Science and the Sacred

Science and the Sacred

The Question of Altruism


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Acts of altruism seem to pose a problem to the idea of a strict “survival of the fittest.”  After all, how does a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save others increase his chances of passing on his genes?  Why would a man risk everything to protect thousands of Jews from Nazi forces during World War II, ultimately dying peniless?

This is not to say that altruism defies scientific explanation.  In fact, recent studies on human psychology and behavior seem to point to the idea that perhaps the term “survival of the nicest” may be a better way to describe our actions.  One recent study conducted by The University of Nottingham found that both men and women look for altruistic traits in potential mates.  Women especially place far more emphasis on altruism than any other characteristics.


Perhaps the problem instead lies with the scale at which we evaluate altruism.  While a truly selfless act may not help an individual’s genes, such actions can further what Dawkins calls a meme, a unit of cultural evolution analogous to a gene.  Framed in this way, altruism seems perfectly fitting with the concept of “survival of the fittest.”

However, maybe this inclination towards altruism points to something outside evolutionary explanation.  Evidence of altruistic behavior outside kin relationships is scarce in the animal world.  When it does occur, the act most often grounds itself in reciprocity, the idea of “you scratch my back, I scratch yours.”  Why are humans, then, drawn to selfless love for others that are not kin, even at risk to their own lives?  Could these actions be the evidence of Moral Law, the “Image of God” bestowed to human beings by a divine creator?

What do you think?  Does altruism come from “survival of the nicest,” from memes, or as a gift from the creator?  For more, be sure to check out Question 18 on The Image of God at

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Charles Cosimano

posted May 10, 2009 at 12:08 am

I would think that in the end altruism will be shown to be similar to mystical experience in that it will finally be diagnosed as a symptom of profound, but treatable, mental illness, the result of a misfiring of the chemicals in the brain and thus treatable with appropriate medication.

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posted May 10, 2009 at 6:36 pm

What a utopia that would be. If we could only treat this altruistic illness then all our problems as a society would be solved (right after we chemically rectify the illness of sound logic).

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posted May 11, 2009 at 7:16 am

I’d guess that altruism formed during the times when we were almost exclusively tribal societies, where giving one’s life for the welfare and continued existence of one’s friends and family allowed that person’s genes to be passed along to a greater extent than at the current time, when we may not share much more than the standard human genetic basis with our friends. In that historical case, altruism allows the genetic base for itself to be conserved.
Like many issues, altruism isn’t an either-or matter. Even now, I think we are more likely to help those who look more like ourselves than those who are markedly different. It’s a matter of how we determine “different/alike” that may set our altruistic tendencies.

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Kathryn Applegate

posted May 11, 2009 at 11:29 am

I’m not sure what cx means by altuism not being an either-or matter, but I agree with that statement in a different sense: evolutionary explanations don’t obviate divine explanations. God uses means all the time to accomplish his purposes. Seems a no-brainer, then, that God gave us, via our evolutionary and cultural heritage, the capacity and desire for altruistic behavior, as he desires us to act according to his own image, which is sacrificially selfless.

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Scott Mapes

posted May 12, 2009 at 10:53 am

A reminder and caution. Genetic predispositions are simply that: Predispositions. While some have more power over us than others (physical handicaps being the most obvious), they do not rob the human person of their freedom of choice. The fact that several people may have the same psychological condition (such as OCD, which I deal with) does not mean that their life outcome can be easily predicted through genetics. Hence, altruistic tendencies must be consciously nurtured if they are to be acted out.

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