certain design features.

David Sloan Wilson emphasises the importance of Ostrom’s design principles in creating efficacious groups, and draws upon them heavily throughout the book.

Ostrom’s core design principles are:

  1. Strong group identity and and understanding of purpose The identity of the group and the need to manage the resources must be clearly specified.
  2. Proportional equivalence between  benefits and costsMembers of the group must negotiate a system that rewards members for their contributions. High status or other disproportionate benefits must be earned. Unfair inequality poisons collective efforts.
  3. Collective-choice arrangements. People don’t like being told what to do, but will work towards goals for which they have helped shape.
  4. Monitoring. A commons are inherently vulnerable to free-riding. Unless exploitation can be detected by norm-abiding members at little cost, the tragedy of the commons will occur.
  5. Graduated sanctions. Transgressions do not require heavy punishments, at least initially. Often gossip or a gentle nudge is sufficient. Escalation of punishments must be enacted if necessary.
  6. Conflict resolution mechanisms. Conflicts must be dealt with swiftly, and they must be perceived as fair.
  7. Minimal recognition for rights to organise. Groups must have the right to conduct their own affairs. Externally imposed rules are unlikely to be adapted to local conditions (and potentially violating principle 3)
  8. For groups that are part of larger social systems, appropriate coordination among relevant groups. Large-scale governance requires finding the optimal scale for each sphere of activity and appropriately coordinating the activities.


Pathological altruism

As with all traits, there is a darkside to altruism. Pathological altruism is altruism which attempts to promote the welfare of others, but instead results in unanticipated harm. The darkside of altruism needs to be acknowledged by all social engineers attempting to promote prosociality.

Pathological altruism includes those who can no longer look after themselves and function  properly because of their concern for others’ welfare. For example, healthcare professionals are at risk of burn-out if they become too distressed by the suffering of others.

At a higher level of analysis, if altruism and other forms of prosocial behaviour proliferate and results in efficacious groups, these groups can do great harm to others. A wealth of psychological research indicates that peoples’ in-group loyalty trumps higher-level considerations.

Prosocial behaviour at one level of a hierarchy becoming a problem at higher levels “can be recited almost without end”. David cites sociologist Robert Jackall’s ethnographic work Moral Mazes, which details how competition between individuals, alliances and divisions in  a large corporation undermines the goals of the company as a whole.

Beyond this, even if a large corporation manages to function well as a collective unit, David argues there is no guarantee that it will contribute to the welfare of the larger economic system, or society more broadly.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business 

Click here to buy a copy of Does Altruism Exist?

*Post updated 19th January 2017


Eldakar, O. T., Dlugos, M. J., Pepper, J. W., & Wilson, D. S. (2009). Population structure mediates sexual conflict in water striders. Science, 326(5954), 816-816. Available here

Eldakar, O. T., Dlugos, M. J., Wilcox, R. S., & Wilson, D. S. (2009). Aggressive mating as a tragedy of the commons in the water strider Aquarius remigis. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 64(1), 25-33.

Grant, A. (2013). Give and take: Why helping others drives our success. Penguin

Jackall, R. (2009). Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate ManagersOxford University Press

Oakley, B., Knafo, A., Madhavan, G., & Wilson, D. S. (Eds.). (2011). Pathological Altruism. Oxford University Press

Pinker, S. (2012) The false allure of group selection, Edge Magazine. Available here

Thorpe, A. & O’Gorman, R. (2016) Memo To Jeff Bezos: The Most Productive Workers Are Team Players, Not Selfish Individualists, This View of Life Magazine. Available here

Turchin, P. (2015). Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Beresta Books

Wilson, D. S. (2011). The Neighborhood Project: Using evolution to improve my city, one block at a time. Little, Brown

Wilson, D. S., & Wilson, E. O. (2007). Rethinking the theoretical foundation of sociobiology. The Quarterly review of biology, 82(4), 327-348.