- IONS Film Project
Publications Book Reviews
Scientific, Philosophical, and Religious Perspectives of Human Benevolence
Reviewed by Frederic Luskin, PhD on Dec. 1, 2007
The Altruistic Species is an ambitious attempt to explain altruism through the lenses of psychology, religion, and evolutionary biology. Flescher, an associate professor of religious studies at California State University in Chico, and Worthen, an associate professor of psychology at the same university, intelligently cover a lot of ground. Their primary thesis is that altruism comes naturally to human beings and is available to be cultivated and deepened. They ground their thinking by explaining that evolution selects those people who are able to care for others, thus rewarding prosocial behavior: “The first challenge is to show how altruism can be reconciled with natural selection, indeed how we should expect altruism to come about as a result of natural selection.” The authors do a good job of simplifying genetics so that a nonscientist can understand how genes transmit aspects of personality and can in turn be shaped by personality and psychological factors.
Flescher and Worthen also refute, on multiple levels, the prevailing philosophical notion of essential human motivation, which they call “psychological egoism.” Psychological egoism reduces all human motivation to the gratification of self-interest and postulates that selfishness is the natural and therefore desired state of human affairs. Flescher and Worthen’s refutation ponders how “if we aren’t really concerned about the interests of others except insofar as they affect us, why do we experience guilt?” In addition, they offer an interesting insight: that although human beings crave happiness, we cannot obtain it by seeking it directly; instead, Flescher and Worthen argue, happiness is a barometer of the success of achieving our goals. Interesting data from numerous studies show that those who are able to connect with and help other people are happier. Of course, we recognize that this finding is also supported by the world’s wisdom traditions: When we extend our sympathies, we find happiness and well-being.
The book’s discussion of social psychologist C. Daniel Batson’s studies on empathy is particularly interesting because his research holds profound real-world implications. Batson has found that empathy can be developed in subjects and that this empathy can override what could be seen as simple self-interest: “The result seems to indicate that when empathy is aroused, the ultimate object of concern shifts from the self to the other.” Batson’s work shows that two conditions are necessary to create empathy: perception of another person in need and then the adoption of that person’s perspective. These investigations carry important information and implications for developments in education and conflict resolution.
Although this reader wishes the book included more examples of real-life activity to ground the philosophical discourse, The Altruistic Species includes some interesting stories about people who have expressed remarkable acts of caring for others, which the authors explore in a thorough and sometimes provocative manner. For example, they wonder that they are trying to kill the enemy. Flescher and Worthen bring to light the unanswerable question of whose human life is more valuable, your comrade’s or your enemy’s. They also look at the difficult questions that emerge from kin relations. For example, they consider the sociobiological question of how many lives of people who are not kin are worth sacrificing to save a person in one’s family.
Flescher and Worthen do not shy away from explicating difficult discussions, and they diligently follow the implications of difficult human decisions. At the same time, the authors often take too long to make their points, in part because of the thoroughness with which they present their material. It would have helped to have had concise summaries of relevant information during some of their discussions.
This reader would also like to see such valuable information be made available for people outside the academic world.