Stop Playing the Game! (RJS)

Questions of cooperation, morality, and altruism are active areas of scientific investigation. The origin of moral law is a serious scientific question that is investigated quite seriously. Some reduce the existence of a moral law to a means to enhance population survival, and altruism is a by-product of evolution. In a reductionist world there must be a practical reason why moral behavior and limited altruism (it certainly isn’t an all-encompassing instinct) are valuable traits for survival.

A couple of recent papers related to this topic have come to my attention recently.

An Animal Study. In a research paper published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), No Third-Party Punishment in Chimpanzees, investigators describe an experiment that looked for evidence of cooperation and punishment in Chimpanzees. Such studies provide a method of isolating or illuminating part of the structure that makes human behavior and society unique (if and where it is unique).  From the abstract:

Dominants retaliated when their own food was stolen, but they did not punish when the food of third-parties was stolen, even when the victim was related to them. Third-party punishment as a means of enforcing cooperation, as humans do, might therefore be a derived trait in the human lineage.

The paper is Open Access, anyone can read it through the link above. This paper has also received a lot of press since it was published. The LA Times, Huffington Post, and more normal science venues such as Discover Magazine have articles on the paper. There are great chimp photos with some of these reports as well.

A Theoretical Study. The questions of morality and cooperation are also investigated mathematically. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a common scenario for investigating the stability of moral behavior and the pressure for cooperation. Game theory (a branch of mathematics) is used to evaluate the outcomes in increasingly complex variations. Iterated versions where past events play a role in future choices are used to model some forms of evolutionary pressure. Robert Axelrod is one of the leaders in this field – his book The Evolution of Cooperation is a classic. A wikipedia article summarizing the main points is available. The general conclusion is that some variation of tit for tat (TFT) is a successful survival strategy. This builds cooperation and morality in a population.

An article published earlier this year returned once again to explore the benefits of altruism and selfishness in the survival of a population whose growth is governed by selective pressures in The Prisoner’s Dilemma. The article by two physicists, William Press and Freeman Dyson, suggests that selfishness can prevail as the game is iterated – cooperation is not a guaranteed result with rational players. The paper is a little dense (it uses equations), but it is also Open Access, so anyone can read it online: Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma contains strategies that dominate any evolutionary opponent. The bottom line here, according to some, is that “smart” selfishness can pay. Tit for tat is not the most successful strategy. An interesting conversation concerning the paper (complete with replies by Press and Dyson) can be found on The Edge.

Of course this is not the end of the matter. Nature has recently brought to attention a preprint of an article by researchers at Michigan State that revisits the question and suggests that strategic selfish populations are evolutionarily unstable.

These kinds of studies are interesting. The questions posed and the results obtained, whether from observing chimpanzees or from game theory lend insight into important questions. But the results are often taken to eliminate the need to invoke religion as a requirement for moral behavior, either in contemporary society or as an addition to the science of  evolution. Morality and cooperation, at some level, are requirements for a stable society. There is no need to invoke divine revelation to establish morality.  Belief in an all-seeing, all knowing policeman in the sky is merely an artifact of evolutionary pressure for stability.

There are three important points here worth some comment.

First, it is important to remember, as always, that so-called “natural” mechanisms and divine action are not mutually exclusive options. Moral law alone cannot provide a proof for the existence of God. The best it can be is a signpost.

Second, the purpose of religion, at least the Christian religion, is not to establish common moral behavior. The argument that without God we will have moral anarchy simply doesn’t hold.

Third, when Christians point to the moral law as a signpost pointing toward God the discussion doesn’t center on cooperation and “common” morality but on altruism. Francis Collins in his book The Language of God describes the moral law as one of the factors he found persuasive as he contemplated the Christian faith.

First, let’s be clear what we’re talking about. By altruism I do not mean the “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” kind of behavior that practices benevolence to others in direct expectation of reciprocal benefits. Altruism is more interesting: the truly selfless giving of oneself to others with absolutely no secondary motives.  When we see that kind of love and generosity, we are overcome with awe and reverence. (p. 25)

Following the lead of CS Lewis in Mere Christianity and The Four Loves, Collins suggests that selfless love is unexplained and perhaps inexplicable in an naturalist evolutionary framework. As such the value we place on selfless love provides a signpost to God. Deep inside ourselves we think that altruistic actions are intrinsically good. There seems to be no “natural” reason for valuing selfless love.

The strength or weakness of the argument from moral law is worth some discussion. But it is not the point that struck me as I was reading about these two studies.

Stop playing the game! All of the studies above operate on the principle that the purpose of moral behavior is to create a stable society conducive to survival and reproduction of the selfish gene. Biblical morality dethrones this idea and tosses it on the trash heap of history. The essence of Christian morality is summed up in two commandments.

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

Christian morality is not defined by tit for tat or by reward and punishment, third person or otherwise. Nor is it a search for a way to get ahead or to prevent being played for a sucker. It isn’t about hanging on to whats yours, or worrying about someone else getting more than their due. It isn’t about creating a stable society – it is about the Kingdom of God.

Some look at Old Testament Law as a kind of tit-for-tat. But this seems an over simplification. I think the Old Testament reads rather differently when viewed through the lens of the commandments above. The Sermon on the Mount elaborates (Mt. 5, I’d quote the whole thing, but that gets a little too long):

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. …

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. …

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. …

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. …

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

And then we have Matthew 20:1-16 …”For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.” … followed by a rather perplexing story. I’ve heard it said that this parable is an illustration of how everyone who is saved receives the same inheritance, whether they are saved as a child or on their deathbed at 95. God is generous.  But perhaps the parable is deeper than this, a true indication of the Kingdom of God where the people of God are called to stop placing the emphasis on money, wealth, hanging on to one’s own, and so forth, but rather to make decisions based on the radical basis of Love. We are not called to radical poverty, we are not all called to follow Mother Teresa, but we are all called to a radical shift in attitude and priorities.

Perhaps the value we place, deep in our gut, on selfless love and altruism is a signpost of the existence of God. But whether it is or not, as Christians we are called quite clearly to stop playing the game. Allowing oneself to be played for a sucker is not an evolutionarily stable strategy. But it is a Christian strategy.

What do you think?

What is the essence of Christian morality?

Do scientific studies of morality and evolutionary psychology call into question Christian faith? Why or why not.

If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]

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  • Well said, Thanks.

  • I may have mentioned this before here on Jesus Creed. Henry Drummond’s essay on love (The Greatest Thing in the World) is very good. It seems rather relevant to this discussion and may perhaps answer your second question, ‘What is the essence of Christian morality?’

    To answer the first question I’d say that the value we place on selfless love is indeed a signpost to the Almighty’s existence and indeed also to his nature.

    And in reply to the third question I’d say that no scientific study can call faith into question. Why? Because the scientific method is blind to faith (and deliberately so). Science investigates the physical world, it always likes to measure things. But how can we put a numerical value on
    faith, or love, or hope? Paul wrote that the foolishness of the Almighty is wiser than the wisdom of men. Loving my enemy is foolishness to most people.

  • D’oh! I’m having a bad day. I forgot to add the link to the Drummond essay –

  • Tim

    Altruism in animals extends beyond simple reciprocity. Certainly there is a large “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” component. But this is not all there is. Empathy is a big component of altruism. And empathy is a highly emotional trait. It arouses sympathy, caring, compassion, etc. These can generalize beyond just strict quid pro quo mutually beneficial social relationships. And of course the evolutionary argument is that they arise precisely because they are beneficial, but they generalize because they are emotional.

    We observe, for instance, that Rhesus monkeys will starve themselves when their taking food results in shocking another monkey in a nearby cage.

    And a recently released film documents the adoption of an orphaned and starving Chimpanzee in what can only be described in very touching, emotional, and empathetic terms (

    There is nothing “reductionistic” in this. We are evolutionarily cousins to other empathetic mammals such as the great apes. Acknowledging and illuminating our shared pro-social makeup is nothing remotely like the sort of materialistic reductionism we see when explanations of consciousness and existence are reduced to mere matter and energy interactions. Rather what we see is something that used to be understood as exclusively the province of mankind, in often very religious terms, challenged. And science happens to be in the business of challenging long-standing explanations. People are just going to have to get used to this. Throwing around derogatory labels like “reductionist” isn’t going to make any of this go away.

  • I find it sad and disheartening how so many Christians fight science on this, as if God can only exist within that which science cannot explain. It seems to go without saying that survival for any species rests on strategies that ensure successful reproduction, self defense, and, in many cases, defense of one’s offspring and “pack” from attack by other “packs” who compete for the same territory. (The religious church can certainly behave this way!) that societal good and evolutionary advancement are the basis for ethics seems obvious to me.

    We are amazed in nature when we see interspecies relationships form and our heart melts when a dog will fight to the death to defend a cat because she is his best friend. We universally herald as a hero a person who gives his life for his people (as we should).

    But has there ever been, in nature, an observed instance of an animal giving sacrificing itself to save the life of its predator? Do the gazelles ever think, “that leopard will starve if he doesn’t eat soon,” and choose to be eaten?

    What if THIS is the “Imago Dei”? Maybe what separates man from every other creature is not intelligence, or reason, or tool making, or creativity (though a case can be made that art is a form of self death for others) or even brotherly love, but the ability to choose to die for an enemy.

    Did not God himself create an enemy (ME) just to have the divine pleasure of drawing me to Him by His own self sacrifice?

    Death isn’t the enemy. Fear of death is. Shame. Christ partook of death and death will reign as the path to life until the last day when death itself will die, and Christ will, with all those who have likewise suffered and died, be with God, All-In-All.

    I sincerely hope that as the church we can stop worrying about reproduction and self defense and by faith begin stepping into death for our enemies. This is Life!

    As you said so well though, Christ’s ethics

  • Sorry, disregard broken sentence at the end of my last post.

  • T

    The wellspring of morality–it’s basis and essence–is the character of God. We are to be like him in character and action; we are to be holy as he is holy. Love is the highest command because it is most central to God’s character. So, it does not really surprise me that “even the animals” or at least the more advanced mammals, begin to show some altruism or some morality that moves toward love. While humans alone “image” God in some unique sense, clearly the whole creation reveals God in lesser ways.

    While I realize that a hard distinction b/n human and animal has long been wedded to a YEC view of the world; I see no necessity for that connection, or for such a hard view and any Christian view of the world. Therefore, I see no threat to faith (quite the opposite) in studies that show some kind of advanced morality in more advanced creatures, limited as it may be even for most people.

  • AJG

    I just posted this over at Pete Enns site (it’s awaiting moderation), but it is tangentially related to this post. Humans are probably even more unique than any of us realize, and our sense or morality is just the beginning.

    I just finished reading the book “Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life” by biochemist Nick Lane. In it, he states that he and most scientists now think that the process by which bacteria evolved into eukaryotes (organisms which are composed of cells with a nucleus, that is, everything except bacteria) was such a rare event that it occurred only one time on earth and probably did not and will not occur anywhere else in the universe. Think about that for a minute. In a universe the size of which we cannot possibly fathom, the 6 billion+ humans on this planet are probably the only thinking, conscious beings there are. How incredible is that? Lane is not a theist, but his book certainly has the potential to drive one to God.

  • Tim

    I second Nate W on kin (and possibly group) selection.

  • John I.

    Good post, and provocative questions. As an aside, while thinking about the post, I note that no sophisticated discussion of morality makes the claim that “without God we will have moral anarchy”. I’ve heard that said, and agree that it doesn’t hold, but that is not the argument that good Christian apologists and moral thinkers make. The proper argument is that without God there is no justification for objective morality.


  • Tim

    John I,

    While I appreciate your points with respect to the “moral anarchy” argument not holding water, it has been my experience that more than a handful of Christian apologists have contrasted abject “moral relativity” and “absolute morality”, as if this dichotomy was all that was available to us from a secular/evolutionary vs. theistic view. However, while “absolute morality” can, I agree, only come from some outside reference point such as God, universal morality, in the sense of universal across a species, is certainly a viable perspective within a purely evolutionary point of view. And in a scientific sense, it can even be considered “objective” in a way given that we can observe its nature and application in our species. We can investigate, to some degree, what we call the “moral sense” of humanity and its ultimate biological underpinnings. This does not naturally lead to “moral relativism.” Rather, it leads to a biologically based moral relativism with culturally as well as individually mediated relativistic expression. There are universals, but they may be mediated and even in overrun by cultural, religious, individual, etc. factors. And this type of depiction of morality does seem to reflect much of what we do in fact see.

  • Tim


    Should be: ” Rather, it leads to a biologically based moral UNIVERSALISM with culturally as well as individually mediated relativistic expression. “

  • David Philpott

    “Second, the purpose of religion, at least the Christian religion, is not to establish common moral behavior. The argument that without God we will have moral anarchy simply doesn’t hold.” Is not the point that common moral behavior may not be the *stated* purpose of Christianity, but that it is the reason that it exists and is successful?

    I think your first point attenuates the difficulties, but for me it’s not totally solved. I guess I would be interested in seeing whether or not Christian teaching of altruism significantly influences behavior as compared to other worldview. I agree with you that the Sermon on the Mount dramatically undercuts any tit-for-tat understanding or moral nature. Jeff Schloss’ piece (available here: states it well: “Indeed, Jesus almost sounds like a
    sociobiologist in the synoptic gospel accounts that exhort us not to restrict our
    greetings or dinner invitations or lending to those who do the same in return. He
    seems to regard these behaviors as native defaults, observing that even Gentiles and
    sinners and tax collectors do the same. He might just as easily have commented that
    all social vertebrates do the same. Religious indifference to the very real constraints
    of biological embodiment in the name of moral transcendence is an intellectual
    presumption that subverts – rather than advances – love and genuine spirituality.”

  • Bev Mitchell

    AJG (8),

    I agree on the power of Nick Lane’s writing. What we are learning from biology fits beautifully into what we know from Scripture – as long as we don’t ask Scripture to teach us science.

    Lane also wrote “Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution”. If anyone wants a quick update on the fundamental importance of evolutionary thinking for understanding life, this is one of the best, one stop, places to turn. “Life Ascending” won the 2010 Royal Society Prize for science books. This is a huge award for science writers. 

  • AJG

    Thanks Bev. I’m anxious to read everything Lane has written now. PSS was a mind-stretching book that I probably need to read again. I think I digested about half of the information in it. “Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World” is next on my list. I’ll get to “Life Ascending” eventually.

  • DRT

    Thanks for this RJS, it is one of my favorite topics for meditation.

    I am wholly unconvinced of the basis of morality being an indication of divine origin. I find little to no basis for this.

    But the issue is also more complex than that. As a rational (not sure if I am a rationalist) TE and Christian, I believe that what exists is the mechanism for god’s creation. Therefore, while we could consider it a signpost to god, I prefer to think of it as a signpost to what is. People can go from there and say that “what is” must be god because it is good and consistent with the revealed will of god, but I find that logic circular and totally unsatisfactory. I look at it more like it is consistent with a good god that is revealed in Jesus.

    And there is considerable satisfaction with my view. If Christianity is not true, then we should see some sort of contrary behavior in nature. I search for this behavior, the refutation of the revalation, but can’t find it. While not really a signpost in my view, it is certainly not a refutation, and given that I am basically an analytical type of thinker, that lack of refutation is quite important to me.

    I thought Robert Wright’s book where he explored the need for win-win type of thinking to be seminal in my development as a Christian. I was an active and vocal advocate for this type of thinking before I became a Christian zealot, and also believe that the win-win type of thinking is one of the true marks of innocence rather than evil. Well, that is not exactly right…. Perhaps win-lose thinking is a sign of evil, while win-win thinking is a sign of lack of evil intent with evil being defined by what is less than we were meant to be, either from a Robert Wright reasoning or a Jesus reasoning.

    Matthew 20 is a very interesting parable and I have applied that thinking to my children. Some background. I was raised in a family that decided fair=equal treatment of us kids. That approach frustrated the living heck out of me and my older sister. An example. She is 15 months older than I, and in the equal treatment paradigm I was given every right and benefit that she was given exactly 15 months later. She got to stay out late, then I did 15 months later. The trouble is that it was obvious to everyone that I was quite less mature than her at the same age. Regardless, my parents dutifully gave their interpretation of fair treatment.

    I have taken a different approach with my kids, and make a point of it. I have told them that they should not expect the same treatment in terms of what is given them, but I will look at what they need and what they can handle and give them that. While I fought with my wife a lot about this (and BTW, we are not getting divorced, it is a good thing for everyone), I got my way and have been vindicated. The kids don’t compare themselves to thier siblings, and they all feel good about what they get. I am most proud about their attitude that they will actually say that they don’t need anything, and don’t want anything. Wow, no tit for tat at all.

    So I see Matt 20 as a pointer toward that type of behavior. Our relationship with god and one another is not about what the other person is getting, it is about our relationship with god and others.

  • DRT

    I meant to say “we are getting di….” Is that a Freudian slip?

  • DRT

    BTW, when my first try at the knot failed, at age 25, I told my parents and they told me that I have to get Grandpa’s blessing. When I talked to Grandpa he said, “I am not going to tell you what to do or give you my blessing. I am going to tell you the rule to apply. The rule is that if it is harmful, actually harmful, not a lack of desire or a lack of fulfillment or simple disagreement, but actual harm, then you should end it. OK, now Dave, how are you doing these day?”. God bless Grandpa, passed almost 2 decades ago at 95 years old.

  • Mike M

    I find most of these responses very sublime and worth gnawing on. Thanks. As a coincidental aside, I just happen to have a Christian child’s book by my side which has a quote by Daniel Webster: “If religious books are not widely circulated among the masses in this country, I do not know what is going to become of us as a nation… anarchy and misrule, degradation and misery, corruption and darkness, will reign without mitigation or end.”

  • Marshall

    The point of the Press and Dyson is that if you try to maximize your income by responding to the other guy’s strategy, you can be led around by the nose. I think this is a mathematical proof of the old saw “you can’t cheat an honest man.” Tit for Tat (aka “sharing is fair”, Mat 18:22) can’t be exploited … it won’t get you rich (…”not the most successful”, harrumph…) but it keeps you safe.

    On your second point, granted that there may be other ways of escaping moral anarchy, Christianity (and I suppose religion in general) does work to establish correct relationships among individuals and between individuals and God (or creation), and what else is “common moral behavior”? I can’t accept that religion is only about soteriology. It seems obvious to me that a stable society conducive to survival (Jer 29:5; Is 65:23) is a foundation on which the Kingdom will be built.

    Christ’s advice was not to throw your wealth into the Burning Pit, but to give it to the poor. I don’t think that’s the same as being played for a sucker.

  • Marshall

    BTW, E.O.Wilson’s recent Social Conquest of Earth goes on and on about how difficult it is to understand how intra-social altruism evolved. Wilson, an atheist darwinian, sketches a scenario in which pre-adapted primates are driven by very specific environmental factors to evolve altruistic social groups. He comes pretty close to recapitulating Paley’s Watch, while explicitly denying that he is doing any such thing.

    By what force of evolutionary dynamics, then, did our lineage thread its way through the evolutionary maze? What in the environment and ancestral circumstance led the species through exactly the right sequence of genetic changes?
    The very religious will of course say, the hand of God. That would have been a highly improbable accomplishment even for a supernatural power. In order to bring the human condition into being, a divine Creator would have had to sprinkle an astronomical number of genetic mutations into the genome while engineering the physical and living environments over millions of years to keep the archaic prehumans on track. He might as well have done the same job with a row of random number generators. Natural selection, not design, was the force that threaded this needle.

    The first half of the book is well worth a read for anybody interested in this stuff (the second half rambles.) Personally I think people interested in Evolutionary Creationism (formerly TE) should focus on God’s manipulation of the environment. That way God can achieve results while allowing freedom to individuals.