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Kindness In A Cruel World: The Evolution Of Altruism, by Nigel Barber

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Kindness In A Cruel World: Evolution

Kindness In A Cruel World: The Evolution Of Altruism

Religious critics of atheism and evolution allege that without the guiding force of some god, some supernatural power, there can be no reasonable explanation for the development of altruism and morality. In a purely materialistic and evolutionary nature, critics argue, there is no reason for altruism to exist or for us to be moral — it’s a dog-eat-dog world without the benevolent influence of a god. Superficially, it may sound like they have a point.


Title: Kindness In A Cruel World: The Evolution Of Altruism
Author: Nigel Barber
Publisher: Prometheus Books
ISBN: 1591022282

• Offers serious food for thought on the nature of morality
• Explores important issues necessary for understanding human behavior

• Makes assumptions many will disagree with
• Arguably oversimplifies some things

• Analysis of the biological nature of altruism
• Argues that altruism developed naturally because it works
• Explains how understanding altruism may aid in solving problems today

Book Review

Understanding the nature of morality and altruism has been an important research topic for evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and behaviorists for quite some time now. It’s not an easy subject because evaluating the nature of “moral” behavior depends so much on what the individual is thinking — difficult enough when we are dealing with people, but almost impossible when dealing with other species.

Despite these difficulties, though, a great deal of data has been produced — now there is the difficulty of interpreting it. Nigel Barber, formerly an assistant professor of psychology at Birmingham-Southern College, has taken on that task in his book Kindness In A Cruel World: The Evolution Of Altruism. Barber’s exploration of altruism and morality seeks to synthesize a wide range of both human and animal behavior in order to tease out some common evolutionary causes.

Just what is altruism, anyway? One of the problems which plagues studies like this is the proper definition of key concepts. Many define altruism so narrowly as to define it out of existence. They claim that anything which brings any benefits to the actor, even just good feelings, cannot be called altruistic. Barber, on the other hand, seems to define altruism very broadly such that almost any act that helps others is altruistic, regardless of what benefits it brings the actor. According to Barber, an altruist “puts the survival or reproduction of another individual before his own.” Is that really altruism, even if the act enhances the actor’s survival or reproduction?

Evolutionary biologists tend to take a narrower view of altruism, arguing that an altruistic act is one where the expected benefits to oneself (in terms of survival and reproduction) are less than the expected benefits to another. This sounds reasonable, but how many people actually go through a moral calculus in order to determine who is getting more out of an action? I don’t think it’s the norm; but if people don’t weigh expected benefits against each other, then the differences between this definition and Barber’s may collapse.

Reflection might tell me that I’ll benefit from my actions as much as others, but if I don’t reflect and therefore have no expectations, then aren’t my actions still altruistic if I put others first? Barber would argue that it is and those inclined to agree with him will also find much in this book that is agreeable — but those who dispute this premise will find things to disagree with on every other page. Barber’s book isn’t an argument for this idea, it assumes this idea and explains how our moral world looks through this particular filter.

According to Barber, altruism of this sort evolved naturally because, quite simply, it works in social animals.

Kindness In A Cruel World: Evolution

Kindness In A Cruel World: The Evolution Of Altruism

Asocial creatures have no need of it, but social groups only function when there are rules; and morality is at its base a set of rules that regulate relationships between individuals and between an individual and the group. An instinct for altruistic behavior is one way to help ensure that groups keep functioning and that members remain with the group.

One of the more interesting facets of Barber’s book is that, unlike other studies of the evolution of morality, he doesn’t restrict himself to traditional subjects like primate behavior. Instead, he uses his ideas about altruism and morality as launching point to explore issues like celibacy, pedophilia, environmentalism, adoption, religion, and more. Barber believes that a deeper understanding of the evolutionary background of our moral thinking could help us better address moral problems today.

Many readers will likely dispute this and argue that he is oversimplifying in his quest to draw cross-cultural and cross-species parallels, yet that doesn’t mean he doesn’t provide serious food for thought. Nigel Barber’s book is aimed at a general audience and should be welcomed by anyone who is interested in the relationships between altruism, morality, and human evolution.

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