Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Tim Tyler: Dugatkin, The Altruism Equation (review)


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler and this is a brief review of this book:

The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness by Lee Alan Dugatkin.

The book has a fairly self-explanatory title. The Altruism Equation of the title is Hamilton's rule - and there are seven scientists on the cover - namely Charles Darwin, Warder Clyde Allee, T.H. Huxley, William Hamilton, Petr Kropotkin, George Price and J.B.S. Haldane.

The first six chapters are about these seven fellows - with the material on Huxley and Kropotkin being combined into one chapter.

Then there's three more chapters, one about the popularisation of science relating to altruism by Dawkins, Ed Wilson and others, one on extensions of Hamilton's ideas by Emlen, Sherman and Reeve, and then the last chapter is on Robert Axelrod and his work with Bill Hamilton.

The book is very readable and well written. However, the readability stems partly from the book's use of personal narratives about the scientists involved. Personally, I really wanted less biography and more science. I ideally want a firehose presentation of the ideas involved - and this book isn't like that - there's quite a lot of history and biography in it.

I read it because of my own interest in altruism and kin selection. I knew from the author's previous book on imitation that he knew a few things about memes. I was interested to see how he linked memes and altruism - and memes and kin selection.

However, the book isn't a general book about altruism. It's really a book about the history associated with Hamilton's solution to the altruism issue involving kin selection. Though it discusses subsequent extensions of Hamilton's ideas, the idea that kin selection and inclusive fitness theory might apply to memes as well as genes receives no coverage. Nor is there any coverage of the large effect of culture on altruistic behaviour. So: many of my hopes while reading the book were rather disappointed.

I learned quite a few bits of history from the book. I already knew most of the material about Hamilton and Price, but I hadn't even heard of Warder Clyde Allee before, and much of the unfamiliar material was interesting - it even made me expand my own thoughts about the reasons why organisms clump together.

I felt as though the book had a bit of an identity crisis. It seemed as though it was a book on the general topic of altruism that had got scaled back part way through the project, so it only covered the material up to the 1970s. It wasn't really all about kin selection - since it had a bunch of material about Axelrod, tit-for-tat and reciprocity - but then it just stopped. Since the book was written in 2006 quite a bit has happened since the 1980s - but most of that isn't covered. I was left wondering whether there would ever be coverage of topics such as reputations, manipulation, tag-based cooperation and the impact of culture in a second volume.

Anyway, despite the slight identity crisis, this is a fine and very readable book on the topic of altruism - and especially kin altruism.


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