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Survival of the Nicest by Stefan Klein, translated by David Dollenmayer, book review


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.