Is altruism real?

Think you’re a loving friend, committed family member, and a diligent worker? Well, think again. Many biologists would argue that you’re nothing but a collection of selfish genes, built solely to reproduce successfully and ensure your DNA makes it to the next generation. But researcher James Van Slyke sees it differently – instead of altruism and love being illusions that overlay selfish genetics, Van Slyke suggests that these traits, although evolving naturally through selective processes over eons, are theologically grounded in the nature of life and human existence itself.

“Scratch an – altruist,’ and watch a – hypocrite’ bleed:” this emblematic quote from biologist Michael Ghiselin has long epitomized how many scientists feel about human goodwill and generosity. According to this view, rather than being fundamental components of our personality, altruism and selfless behaviors are actually illusions that help us to manipulate people for our own genetic ends. This means that altruism is, in a very real sense, unreal – we may think we’re acting for the sake of others, but we’re really acting on our own behalf all the time.

As an example, imagine a man who rushes into traffic to save an unrelated child from an oncoming car. The child doesn’t carry any of the man’s genes. According to simple evolutionary logic, the man’s decision to save the child doesn’t make any sense: he runs a good risk of getting killed himself (and thereby losing out on producing children of his own), and the toddler whose life he saves won’t do him any good, genetically speaking. So, while the story may be heartwarming, the genetic economics don’t work out.

But let’s say a young woman happens to witness his gallant dash out into traffic. By throwing caution to the wind and risking his life for an unrelated child, the hero of our story has demonstrated that he’s ready to sacrifice himself for others, is quick-thinking and energetic, and is probably a person who can be trusted. All these desirable traits get the woman’s attention, and soon after saving the child’s life the man finds himself with a date for the weekend.

It may seem that the traffic-braving man in this example is simply getting what he deserves – in other words, that getting a potential mate’s attention was a natural byproduct of doing the right thing. But evolutionary psychologists and biologists disagree with this rosy view. To them, getting the woman’s attention was the whole point. Altruism and self-abnegating features arose during human evolutionary history because the people who exhibited them were more trusted, gained better friends, and got more attention from the opposite sex than those who appeared to be selfish. Unfortunately, this means that there’s ultimately no such thing as true altruism – at best, selfless acts are a kind of clever advertising, showing off to the whole tribe what a catch you are.

Not everyone agrees with this grim assessment, of course. Theologian and researcher James Van Slyke (Fuller Theological Seminary) claims that this somewhat dour view of human nature stems not from the actual data of evolutionary biology, but from the metaphysical commitments that scientists bring to their work. If the universe is nothing but inert matter being acted on by physical laws, then it’s hard to explain any human or animal behavior outside of a selfish evolutionary paradigm. But for people who believe in a spiritual dimension to reality, it’s possible that evolution is simply the means by which selflessness, compassion, and empathy are developed out of a genetic maelstrom of self-interest.

Van Slyke’s assertion, published in the most recent issue of Zygon: The Journal of Religion & Science, is that altruism developed out of very specific steps in our evolutionary history that transformed us from selfish, genetically driven animals to imperfect but increasingly empathetic humans capable of genuine sacrifice and love. Namely, Van Slyke argues that our capacity for empathy arose partially from our instinct for imitation – the propensity, shared with other mammals, to imitate behaviors we see in others – and partly from theory of mind, which allows us to imagine what others might be thinking or experiencing. Putting theory of mind and imitation together led naturally to the ability to not only imagine what others were experiencing, but to actually, in some ways, experience it ourselves.

The development of empathy out of the ingredients of our mammalian heritage, argues Van Slyke, was the turning point that allowed human beings to begin genuinely caring about one another – not in a selfish, illusory way, but in the manner espoused by religions such as Christianity and Buddhism, which value compassion and selfless care for others. In this expanded “circle of concern,” our altruistic impulses aren’t clever ruses that cover for our selfish genetic ends. Instead, they’re real and entirely natural developments arising out of our capacity for social interaction and ways of thinking.

Van Slyke uses his take on the evolution of compassion to define “sin” as any action that shrinks the circle of concern. In this vision, spiritual attainment is found by maintaining caring relationships. As a theologian, Van Slyke naturally ties his model to a vision of God guiding people along an evolutionary path toward greater empathy; as such, our ability to care for others may have originated as selfish genetic strategies, but since then it has become much more than that.

While Van Slyke represents a specifically Christian viewpoint (and one that not even all Christians accept), his perspective provides an interesting general challenge to one of modern science’s most uncomfortable quandaries. It’s often troubling to be told by scientists that all human actions are merely selfish attempts to gain genetic conquest – being human doesn’t feel like that (at least not always), and so we naturally react against such reductionistic narratives. For Van Slyke, the solution is to posit a God who is guiding evolution toward greater horizons of selfless love. But the backbone of his argument could be used by anyone who thinks that maybe, just maybe, there is more to life than selfish genes.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.