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. (http://auschwitz.dk/Kolbe.htm)
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.
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.