A reflection on altruism and an alleged clash between evolution and Christianity

Consider Maximilian Kolbe. Maximilian Kolbe was a Catholic priest who was imprisoned in Auschwitz. When a prisoner escaped from the camp, the Nazis selected 10 others to be killed by starvation in reprisal for the escape. One of the 10 selected to die, Franciszek Gajowniczek, began to cry: “My wife! My children! I will never see them again!” Kolbe stepped forward and asked to die in his place. (Kolbe, The Saint from Auschwitz)

One of the most widely used explanations for altruistic behaviour in animals is kin selection. Kin selection was given formal mathematical articulation by W.D. Hamilton in his landmark 1963 paper “The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour”, and has subsequently become widely accepted among biologists as a a mechanism for evolving altruistic behaviour.

Nicolas Ridley explains:

"Suppose that a rare gene for altruism is present in an individual. Let r denote likelihood that it is also in another individual, given as a probability between 0 and 1. This can be deduced from Mendelian rules. If the new mutation is in a parent, there is a 1/2 chance it will be in its offspring; and there is likewise a 1/2 chance that a gene in an individual is also in its brother or sister.

Provided that

  • the recipient is an altruist, and that

  • the recipient’s benefit exceeds the altruist’s cost,

then there is a net increase in the average fitness of the altruistic types as a whole. The theory of kin selection states that an individual is selected to behave altruistically provided that r*b > c

The altruist still pays a cost of c for performing the act; the recipient receives a benefit b. However, the chance that the altruistic gene is in the recipient is r. When r*b exceeds c there will be a net increase in the average fitness of the altruists. The number of copies of the gene for altruism will increase because the loss of copies from the excess death of the individuals who actually perform acts of altruism is more than made up for by the excess survival of the individuals who receive it (and contain the gene for altruism)."

Some would seek to explain Kolbe’s behaviour in the following terms: “Because, in the past, humans lived in communities that were a lot more close-knit, sometimes our genes misfire, and cause the behaviour of “over-investing” in an altruistic commitment that will not give “genetic return”. Now, I will note here that kin selection isn’t the only explanation given for altruistic behaviour by biologists.

For example, some postulate that altruistic behavior may have a selective advantage because the one who incurs a benefit from the initial altruistic act may reciprocate in the future.

What I think all the explanations have in common though, is that, because genetic material that causes extraordinary self-sacrifice without genetic reward will tend to be selected against, any evolutionary account must explain behaviours like Kolbe’s as a malfunction of a form of altruism which does have selective advantage.

Here, I think we have a genuine conflict: a Christian account of acts like Kolbe’s must include a conception of humans as selves having free will, and of the Holy Spirit drawing people towards Christ. Thus, any account which explains this kind of behaviour as being merely a malfunction of more prudent forms of altruism is simply not compatible with Christianity.

But is this really a conflict with “evolution”, as such? I think we can refine the argument a little bit.

Imagine a scenario in which the first human beings didn’t share a common ancestor with other forms of life, but were spontaneously generated out of mud some 6,000 years ago, and that some people sought to explain radical self-sacrifice in the same terms as the previous scenario, as merely the malfunctioning of behaviours which the first humans simply happened to be born with. Surely the conflict between Christianity and such a scenario would remain.

Therefore, I think the conflict is not between Christianity and evolution but between Christianity and what I believe is termed “eliminative materialism”. Eliminative materialism is a school of thought which holds that “the common-sense understanding of the mind is mistaken, and that the neurosciences will one day reveal that the mental states that are talked about in everyday discourse, using words such as “intend”, “believe”, “desire”, and “love”, do not refer to anything real.” (Wikipedia)

To be sure, many people argue that elimininative materialism is a necessary consequence of any evolutionary account of humanity, and that’s something that has to be discussed, but I still think it’s worth pointing out that this is where the conflict actually is.

I think it is worth noting that evolutionary psychology is a different discipline than evolutionary biology. The evolutionary model applied to psychology is not nearly as testable, and conclusions are often riddled with problems arising from unproven premises and philosophical bias. It seems to me that more often than not evolutionary psychology is basically material naturalism imposed on psychology as an interpretive framework more than an actual model with explanatory and predictive power.

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I wonder what the intention was in posting that information on wikipedia or if the person posting it actually believed it to be true…

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That really would be too bad if even “common sense” is on the wrong track! I’m always amused to hear reports of studies on the radio (NPR no less!) about things like “Kids who are abandoned by their parents don’t do as well in school …” (the report wasn’t exactly that … but something as disgustingly obvious.) I’m waiting to hear of some scientific verification that clobbering your head with a brick every day has negative health effects. (until then … :confused:)

It seems like science spends much of its time catching up to common sense and religion as well.

I think evolutionary psychology is pretty much bogus. Evolutionary theory explains the diversity of species we see, and that’s pretty much it, imo.

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Thank you for bringing up this issue. It is an important problem in understanding how evolution works. A process that has two aspects, but only explains one is not a valid theory.

Evolution has two basic aspects, Variation and Natural Selection. Science has done a good job in describing Variation by genetic change. They have done a lousy job with Natural Selection, which is the Achilles heel of Darwinism.

Darwin said, aided by Malthus and Spencer that the fit would survive and flourish, but there was no definition as to how this would take place or definition of fitness. Therefore there is no way to determine as to whether this is true or not. By most definitions of science it must be testable and tested to be determined to be true. Evolution has been not, but people still for some reason consider Darwinism science, rather than magic.

Dawkins of course used Hamilton’s kinship theory as the basis of his acclaimed book The Selfish Gene to explain Natural Selection, but it does not. One serious issue is that the math of a non zero sum game demonstrates that cooperation is a much better way to survive and flourish than selfishness and competition. Thus the selfish gene is a lie.

Other evidence of the failure of the survival of the fittest is found in the new book by E. O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of the Earth and my book, Darwin’s Myth. Thus your question points out the big hole in Evolutionary thought that few people seem to notice. Congratulations and keep asking good questions.

“One serious issue is that the math of a non zero sum game demonstrates that cooperation is a much better way to survive and flourish than selfishness and competition. Thus the selfish gene is a lie.”

Well, if I recall correctly, Dawkins himself acknowledged that cooperative behaviours could be evolutionarily stable strategies in The Selfish Gene.

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Eliminative materialism is a consequence of: (1) a strident belief there is no God, and thus all outlooks must be derived from materialistic notions, and (2) evolution becomes a “super theory” which these people use to empower their materialism by claiming science (read evolution) has provided a proof for their position.

On a straightforward link between genetics and altruism, I find such speculation unconvincing and odd, as my understanding is that no-one has provided a clear link between genotype and phenotype - even for obvious physical aspects of organisms - going to attributes is stretching such thinking beyond all reason.

@Alec_B, thank you for another good question.

We need to distinguish between when Dawkins is talking about science, and when he is talking off the top of his head or sheer speculation.

Dawkins says is that science proves that biological beings are products of their DNA and DNA is selfish. Of course DNA cannot think, but it controls all of our actions through memes per RD. (He of course is speaking about humans, and I am speaking of both humans and all other biological creatures.) Therefore how could DNA choose a cooperative behavior even if one could say that it might need to?

On the other hand let us say that it is NOT selfish DNA that controls biological creatures, but DNA that has been conditioned into instincts (not memes) by the demands of Natural Selection which are NOT based on selfishness, but cooperation or Symbiosis. Symbiosis is the foundation of ecology that is the true basis of biology, rather than evolution.

This means that DNA is shaped by the broader needs of the environment, not its own narrow selfish needs. This means that life forms are shaped by their need to cooperate with others and adapt to the environment in order to survive and flourish. Adaptation is interdependence with the environment as per ecology, while selfishness is independence, which is what Dawkins asserts.

Thus it is the environment that sets the agenda, not the DNA. Even though we believe that God did create the DNA, we know without question that God created the earth and the sky, so it is God who created the ever changing environment in which all life lives and which is the basis of the shaping of our evolution and who we are.

Although we are more than just our environment, rather than less, this also fits in with this scenario, and not with Dawkins’. That is another aspect of the story.

Please note that the choice is not between the false dichotomy of selfishness and altruism, but between selfishness and cooperation or love. Christian love is not altruism or selfless love. Also Dawkins rejected the ecological views of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis as teleological.

Pigs are flying! :partly_sunny::pig2::cloud:

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Believe it or not, many people believe this to be scientifically and philosophically true. It is a logical conclusion derived from the materialistic worldview.


Evolutionary theory does not explain how the mind developed. If the mind is not needed for evolution, it must not be needed for life.

Sometimes it is not whether something happened, but how it happened that is important.

We can see that evolution happened, but if it happened in a mechanistic, irrational way as Dennett and Dawkins say, the mind is not needed, just DNA and memes.

Only if you’re a politician.

To me, it is the existence of the MIND that proves the existence of God…

I’m aware of that, in spite of it’s self-refuting nature. It reflects a philosophy of nihilism.

And yet it is the mind that comes to these conclusions. Hence, the arguments of Plantinga that evolution points to the existence of God.

As long as it is Evolution for an Old Earth Scenario … I’m fine with this conclusion.


We are mind oriented, so we buy into the “obvious” argument of Plantinqa. They, scientific materialists are body oriented, so they do not accept his evidence. If you differ with them, it is better to critique the science that they base their philosophy on rather than their philosophy itself. This is what I have tried to do.

What I am trying to point out is a whole different way of looking at the world which appears to be based in science, but is directly counter to our understanding of reality. It is real and appears to be growing.

I’m aware of that, in spite of it’s self-refuting nature. It reflects a philosophy of nihilism.

It is easy to label a world view and reject it, however, I do not think that is what we as Christians are called to do. We are called to follow Jesus Christ, Who came into the world not because the world loved and honored Him, but because the world, that is us, rejected God.

It is not just evolution where science seems to be in conflict with faith. It is in neuroscience, the multiverse, relativity, and quantum physics. These cry out for a new understanding of the nature of the universe. The Church ignores this at its peril.

Mind/Body dualism as practiced by both believers and non-believers is false, which is why it needs to be replaced by something closer to the truth. It is that simple, but of course people cannot see the forest for the trees.

That wasn’t really my point–to label and dismiss. It was more like recognizing that the philosophy precedes the science (influence of Francis Schaeffer).