The book reviewed here is ‘Natural Selections. Selfish Altruists, Honest Liars and other Realities of Evolution’ by David P Barash and narrated by L J Gansner. Gansner delivers a moderately paced expressive performance. Barash is a professor of psychology and has an impressive bibliography that can be seen here. Barash discusses a number of issues relating to evolution and how this influences the view we have of ourselves. Two themes that I found of particular interest were Barash’s discussion of evolutionary aspects of altruism and the implications of evolution for existentialism. Indeed a core part of Barash’s book as suggested in the title is the evolutionary interpretation of selfishness and altruism. Barash gives an abundance of examples from nature which support the argument for a ‘selfish gene’ as well as similar arguments at the level of the organisms. In essence, Barash presents reproduction as a means of projecting the organism’s genes into the future. I thought that the distinction between the gene and the organism was interesting. Can a genome be a collection of ‘selfish’ genes or is it a combination of ‘selfish’ and ‘altruistic’ genes with the genome forming the negotiated vehicle for this collection. There are numerous examples from the animal kingdom that illustrate gender differences in behaviour as well as specific aspects of behaviour. In the discussion of existentialism, Barash contrasts the freedom of choice with the dilemmas about free will posed by an understanding of natural selection and related areas but is able to reconcile these with an example. The example convincingly demonstrates how much freedom that we have independent of our genetic heritage. Thus Barash is able to both illustrate some of the biological aspects of behaviour and to retain the freedom of expression in his ‘painting’ of the human condition which in the end results in a brighter picture than the title suggests.
David P Barash. Natural Selections. Selfish Altruists, Honest Liars and other Realities of Evolution .2007 Bellevue Literary Press. (P)2009 Audible, Inc.
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