Scribe, £14.99. Order at the discounted price of £13.49 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop
Survival of the Nicest by Stefan Klein, translated by David Dollenmayer, book review
Thursday 07 August 2014
Many have advocated kindness over the ages, from Aristotle to Albert Schweitzer to Charles Darwin himself. Despite recognising this, Stefan Klein endows his own pro-altruism stance with a uniqueness it doesn't have by telling us that "empathy is considered a sign of weakness", and that "the good judgement of those who … put their own interests second is called into question". This is slightly patronising – most individuals do approve of altruism, hence the consistently high reputation of doctors and nurses among the public.
The questions Klein poses are important: is kindness to others at odds with Darwin's survival of the fittest? Or does benevolence benefit us as well as the recipients of our charity? The glaring flaw in answering them, though, is Klein's failure to give due credit to the great Richard Dawkins.
He omits to mention that in The Selfish Gene, Dawkins carefully considered altruism, positing that it was a remnant from our ancestors, and that in the past it helped the survival of our genes.
Dawkins discussed both kinship altruism, the kindness shown to others who share many of our genes, and reciprocal altruism – that shown to those to whom we are not related by blood, but who, in days gone by, might have been able to reciprocate our benevolence at some point in the future. Dawkins is very clear that the human desire to be kind persists to this day, despite the fact that many recipients of our largesse are, in our great big world, strangers with whom we will never again have contact, and who will thus not be able to return the favour.
Laying aside the shocking lack of acknowledgement to Dawkins' writing on altruism, Klein's book is well written, though I would dispute some of his assumptions, such as that "Porsche owners don't have more or healthier children than other men", since we know that, in evolutionary terms, women are attracted to men with status, money and power; rich men therefore have the "top pick" of women and may choose the fittest.
Klein talks through the co-operation shown by many animal species, and the fact that they are more likely to sacrifice themselves for those with whom they share most genes. There seems to be an error in a discussion of the prisoners' game, a classic game theory dilemma which shows that the best outcome for both players occurs if both act with altruism. The text should read "If your buddy … kept his mouth shut … you can escape any prison sentence", though it actually reads "… you can escape all but one year of doing time".
Still, there are eloquent explorations of the importance of trust and the difference between sympathy, empathy, and putting oneself into someone else's shoes.
Klein discusses studies which have shown that altruistic behaviour stimulates the same parts of the brain that are active during sex and eating chocolate, and others which have shown that people who are better able to put themselves into others' shoes have been found to be especially altruistic.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Alan Rickman admits editing 'terrible' script with friends in Pizza Hut behind backs of writers on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
- 2 Rarest Beanie Baby of them all could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 3 Professional big game hunter Ian Gibson crushed to death by elephant during hunt
- 4 Farmer told to tear down mock-Tudor castle after hiding construction behind hay bales
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Doctor Who film will definitely happen, leaked Sony emails reveal
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
Glastonbury 2015 tickets: How to make sure you’re successful in Sunday's re-sale
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate