Altruistically Inclined?

The Behavioral Sciences, Evolutionary Theory, and the Origins of Reciprocity
Alexander J. Field
An exploration of the role of altruism in the discipline of economics


Altruistically Inclined? examines the implications of recent research in the natural sciences for two important social scientific approaches to individual behavior: the economic/rational choice approach and the sociological/anthropological. It considers jointly two controversial and related ideas: the operation of group selection within early human evolutionary processes and the likelihood of modularity—domain-specific adaptations in our cognitive mechanisms and behavioral predispositions.

Experimental research shows that people will often cooperate in one-shot prisoner's dilemma (PD) games and reject positive offers in ultimatum games, contradicting commonly accepted notions of rationality. Upon first appearance, predispositions to behave in this fashion could not have been favored by natural selection operating only at the level of the individual organism.

Emphasizing universal and variable features of human culture, developing research on how the brain functions, and refinements of thinking about levels of selection in evolutionary processes, Alexander J. Field argues that humans are born with the rudiments of a PD solution module—and differentially prepared to learn norms supportive of it. His emphasis on failure to harm, as opposed to the provision of affirmative assistance, as the empirically dominant form of altruistic behavior is also novel.

The point of departure and principal point of reference is economics. But Altruistically Inclined? will interest a broad range of scholars in the social and behavioral sciences, natural scientists concerned with the implications of research and debates within their fields for the conduct of work elsewhere, and educated lay readers curious about essential features of human nature.

Alexander J. Field is the Michel and Mary Orradre Professor of Economics at Santa Clara University.

Praise / Awards

  • "Should economists keep on trying to force everything into a Prudence Only model, or should they admit that evolved human nature has room for Love and Justice, too? Alexander Field—an economist and historian, a reader of biology and of literature—brings an extraordinarily wide range of thought to bear on the issue. He is a public intellectual to rank with Robert Frank or Robert Putnam, though he disagrees sharply with the fashionable pessimism of these two. Passions stay well within reason and we do not usually, after all, bowl alone. Why? Because we have evolved for good reasons as ethical beings, who try to be harmless when we can. All manner of social cooperation, from negotiating the Santa Monica Freeway to ordinary commerce, depends on the Niceness Instinct that Field celebrates and explains. Field has written a great book, readable and important, a reply to the boys playing in a Hobbesian sandbox, who dominate our social sciences but cannot imagine why societies cohere."
    —Deirdre McCloskey, UIC Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, and English, University of Illinois at Chicago, and Tinbergen Professor of Economics, Philosophy, and Art and Cultural Studies, Erasmusuniversiteit Rotterdam
  • "In this remarkable book, Alex Field casts his net across disciplines to confront the question that economists prefer to avoid: Why are human beings altruistic? His powerful argument deserves the attention of all social scientists."
    —Gavin Wright, Department of Economics, Stanford University
  • "This book presents a bold and fascinating conjecture pertaining to the interface of several disciplines: economics, sociology, evolutionary psychology, and ethics. It will force practitioners in each of these disciplines to look at familiar problems in a new way."
    —Melvin Reder, Isidore Brown and Gladys J. Brown Professor Emeritus of Urban and Labor Economics, University of Chicago
  • ". . . a handy guide to a diverse literature that should interest all economists and historians. Field shows how we can and should embrace a more nuanced understanding of human nature. His book should inspire a greater flexibility in both the theories and methods of the economics discipline. Economic history can and should show the way."
    —Rick Szostak, University of Alberta, EH.NET, June 2002
  • ". . . it is a very engaging work that should be ready by anyone interested in explaining human altruism. It is likely to generate renewed interest in this important topic . . ."
    —Craig T. Palmer, Human Nature Review, Volume 2 (2002)
  • "...a provocative, integrative, impressively scholarly work that will stimulate a wide range of readers."
    —Thomas P. Hahn, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
  • "Field has set new standards for interdisciplinary erudition: he moves with ease from game theory and experimental economics to evolutionary theory and psychology. . . . Field has done us a great service by writing this book."
    —Joel Mokyr, Northwestern University, Journal of Economic History, March 2003
  • ". . . an excellent study in clearly demonstrating some major failings of neoclassical economics, forces an examination of 'preconceptions' (including our own), and provides a strong argument supporting the position that humans are much more (and much better) than a great deal of conventional theory—arising in all fields of inquiry—would have us."
    —John F. Henry, California State University, Sacramento, Journal of Economic Issues, March 2003
  • "...a work of scholarship and mature reflection, based on a wide reading across economics, biology, and psychology..."
    —Robert Sugden, Journal of Economic Literature
  • "Field provides a feast for scholars who are struggling to develop a coherent theory of human behavior grounded in evolutionary biology and tested with empirical data from diverse social settings. Scholars in all of the social sciences would be well advised to read this book carefully."
    —Elinor Ostrom , Journal of Interdisciplinary History
  • Winner: 2003 Alpha Sigma Nu National Book Award in the Social Sciences

Look Inside

Copyright © 2001, University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 392pp.
  • 2 figures, 2 tables.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2004
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-08947-5

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  • $34.95 U.S.

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