Altruism in business and behaviorial economics is a topic that comes up quite often on kottke.org, even when it's not explicit. (For instance, the central issue in the Atul Gawande article I pointed to yesterday pits the individual financial desires of doctors vs. the health of their patients.) This article from Ode Magazine takes a look at the research done in this area so far and how the idea of altruism in economics is currently on the rise.
The theory is based on the premise that humans evolved in small groups with strong social contracts and plenty of contact with strangers. Cooperation within the tribe was advantageous so long as free riders were punished. It was also the best gambit on encountering strangers. Cooperation, particularly in times of famine, was the only means of survival, so altruism became a favored evolutionary trait.
One of my favorite books on altruism and economics is Robert Wright's Nonzero.
Robert Wright has a new book out soon called The Evolution of God. Andrew Sullivan has a review.
From primitive animists to the legends of the first gods, battling like irrational cloud-inhabiting humans over the cosmos, Wright tells the story of how war and trade, technology and human interaction slowly exposed humans to the gods of others. How this awareness led to the Jewish innovation of a hidden and universal God, how the cosmopolitan early Christians, in order to market their doctrines more successfully, universalised and sanitised this Jewish God in turn, and how Islam equally included a civilising universalism despite its doctrinal rigidity and founding violence.
Last month's issue of The Atlantic contained an excerpt.
For all the advances and wonders of our global era, Christians, Jews, and Muslims seem ever more locked in mortal combat. But history suggests a happier outcome for the Peoples of the Book. As technological evolution has brought communities, nations, and faiths into closer contact, it is the prophets of tolerance and love that have prospered, along with the religions they represent. Is globalization, in fact, God's will?
I loved two of Wright's previous books, The Moral Animal and especially Nonzero. (via marginal revolution)
The main thesis of Nonzero is that social complexity of human culture has been increasing since the dawn of man and will continue to do so until forever. Wright argues that non-zero sum games are the culprit: societies get more complex (moving from tribes of hunter gatherers to mutli-trillion dollar global economy) because in order to play ever more lucrative non-zero sum games with an increasing number of people, that's the way it has to be. It makes a lot of sense.