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Survival of the Nicest: How Altruism Made Us Human and Why It Pays to Get Along Paperback – 21 Oct 2014


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The phrase 'survival of the fittest' conjures an image of the most cutthroat individuals rising to the top. But Stefan Klein, author of the international bestseller The Science of Happiness, makes the startling assertion that the key to achieving lasting personal and societal success lies in helping others. Klein argues, altruism is in fact our defining characteristic: natural selection favoured those early humans who cooperated in groups. With survival more assured, our altruistic ancestors were free to devote brainpower to developing intelligence, language, and culture - our very humanity. As Klein puts it, 'We humans became first the friendliest and then the most intelligent apes.' To build his persuasive case for how altruistic behaviour made us human - and why it pays to get along - Klein brings together an extraordinary array of material: current research on genetics and the brain, economics, social psychology, behavioural and anthropological experiments, history, and modern culture. Ultimately, his groundbreaking findings lead him to a vexing question: if we're really hard-wired to act for one another's benefit, why aren't we all getting along?Klein believes we've learned a mistrust our generous instincts because success is so often attributed to selfish ambition. In Survival of the Nicest, he invites us to rethink what it means to be the 'fittest' as he shows how caring for others can protect us from loneliness and depression, make us happier and healthier, reward us economically, and even extend our lives. 'This eloquent and persuasive book shows why in life, like in the movies, the nice guy always wins.' Stephen Cave, author of Immortality 'A scholarly tour de force about why generosity makes good sense, Survival of the Nicest is also compulsively readable.' Elizabeth Svoboda, author of What Makes a Hero?

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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
The New Human Nature 10 Jan. 2014
By Kevin L. Nenstiel - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Conventional economics and biology sneer at generosity. People who give of themselves get fleeced regularly, and diminish their chances to survive and reproduce. Yet the world ordinary people occupy practically shimmers with mundane kindness; without it, we couldn't conduct urban economies or do industrial jobs. But what is altruism, really? How did it originate, and what encourages it to flourish? After centuries of debate, science may have some answers.

Though trained as a physicist, German author Stefan Klein has made a career writing about the points where science impacts general society--a Teutonic Carl Sagan, perhaps. In this case, his interests throw sharp light on neuroscience and psychology, though his investigations overlap with the growing domain of behavioral economics. And he draws a surprising conclusion: more than language or technology, generosity and altruism make us genuinely human.

Because humans cannot survive individually, much less thrive, evolution rewarded primordial humans who engaged in quid pro quo generosity. This persists today in acts of trust, kindness, and public ethics that make modern society possible. Yet the very conditions altruism fosters discourage people from behaving generously. Neuroscience tells us that human society may soon shift, requiring altruism to ensure continued human survival.

Science and natural philosophy have long speculated on the motivations behind altruism, speculations Klein partly recapitulates here. From Aristotelian ethics to Richard Dawkins' "Selfish Gene" theory, speculations have drawn on complex mixes of influences. But only recently has science reached the point where we can objectively analyze not only what people really do, but what mental and biological processes fuel these actions. Though highly complex, Klein explains the science eloquently.

Experimental techniques with Clint Eastwood titles, like The Prisoner's Dilemma, The Free Rider Game, and Ultimatum, allow researchers to observe human generosity (and stinginess) in action. Though many of these games have existed for decades, new neuroimaging technologies permit glimpses inside human brains, in real time, as people make key decisions and formulate ethical precepts. The results, as Klein describes them, are anything but obvious.

During such interactions, it turns out, we have opportunities to establish norms that make future dealings possible. The way we play the Free Rider Game, for instance, allows groups to agree on ethics, not just of generosity, but of how to penalize goldbrickers. This holds true across not only groups as small as two or three, but across entire societies. Democracy and capitalism absolutely rely upon neurological habits we acquire during such simple trust exercises.

Strangely, the approaches groups traditionally use to encourage altruism and punish greed don't really work. Klein shows how verbal praise and public recognition make much better motivators for good behavior than money or possessions. Paying people to do right actually counteracts meaningful gains. And punishments that originate "on high" have far less impact on bad behavior than mass peer pressure or censure from one's equals. Praise and scolding: who knew?

Klein's model refutes both common liberal and conservative lines about social organization. Top-down authoritarian government produces not honesty, but resistance, while libertarian ideals encourage mass defection from the social order. Effective codes of honesty instead percolate upward from the masses, and the people do a much better job punishing infringements than either the state or the private sector. Serious readings of Klein's conclusions will force sweeping reconsiderations of contemporary authority.

Stefan Klein's book runs short, but is packed with the kind of dense, surprising information we expect from Malcolm Gladwell or Charles Duhigg. He's informative, helpful, lucid, and frequently funny. I defy any reader, regardless of preformed positions on human nature, to read this book without having to reconsider what you think you think. Because if Klein's sources are right, human nature will soon have a new model.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Hope for the human race 3 May 2014
By Kristin J. Johnson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I have only one minor quibble with this book. The slightly troubling passage emerges on page 207, buried in the end of the book, as perhaps an answer to Ayn Rand:

"[T]he dream of the autonomous individual--the widespread belief that everyone holds their own destiny in their hands--seems dubious. The idea of liberal democracy, to give the individual the greatest possible freedom, is in urgent need of revision."

It is this kind of thinking that collectivists and despots have used for centuries to promote oppressive regimes, and I am frankly shocked that a thinker of Stefan Klein's caliber would resort to such a shoddy and even dangerous argument, which undermines the last 209 pages of argument. This book makes such a beautiful case for altruism and interdependence that it is a shame Klein goes from "Competition Engenders Altruism" (p. 138) to "The time of the lone cowboy is over." Granted, even in the passage on page 138-139, Klein discusses competition in terms of a basketball team. However, elsewhere in the book he admits altruists can go overboard on being selfless.

This self-contradiction aside, this readable book elegantly synthesizes Daniel Goleman, V.S. Ramachandran, and TED Talks to successfully make its case that we are not only born altruists, except for a few freeloaders in the Free Rider experiment (pages 125-126), we develop this skill, even as two-year-olds, in order to survive and later because we like being social and giving. Nice Homo Sapiens DON'T finish last and neither do vampire bats (!)

In eleven chapters plus the questionable epilogue, Klein builds a systematic, witty case.

Chapter 1: Darwin was an extremely sympathetic person, exemplifying the revelation that we all can be altruists.

Chapter 2: Adam and Eve would have learned to cooperate had there been a refrigerator in the Garden of Eden and would have had an antennae for the Serpent cheating them out of eternal life.

Chapter 3: If you get ripped off by the neighbor you're helping and you still volunteer to visit his brother in prison, you are less of a schmuck than he is because he trusts no one.

Chapter 4: For mental power, the empathetic brain beats Frank Underwood's any day.

Chapter 5: Oxytocin and Vasopressin show "What's love got to do with it."

Chapter 6: Vampires are altruists and small children know that they've got to be adorable to thrive.

Chapter 7: Now that we are in love and sharing and empathetic, we're also upset over injustice and willing toe right it no matter the cost.

Chapter 8: Everything in moderation, or it can't take a village to raise a child if that village is wiped out trying to right a wrong.

Chapter 9: The dark sisters of selflessness can get radicalized in not just a village but a nation, defeating altruism.

Chapter 10: Confucius say love thy neighbor no matter what nation he lives in.

Chapter 11: Confucius say the exchange of information is great and people should share all over the World Wide Web.

Apologies for the tongue in cheek summaries as I altruistically share this information with you, and forgive Kleon for a minor flaw.
Evolution via altruism 11 Jun. 2014
By Deb - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest theory emphasizes the individual’s genotype as the key determinant of evolutionary success. Stefan Klein’s Survival of the Nicest theory (nicely) takes Darwin’s theory to a new level:
“It’s not just that single genes are joined together in the genotype of an individual who must compete with other individuals. In an analogous way, many individuals together form a group and then together enter the competition for the best chances to reproduce. And that’s how evolution works everywhere: Individual genes compete for their place in the genotype, but they also work together so that the individual organism has the best reproductive chances. Individuals compete for resources within the group, but they unite and work together against other groups.” (p. 142)

And, it’s this working together that determines our ability to overcome evolutionary challenges. Ultimately, the altruistic gene knocks out the selfish gene.

Integrating a slew of current research with Klein’s own ingenious observations and ideas, _Survival of the Nicest_ offers scientists and laypeople alike a convincing argument for why altruism trumps selfishness, both in terms of individual and global prosperity:
“Many people may not be used to letting themselves be guided by the interests of others. The willingness to do something for others, however, is an attitude that one can practice until it is as natural as riding a bicycle. In time the fear of being exploited fades, and with the courage to give grows the feeling of freedom. The journey begins with curiosity. By experimenting with generosity, we have nothing to lose and much to gain, for selflessness makes us happy and transforms the world.” (p. 210)

Perhaps it’s not that “Nice guys finish last” but that “Nice guys (and girls) last.”
An interesting read 20 Feb. 2014
By Nicholas Sterling - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is an interesting book. There are parts that I either have a hard time buying or think could have been better said another way, but overall I enjoyed it -- it's the kind of book that makes you think.

One thing I found interesting about the book is its German orientation. Many of the anecdotes are taken from German history, and the most thoroughly pursued piece of history is that of Otto Weidt, who courageously helped save many Jews during the Holocaust, no doubt at great personal risk. The author explores how it has come to be that in the face of evolution, which chooses genes ultimately on the basis of reproductive success, our brains support taking such risks for the benefit of others.

The author seems at times to be down on evolution and evolutionary biologists, but I don't think he really is. I think what is really going on is that at times he is talking about evolutionary theory as it stood a century or so ago and its inability to explain altruism; the author mentions the major advances in evolutionary theory with regard to how it can be to the benefit of *genes* for organisms possessing them to take risks that could jeopardize their own reproductive success.

What we see as altruism in the world today is the result of both the biological evolution of our brains and millennia of cultural evolution, which selected among competing societies (cities, religions, etc.) with different social norms. Biological evolution selected genes which program us to pay attention to social norms, and cultural evolution shaped those norms as memes. From this soup selflessness can emerge. I feel that the author could have said this more clearly (at times it comes across as though he believes that biological group selection was responsible), and without being so negative about the work of others, but apart from that I enjoyed reading through the ideas and research presented.
An Up and Down Read 20 Feb. 2014
By DWD's Reviews - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
German science writer Stefan Klein looks into the concept of altruism vs. egocentrism and the current thinking behind why people act altruistic or egocentric. This has been a popular topic in many news reports as the idea of a "stingy gene" or a "sharing gene" is discussed.

Of course, the idea of a single stingy or sharing gene is simplistic, but Klein does spend a lot of time discussing altruistic behaviors and egocentric behaviors and why people actually act as altruistic as they do, even going so far as to donate money to people they will never meet in countries they will never go to. Why is that?

Klein reports that the current thinking is that simple Darwinian competition is too simplistic to explain altruistic behavior - giving away resources or time that could be used to raise one's own offspring makes no sense in a simple Darwinian worldview.

But, when you move out a little bit and look at groups of people and see that groups of people who are willing to give to one another and enforce a set of norms that expect a certain amount of fair play and giving to help the entire group have more success than groups that do not than you see that the Darwinian model may yet have some merit - it is not a single person vs. a single person but groups of people vs. groups of people.

Klein compares the behavior of chimpanzees to people, looks into tests of when young children start to display altruism and into experiments involving games that are supposed to test the altruistic nature of people (to be honest, I had a hard time understanding the value of the games, they were rather poorly explained).

Survival of the Nicest has its interesting moments but vague explanations of the experiments and games and meandering discussions about other animals like vampire bats made the book an up and down read at best. There are some wonderful ideas in this book and a good editing could have knocked off about 50 pages and made it a tighter, more effective read.
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