Sometimes we feel compelled to help complete strangers — with little or no reward for ourselves. Why? In Survival of the Nicest: How Altruism Made Us Human and Why It Pays to Get Along, European science writer Stefan Klein explores this side of our species. Relying on several studies and decades of research, Klein builds a strong case that working together as a community leads to successful and lasting societies — from the ones our early ancestors built to the global community of today.
I began to read this book without quite knowing what to expect: I was skeptical it would be a collection of big claims about being nice to others without a lot of research to back it up. My assumptions were quickly proven wrong. Not only does Klein use ample research, he makes scientific language and concepts understandable for people without science backgrounds, explaining complex studies and terms for lay readers. For those with an interest in evolutionary biology and psychology, here is an accessible book.
The title itself proposes a new way to view the success of our species. We commonly hear the phrase survival of the fittest, not survival of the nicest. It’s what we’ve been taught for years. We do whatever we have to do to make sure we survive and pass on our genes to the next generation. Klein challenges this notion to some extent. While we are concerned with our survival and the survival of our genes, he writes, Klein suggests that maybe the path to that survival is not as individualistic and selfish as previously thought.
The book draws us in with an extraordinary story of altruism. A man heroically risks his life to save another man who has fallen onto the tracks of the New York City subway. Both the man and the situation are extraordinary, but Klein asks us, his readers, how we are like this hero. What made him do it? How does survival of the fittest explain the selflessness this man displayed? And what if we all have a little bit of this altruism gene within us? The story lays the foundation for Klein’s evolutionary analysis. And that’s really what Klein’s argument is all about: a new way of looking at the the age-old question “Why are we here?”
What’s especially compelling is that Klein takes human emotions and constructs like empathy, compassion, and justice and offers data to show that they are innate conditions. We are very similar to our animal relatives, Klein writes, but we are different in many ways as well. Some of these major differences include our propensity for sharing and our ability to feel shame, he argues. But the argument is not one dimensional.
Klein also offers several examples that show what happens when humans do not work together: The results are often disastrous. In the second half of the book, Klein discusses the darker side of altruism. Someone has to keep order and punish the members of society who do not want to cooperate for the good of the whole, he writes. He shows readers how altruism can sometimes lead to an “us versus them” mentality, offering examples of the deep rifts between groups in the Middle East, and even a study conducted with campers pitted against one another just because they belonged to the opposite group. I found myself comparing his examples to other current events. The similarities are eerie.
Overall, Survival of the Nicest emphasizes the benefit of cooperation and how a sense of community is necessary for a successful society. With more than just a fluffy argument for being nice to your neighbor, Klein uses scientific studies and data from a variety of disciplines to dive into our true nature as human beings. His analysis makes a compelling case for altruism and generosity. When we act otherwise, Klein shows, we are sabotaging our species. This is a fascinating, worthwhile read about the human condition, why we do what we do, and why we need one another to ensure our future and the future of our descendants.
Survival of the Nicest: How Altruism Made Us Human and Why It Pays to Get Along
The Experiment, October 2014
Paperback, 272 pages