Genesis by Edward O. Wilson book coverThere exists within evolutionary theory a deep contradiction, one that Charles Darwin noticed back in the nineteenth century. The problem is this: how can evolution by natural selection account for altruistic behavior that benefits the group at the expense of the individual?

The standard view of natural selection, operating at the level of the gene, goes as follows: genetic mutation results in variation in form and function in the individual, which either confers an advantage or disadvantage (or is neutral) in relation to other individuals. If the mutation enhances survival and reproduction in a particular environment, then that individual will flourish and the frequency of those genes will increase within the population.

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On Freedom Book CoverIn this short book of 136 pages, titled On Freedom, Cass Sunstein makes the case that freedom is enhanced by the intentional restriction or gentle manipulation of free choice. Just as a GPS system guides you to the desired destination while preserving your freedom to take an alternate route, “nudges” can point you in the right behavioral direction while preserving your ability to choose otherwise.

A simple example is automatic enrollment in a 401K retirement savings program. This particular “nudge” is beneficial because it helps to overcome two common biases. The “present bias” makes it difficult for people to save for the future, and the “default option bias” makes it difficult for people to make changes to the status quo.

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This View of by Life David Sloan WilsonIn the final paragraph of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote, “There is grandeur in this view of life…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

From this poetic ending we get the title of David Sloan Wilson’s latest book, This View of Life, which seeks to expand the evolutionary worldview beyond the biological realm to the realm of human culture and policy.

Biology is one of the few disciplines that already has its grand unifying theory: evolution by natural selection. It’s what prompted the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky to declared in 1973 that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

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