Book review: Det gener

Tor Nørretranders has written an excellent book about generosity. It has gotten a decent amount of media exposure since it came out, mostly due to some (literally) sexy catchphrases.

But the book has merit far beyond easy catchphrases. Humans are generous, artistic, flamboyant, playful individualists. And what’s more, we’re the happiest when we can be all of that. Why?

In my opinion, one of the deepest human drives, is the drive to be part of something bigger than oneself. This explains many human endeavours from organized religion to explorers. To take part in, a worthwhile cause that goes way beyond my personal interest – this gives life meaning.

George Bernard Shaw said it like this: “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one… the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

And Wei Wu Wei pointed to the other side of that equation (as quoted in Ken Wilbers Book “No Boundary”):
Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9%
Of everything you think, and
Of everything you do,
Is for yourself –
And there isn’t one

The paradox is of course this: If you do things for others, knowing that it will make you happy, are you still doing it for others? But this is only a paradox when you base your thinking on the assumption, that you can either do things for yourself or for others. I suspect that the two are inextricably linked – that you can’t do good for yourself without helping others and vice versa. Thus the paradox disappears.

Tor’s book provides solid scientific reasons for why this might be so, based on the two principal mechanisms of Darwinism – natural selection and sexual selection. Natural selection encourages selfishness and uniformity while sexual selection promotes generosity and heterogeneity.

I don’t think the book offers solid proof that this is the origin of generosity and art, but there’s ample circumstantial evidence. As usual with Tor Nørretranders, the book is entertaining, well structured, informative and an easy read.

I recommend it highly.

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