The Norfolk and Norwich Christian community website

God, genes, morality, alturism and grace

AmazingGraceSX300Regular Network Norfolk columnist James Knight examines the concept of human altruism, Divine love and grace.

A little while back I attended an interesting talk by Professor Sarah Coakley of Cambridge University at Norwich Cathedral. The primary focus of the talk involved the extent to which evolution can engender co-operative behaviours, and whether qualities like altruism need to be more aptly characterised in what she calls 'supernormal terms' once God is brought into consideration (in evolutionary biology, altruism means individual behaviour that increases the fitness of an organism while decreasing the actor's fitness).
The talk was broad enough to ensure that one blog post won't do it justice, so I'll just concentrate on the central thesis here, which is that Professor Coakley wants to depart from strict genetic determinism and propound the hypothesis that proper altruism in human form takes its cue from Christ's injunction to 'love our enemies'.
To frame human altruism in its proper context, let's first consider altruism in its precursory stage occurring in other species. In doing this I'm going to lead you to the central thesis in one of the books I've (nearly) written - that things like altruism, sacrifice, generosity, kindness, charity, even human goodness itself are all engaged with by our limited capacity in terms of ethics and morality, but are, in fact, subsets of some kind of supra-goodness emanating from God Himself.

Altruism in the animal kingdom

The animal kingdom consists of what could be referred to as ethological altruism in which animals are simply passing on their genetic information, despite a rich spectrum of emotional variances. There are lots of well known examples of altruism in animals which passed through because they conferred advantage to the group. The sting and consequent death of a honeybee is a good example. It is a form of self-sacrifice because the bee's genes survive and are shared in the colony of relatives. Also, various termites evolved a mechanism for releasing a sticky secretion which causes their own death by fatally rupturing a neck gland; but the autothysis creates a tar baby effect which defends against invading ants. Further, there are numerous examples where animals adopt orphaned animals of a different species.
It is particularly interesting that many behavioural patterns that we used to think were purely human have been observed in other animals that do not possess our fecundity. When dolphins are injured or suffering from malaise, others dolphins will swim under them for hours at a time helping them to the surface to enable them to breathe.
Many of the ape groups will put themselves at risk to help other ape groups with food sharing, aiding injured group members, and with defence against predators. Some birds become "helper birds" and assist other breeding pairs in raising their young, and in some cases they will protect an unrelated bird's young from external threats. There are also a number of animals that give alarm calls to warn their kin of the presence of predators, and attract attention to themselves, which, of course brings about self-endangerment. Meerkats leave one member of their group on sentry duty to willingly act to warn others as the rest feed themselves. Finally, there are even cases of animals who will infiltrate a group of rival predators and rescue a herd member who has been captured (American buffalos are one example, and there are others).
The material distinction between humans and other animals is that we are not wholly subservient to mere biological stimuli - we can override our biology, with evolution of ideas being a big driver of many things in our species now. Unlike other creatures, our interaction with the world can adapt without ‘requiring’ a genetic evolution (although genetic evolution is still occurring, of course). Humans take generations to evolve; bacteria evolve during a routine sickness if the antibiotic isn't used correctly. With greater cognitive complexity and lifespan we see safeguards which slow evolution; yet paradoxically we have seen a driven need for increase in good acts and the avoidance of the over emphasis on self-centredness and parochialism (which is psychologically damaging). Moreover, the greater intellection associated with being human puts greater pressure on the complexities of altruism, because emotional factors are involved that are not involved with the same degree of complexity in any other animal.

In God's image

The Biblical distinction between humans and other animals is that humans are made 'in God's image', and that, as a consequence, we have qualitative superiority in terms of the relationship we can have with God and with each other. But even so, it is perfectly compatible to say that humans are made in God's image, yet also a repertoire of traits, components and qualities that find their legacy in biological evolution. In fact, this is precisely what we'd expect if morality and ethics are humanly evolved phenomena, and God's love, grace and goodness the very things to which our ethics and morality are leading us. In my book of the same name I've called this "The Ecstasy of a New Morality".
The whole purpose of moral thinking is that for every action there is a consideration related to the concepts of right and wrong - but in terms of assenting to God, there probably are concepts with explanations that are more closely identified with the ecstasy of a new morality than the evolutionary origins of ordinary ethical history.
In the Sermon on the Mount we see in Christ’s words something that hints (stress 'hints') at more than just ordinary morality. I notice that His teachings on the human heart are not expressed with the consequences of failing in mind – it is not a ‘You must do this, or else!’ expression – it is more of a set of teachings that speak truths about what it is to be human, and the best state of mind that we can create for ourselves when trying to master God's wisdom given to us. Rather than being mere binary systems of right and wrong, the teachings seem to be hints of concepts greater than what mere morality can accomplish.  
The instruction to 'Love your neighbour as yourself' is sometimes taken to impose an automatic cost on the person doing the loving - but while sometimes costs can be incurred, it isn't a necessary component in the expression. Loving your neighbour reaps huge psycho-spiritual benefits on the individual - and as St Paul reminds us, love never fails the person doing the loving - so it's not good to think of loving your neighbour in terms of costs - the whole process is hugely beneficial to the giver as well as the recipient.  

Goodness for goodness sake

The relationship between being Christ-like and engendering self-interested rewards is an interesting one. When considering the idea of goodness, we find that the concept of goodness for goodness sake is quite obscure.  When pondering whether or not there is such a thing as a pure act of human goodness unrelated to self-interest, I find that I lean towards the view that there is not such a thing.  We are able to perform kind and heroic acts, but I doubt whether any pure form of selflessness can be attributed to them, for it seems true to say that while all acts are not governed by self-interest they certainly have a cosy relationship with self-interest.  
I once set a challenge to a group of people to think of a positive, kind or generous act that confers no benefits on the self. Everyone struggled to think of one. Even seeming acts of pure generosity naturally confer emotional benefits which stroke our ego, and give us satisfaction and moral worth. I ended up contending that it is impossible to act beneficently without some form of self-interest coming into the equation.
Volunteers give up their time to do socially beneficial work, but studies have indicated that the warm glow of looking good is hard to resist. Two economists, Jeffrey Carpenter and Caitlin Knowles-Myers, put this to the test by analysing voluntary firefighters. They found that when offered modest financial incentives, some took them, but many did not. While this isn't watertight general evidence by any stretch of the imagination, what Carpenter and Knowles-Myers found was that many who turned down financial incentives were also the volunteers who had purchased vanity plates exhibiting their volunteer status. Presumably cash incentives would have undermined the warm glow they wanted to retain from being explicit about their volunteering status.
There may be a correlation between knowing more about the beneficiaries of one's charity rather than giving to 'eradicate poverty'. For example, being asked to donate to help a particular village in Cambodia get drinking water probably would be a different proposition to being asked to give generally to assist with WaterAid. In terms of how they make you feel, I suspect there are differences too. Those who just want to give to charity to feel good about themselves are less likely to do research into the best charity to give to, or whether theirs is doing as much good as others. Just the fact that they 'are' giving may often be enough for them.
Naturally this warm glow of satisfaction effect comes with further consideration in relation to the gospel. If our goodness brings with an automatic sense of self-satisfaction, and possible evolutionary legacies capable of inducing automatic pleasure in response to our decency, we may always be under a cloud of self-doubt with regards the pure intentionality of our actions.
If you'll recall, altruism means individual behaviour that increases the fitness of an organism while decreasing the actor's fitness. In Robert Triver's "Social Evolution", for an act to be called altruistic it must be demonstrated that the actor is incurring a cost. We've said that although there are occasions when we do something with seemingly no ulterior motive or assent towards outward self-interest, there is always the concomitant pleasure and satisfaction that such acts confer on the self. If it is the case that the benefits to the self always exceed the cost of the beneficent act (and that's by no means a certainty), this means it is nigh on impossible for a human to be altruistic.
Neuroscientific studies give possible indicators too. Using fMRIs (which stands for 'functional magnetic resonance imaging'), neuroscientists can map the activity of the various parts of the brain. Jordan Grafman and his team found that the area of the brain that was active when a beneficent act was undertaken was the mesolimbic pathway (which is the cognitive area associated with rewards, and has the same dompamine-based distributive properties as we have with sex, money, food and drugs.
Beneficent acts also engaged the part of the brain that doles out oxytocin, which is also associated with love (both the romantic kind and parental/familial love). So in terms of neuroscience, beneficence is inextricable from pleasure, love and self-satisfaction - there is virtually no way to avoid the conferring of pleasure on one's decency. Also, fMRI brain scans show that making decisions to donate to charity lights up the same region of the brain that reacts to other rewards like sex and money, which means that giving generously is inherently rewarding at a neuro-psychological level.
Evolution has been the stage on which the creation story has unfolded, and it is our biological legacies that give us the foundation to try to be Christ-like. That's why those who value the merits of others and take pleasure in their joy are better off than those who cannot. At this stage in our human evolution we have the ability to be expressly thoughtful, empathetic, generous, charitable, and improve ourselves by keeping our mind on realities that transcend self-centeredness.
Cognition that knows others in all levels of their need motivates service for them on varying levels of their need, and this is played out in economic and the political systems too. Anything that can hold others in their deepest potential of value and goodness and purpose helps with our humanity. In being the sort of person who helps an old lady across the road, your act serves two dialectical purposes – both of which are not unrelated to self-interest. Just like being honest when a shopkeeper has undercharged you, helping the lady across the road positively benefits both individuals (the actor and the beneficiary) and it contributes to the overall good effect of society in net terms.
In terms of our nature in relation to God, all that we have covered seems to lead us towards the question and answer being part of the same equation; yes we are capable of great goodness and horrible badness, and each of us to different extents - but what we share in common is that we are all internally fraught, and thus all equally under grace. Even Isaiah was frank enough to point out to his fellow Israelites that "all of our righteousness are as filthy rags".
One of the reproaches towards the Israelites was that they had turned their back on God and worshipped false gods (Isaiah 42:7). In the broader context I'm sure we can acknowledge that that applies to us too - self-aggrandisement being one of the primary tools for this fault. Thank God that Divine love, grace and goodness are far more powerful than human deeds.
Click here to read a report of Prof Coakley's lecture in Norwich
JamesKnight300James Knight is a long term contributor to the Network Norwich & Norfolk website and a local government officer based in Norwich.  

The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. 
We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here. 
Click here to read our forum and comment posting guidelines

You can also contact the author direct at j.knight423@btinternet.com

To submit a story or to publicise an event please email: web@networknorwich.co.uk