The Review of Austrian Economics, 18:2, 223–226, 2005.
2005 Springer Science + Business Media, Inc. Manufactured in The Netherlands.
(2001) Altruistically Inclined? The Behavioral Sciences, Evolutionary
Theory, and the Origins of Reciprocity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN
0-472-11224-4. x-373 pp.
Alexander Field’s Altruistically Inclined? seeks to explain the origin of human altruism.
In undertaking this ambitious project Field employs insights from a variety of disciplines
including biology, anthropology, psychology and economics. While the book does not
contribute original ideas to any of these disciplines, it provides an excellent overview of
topics within each for the reader who is likely a specialist in one area but unfamiliar with
the others. Thus the book provides a good introduction to basic game theory for biolo-
gists and explains concepts from evolutionary biology in a way that is accessible to social
According to Field, economists have been reluctant to accept mounting evidence that
altruism is a signiﬁcant factor motivating human behavior. Rational choice models assume
agents are self-interested (i.e., wealth maximizers) and jettisoning this assumption renders
economics impotent to explain certain phenomena economists would like to explain. Field
points out that recognizing altruism as an important force, however, does not mean the
assumption of self-interest must be lost entirely. In many instances economic models based
on this assumption work extremely well.
In many others though they do not. In particular, individuals do not behave in reality
as game theory predicts. In experimental trials of standard Prisoners’ Dilemma games,
for instance, not all agents play defect (the income maximizing strategy) all the time.
Introducing human altruism alleviates this tension; but to introduce altruism we ﬁrst need
an account of its emergence via natural selection.
Field deﬁnes altruism as evolutionary biologists have deﬁned it—behavior that decreases
the ﬁtness of the individual but improves the ﬁtness of conspeciﬁcs. Although altruistic
behavior cannot be explained by selection at the individual level, it can be explained via
selection at the group level. Thus, as Field importantly points out, while the number of
altruists inside a given group may be declining, the population of altruists may be increasing
globally. Why? Groups that contain a higher proportion of individuals who are hardwired for
altruistic behavior will live longer and propagate more. Such groups are therefore selected
over time, accounting for the prevalence of altruism in certain spheres. This idea, imported
from evolutionary biology, is the core of the book’s argument.
According to Field, explanations of altruistic behavior rooted in reciprocity or social
norms can explain these practices as self-enforcing among self-interested actors once they
are in usage, but they do not tell us how such practices emerged in the ﬁrst place. In short,
these arrangements describe stable equilibria but cannot account for the origin of these
equilibria. The ﬁrst individuals who exhibit the behaviors that give rise to such practices