Is Altruism a By-Product of Evolution?

imagesCompeting worldviews need to make sense of the ways things actually are. Atheism, premised on the assumption that nature is all there is, employs evolution as the engine for change. But can evolution also explain development of human behavior? If “survival of the fittest” is what drives evolution, then how could cooperative behavior have evolved? Darwin was troubled by this question and tried to solve it by arguing social or group evolution; that while moral behavior may not confer an advantage to the individual, it does confer an advantage to a group of cooperating individuals. The “tribe” benefits and these beneficial behaviors get passed along to succeeding generations. Acts of altruism, under this view, are a by-product of the evolutionary process, one in which a genetic predisposition to altruistic behavior is passed on. How does a Christian understanding of reality – of human behavior – make sense of altruistic behavior?

 Let’s begin with the Christian understanding of human behavior, including acts of altruism. The Bible presents a clear picture of both man’s original and current condition: man was created “good” but used his free will to rebel against God. As a result, corruption entered the world and man became “fallen.” In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul explains in some detail that God then gave us over to our evil passions. As a result, no one is righteous, as our minds are darkened and debased. Alone, we can do nothing “good” in God’s eyes. In short, the Bible explains the “bad news” that the law is condemning us due to our sinful nature, that we are in desperate need of a Savior, and that only through his shed blood can we find a solution to our problems.

At the same time, we know that God left within us a conscience, which, roughly speaking, is the basic knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, that is written on our hearts. We continue to bear God’s divine image, though that image is corrupted within us by our sinful nature. Later in his missive to the Romans, Paul admonishes us to be genuine in love, to abhor what is evil, to hold fast to what is good, to love one another with brotherly affection, to repay no one evil for evil – in short, we are instructed to overcome evil with good.  The unspoken premise here is that we possess the capacity to make such choices; that the will, examining the landscape of possible actions, can select the good and reject the evil. Imperfectly, of course, as the corruption within us creates the perverse condition that Paul so well described: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7)

With this backdrop in mind, under a Christian view no one does truly altruistic acts – that is to say, no one is fully capable of the kind of agape love that Jesus modeled, a completely selfless love directed entirely at the good of the other with no thought of self. The closest example of such love is the act of someone who gives up his own life to save another. Such an act, and all other lesser acts of altruism, are the product of the good that is left within us, the divine image that, though corrupted, is not totally extinguished.

Under a Darwinian view, by contrast, although altruism conveys no survival benefit to the individual as such, it does tend to benefit the larger group or tribe in which the individual finds himself. Given enough time, they argue, this “group survival” advantage is passed along to succeeding generations, so that the genetic predisposition to act contrary to our individual self-interest gets passed along in increasing numbers. Problem solved: altruistic behavior is a by-product of evolution acting on groups.  But this view suffers from a number of problems.

First, and foremost, this view does not take proper account of how people actually think. It assumes that human beings are like animals, operating on some instinctive level. Imagine the lion refraining from devouring his prey so that his neighbor can. His neighbor returns the favor, and eventually they realize that by cooperating they can enhance their ability to hunt. But even if this were true, such views do not get incorporated into DNA. They are ideas that one can accept or reject, not physical characteristics that can be transmitted. There is also the problem of original source: the instinct for self preservation is obviously much stronger, and much more necessary to continued survival. Letting prey go so that another could take it would require imagination – the ability to project into the future and contemplate various courses of action. Otherwise, the stronger instinct would simply predominate. But if imagination is already operating in the first men, so that they can make use of it, from where did it come? How would a competing instinct to help rather than compete with one’s neighbor first arise? Moreover, even if one could transmit through genes a way of acting, the thing actually being transmitted would be the ability to pick and choose among competing moral choices. Is it better to satisfy my hunger or to help my neighbor? Is there a way to do both? If not, is there a reason why helping another is “better” even though more painful in the short run? In short, the machinery for moral decision-making does not begin to provide a set of rules for how best to make that choice. For that, one first needs a sense of what right and wrong, what good and evil, are in the first place.

A second problem with the evolutionary explanation is that ideas about behavior don’t evolve the way creatures do. When we see evolution operating, we see already-formed living creatures undergoing some modification to meet some environmental challenge or to enhance their prospects of survival. The process is one of adaptation, of a response over time to changing conditions. Improvements provide the creature with greater survivability, so that the genetic basis for these improvements, over vast amounts of time, will eventually predominate in succeeding generations. While we can talk about the “evolution” of ideas, or of societies, when we do so, we are using the word in a different fashion. Normally, we mean to convey the idea (as with Darwinian evolution) that “improvements” are occurring.  But unlike “survival of the fittest,” ideas do not improve through some process of transmission through time. Instead, they are tested against some pre-existing knowledge of what “good” or “bad” ideas actually are. Take for example the civil rights movement. This certainly reflected an “evolving” awareness of and appreciation for the need to treat all people equally. But this presumes that treating all people equally is a “good.” Evolution cannot take us to that conclusion; indeed, if anything, survival of the fittest would support the contrary idea – that some individuals or groups are “by nature” superior and entitled to a greater portion of nature’s resources.

When the German nation embraced National Socialism in the 1930’s, their ideas about governance changed along “survival of the fittest” lines, but these views did not mark an improvement.  The shift to abortion on demand in this country in the 1970’s is another conceptual shift that did not involve improvement, as it moves us back to a more primitive acceptance of child sacrifice for the sake of some “greater” goal. While all agree that Nazism was evil, many may disagree with this latter example, but doing so actually demonstrates the larger principle – we are each testing changes in ideas against some generalized and pre-existing sense of “good” that we carry with us. For the Christian, abortion amounts to child sacrifice because it is wrong to take the life of the unborn for the reasons that most elective abortions are sought; by contrast, the pro-abortion advocate does not suddenly find it “good” to kill for insufficient reasons, but instead finds that the right to self-determination of the woman outweighs the right of the unborn to continued life. In short, awareness of what constitutes the “good” simply does not emerge from “evolution” in the way genetic improvements are passed on.

A third way to demonstrate that characteristics like altruism are not evolutionary in nature is to consider how human families actually behave. Each of us has within us the capacity to choose to do some good for another human being. In some, the desire may be weak; they choose their own self interest in all cases. In others, it may be stronger. They may derive great satisfaction from the knowledge that they have helped someone else. If indeed this capacity was subject to evolutionary action, we would see families in which altruism became increasingly more predominant. But we do not. Children from “good” parents may nonetheless embark upon a life of crime or selfish living, while conversely the offspring of criminal parents can devote their life to the pursuit of good. The determining factor in such cases is not their genetic characteristics, but the environment in which they are raised. Using their innate abilities, children develop habits of thought and behavior which eventually set the stage for their later actions. But such things are not like hair or eye color; they cannot be passed to succeeding generations in the way that blue eyes or red hair are. The younger generation is either persuaded to buy into enlightened or selfless views, or they are not. But this commitment to “do good” – if they do embrace it – is a function not of genes but of free will.

Reflecting on the human condition has practical ramifications. If we truly believed that virtue was a genetic characteristic, passed on like height or body type, there would be little basis to extol virtue or, by contrast, condemn bad behavior. We don’t praise the lion for allowing his prey to escape unharmed nor condemn him for following his instincts to kill. But our criminal justice system is based upon an understanding that moral actors can see the difference between good and evil, that we possess free will and that we bear the responsibility for the choices we make.

In this regard, Christianity makes better sense of the world than do alternative worldviews. We are not simply the byproducts of an evolutionary process that did not have us in mind. No, we are moral actors, equipped in utero with the “operating software” that allows us to distinguish between good and evil and the basic free will to make choices.  Some people perform acts of altruism because they recognize that doing good for others, even when against our own self-interest, is part of the greater good. Such love gives us a glimpse of the type of love in store for us if we turn our hearts and mind toward God. Others persist in selfish pursuits because they have formed their will to stand in rebellion against God.

In the end, none of our behaviors are evolutionarily determined. We may have predispositions, and our life’s circumstances may shape or mold us, but in the end we bear the power – and more importantly the responsibility – of choice. That’s why making the right choices now – especially choices as to ultimate things – matters so much.

Posted by Al Serrato


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  1. BGA says:

    Atheism is not at all premised on the natural world being all there is, you can easily be an atheist and believe in supernatural forces and beings, just not gods.

    The idea is pretty simple, some social animals develop instincts to help others in their group. We humans are social animals and we retain this instinct along with others. As far as I know this is no demonstrated scientifically, but it seems more plausible than a God.

    • Al says:

      Brian, the question you’re not considering is how did the animals get here in the first place, equipped with the machinery for moral decision-making? That’s an awfully big leap if there was no designer to build such an elegant and elaborate system.

      • BGA says:

        Yes, it is quite a leap which is why we study to see if we can understand how and if this happened. But it does not require the existence of a hidden un falsifiable supernatural realm.

        • Al says:

          It does not “require” it, but foreclosing a designer as a possible explanation is neither rational nor likely to lead one to the best explanation.

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