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Survival of the Nicest: How Altruism Made Us Human and Why It Pays to Get Along

Overview

This revelatory tour de force by an acclaimed and internationally bestselling science writer upends our understanding of “survival of the fittest”—and invites us all to think and act more altruistically

The phrase “survival of the fittest” conjures an image of the most cutthroat individuals rising to the top. But Stefan Klein, author of the #1 international bestseller The Science of Happiness, makes the startling assertion that altruism is the...

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Survival of the Nicest: How Altruism Made Us Human and Why It Pays to Get Along

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Overview

This revelatory tour de force by an acclaimed and internationally bestselling science writer upends our understanding of “survival of the fittest”—and invites us all to think and act more altruistically

The phrase “survival of the fittest” conjures an image of the most cutthroat individuals rising to the top. But Stefan Klein, author of the #1 international bestseller The Science of Happiness, makes the startling assertion that altruism is the key to lasting personal and societal success. In fact, altruism defines us: Natural selection favored those early humans who cooperated in groups, and with survival more assured, our altruistic ancestors were free to devote brainpower to developing intelligence, language, and culture—our very humanity.

Klein’s 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? He believes we’ve learned to mistrust our instincts because success is so often attributed to selfish ambition, and with an extraordinary array of material—current research on genetics and the brain, economics, social psychology, behavioral and anthropological experiments, history, and modern culture—he makes the case that generosity for its own sake remains the best way to thrive.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 02/10/2014
Klein (The Secret Pulse of Time: Making Sense of Life's Scarcest Commodity) transforms Darwinian interpretation of evolution and resets the conversation about how we relate to each other as individuals and communities in this mind-bending book. Klein's inquiry fuses the work of neuropsychologists, neuroeconomists, geneticists, philosophers, anthropologists, a chemist, and a lion expert, with myriads of studies conducted in cultures around the world. He distinguishes, then connects dots, between abstract concepts, using the growing body of fMRI experiments to illustrate biological activations of sharing, empathy, sympathy, selflessness and his main subject, altruism. He then he applies familiar behavioral models, including the Prisoner's Dilemma, in constructing new arguments. His main point—that over time evolution has favored cooperation—is simple but profound and so astutely argued that if there is a science to winning readers over, Klein has surely mastered it. Far from pedantic or sententious, the wealth of knowledge here is astounding. His conviction history, empirical facts and ongoing discoveries about human characteristics and societies serve as a roadmap for a better world. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
2013-12-08
A middling look at some of the better angels of our nature by German science writer Klein (Leonardo's Legacy: How Da Vinci Reimagined the World, 2010, etc.). We owe to scientist W.D. Hamilton the philosophically rich observation that altruism might have arisen as a function of natural selection by widening our sense of who is kin to us to include people beyond our immediate gene pool--i.e., we help do our bit to ensure the survival of the species. Klein takes a little of the biological edge off Hamilton's aperçu by writing of "the impulses that lead us to seek our own happiness in the happiness of others," impulses that would sometimes seem to contradict our rotten record at being chimps with guns. Some of Klein's statements verge on hyperbolic: Do most of us really make "selfless choices dozens of times every day"? Perhaps so, if we include holding the door open for someone or leaving a tip for the wait staff. Happily, Klein brings the often overlooked work of Pyotr Kropotkin into the discussion; the Russian anarchist prince argued against the sometimes-Hobbesian view of Darwin by asserting that members of species committed acts of mutual aid as much as they competed with each other, Ayn Rand and her lot notwithstanding. Granted that some of Klein's characters are contrarians--John von Neumann, founder of game theory and model for Doctor Strangelove, famously insisted that there was nothing wrong with America's bombing the Soviet Union before the Russians could bomb us--he does a good job of bringing current science into view, from psychology and biology to economics. Even so, the argument seems a little diffuse and soft and would have benefited from more rigor in place of bromides such as "selflessness makes us happy and transforms the world." Tougher-minded readers will prefer Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) and even Prince Kropotkin himself.
From the Publisher

“[A] mind-bending book . . . if there is a science to winning over readers, Klein has surely mastered it. . . . The wealth of knowledge here is astounding.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“[O]ne of the book’s key strengths [is] its breadth. From psychological experiments to anthropological studies and historical events like the Holocaust or 9/11, Klein seamlessly weaves his way through all to present compelling evidence for why humans have evolved to be selfless. Survival of the Nicest entertainingly informs its readers of how they are born to be altruistic . . .”
UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center

“This wonderful book could be read as a scientific explanation for a moral imperative to be kind to others. But it is so much more! Stefan Klein, an enticing storyteller, marshals the evidence for the value of altruism—not only to one’s family but, much more interestingly, to one’s self and one’s tribe. Altruism is truly contagious!”
Roald Hoffman, Nobel Laureate, poet, and Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters Emeritus, Cornell University

“A scholarly tour de force about why generosity makes good sense, Survival of the Nicest is also compulsively readable. Klein argues convincingly that helping others is one of the best things we can do for ourselves.”
Elizabeth Svoboda, author of What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness

“A thought-provoking and comprehensive review of the research on altruism, Survival of the Nicest validates humanistic principles and has far-reaching implications for today’s world—especially for US politics and culture. An inspiration!”
Rebecca Hale, president, American Humanist Association, and co-owner of EvolveFISH.com

“An important contribution to the field of altruism and altruistic behavior and to a better and nicer world. I highly recommend this book.”
Samuel P. Oliner, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Humboldt State University, and founder and director, The Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute

“In Survival of the Nicest, Stefan Klein poses three questions central to social science and ethics: (1) How is unselfishness possible? (2) What moves us to help others? And (3) why are some people more helpful than others? His wide-ranging answers to these questions suggest that altruism is born into us and that selflessness actually both makes us happy and will transform the world.”
Kristen Renwick Monroe, Chancellor’s Professor, University of California, Irvine, and author of The Heart of Altruism

“This eloquent and persuasive book shows why in life, like in the movies, the nice guy always wins.”
Stephen Cave, author of Immortality

“Thoroughly readable...fabulously informative...Survival of the Nicest makes you want to be good and to feel good about it.”—Sunday Times

“A glowing argument for post-Darwinian co-operation.”—Evening Standard

“Well written”—Independent
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781615190904
  • Publisher: Experiment, The
  • Publication date: 1/21/2014
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 935,697
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Stefan Klein, PhD, is one of Europe’s premier science writers, as well as himself a trained physicist. He is the author of numerous books, including the #1 international bestseller The Science of Happiness. His books have been translated into twenty-five languages, and he is the recipient of the prestigious Georg von Holtzbrink Prize for Scientific Journalism. 

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