The conflict between science and Christian faith is often cast in terms of relatively simple questions of origins. Was creation accomplished in 6 days or billions of years? Can evolution explain the diversity of life or are there significant problems requiring an intelligent designer? Is Adam a unique historical individual, progenitor of the entire human race? These are questions for which we can expect scientific answers. The earth is billions of years old and life (at least unicellular life) has been present for most of this time. Evolution is a powerful theory that does an excellent job of explaining the diversity of life. This doesn’t mean that all questions have been answered or that we understand all of the active mechanisms, but the broad outline is clear. Human and pre-human populations were not smaller than several thousand individuals. Some Christians find these answers disturbing, but none of these answers strike at the heart of the Christian faith.
There are other, harder, questions however. Questions for which there are no neat scientific answers. Questions where within the scientific community there can be as much heat as light; where the answers given often depend in large part on metaphysical assumptions. These questions include thing like: What is morality? Is altruistic behavior possible? What role does society play? Is there anything free about human will? Can we change? What does it mean to be human? These questions have a larger impact on Christian faith than any of the simple questions of origins; larger even, than the question of Adam. In fact, objections to evolution are often rooted in the questions raised by evolutionary psychology and sociobiology.
These questions are beginning to receive the attention they deserve, interacting with the science rather than dismissing it. I recently received from the publisher (IVP Academic) a new book Evolution and Holiness: Sociobiology, Altruism, and the Quest for Wesleyan Perfection by Matthew Nelson Hill. Hill is an assistant professor of philosophy at Spring Arbor University. In his book Hill “uses the lens of Wesleyan ethics to offer a fresh assessment of the intersection of evolution and theology.” Although Hill, an ordained elder in the Free Methodist Church, concentrates on Wesleyan ethics, the implications for the church extend beyond any particular Christian tradition.
Hill starts his book with a survey of sociobiological explanations of altruism. Altruism poses a challenge for evolutionary biology because it seems inconsistent with survival of the individual. If humans are best understood as complex hosts for “replicator genes,” altruism is either an aberration or self-interest in disguise. Often language of purpose is used, as though genes had brains and intentions.
When it comes to gene self-preservation, genes will do anything that enhances their chances of replication. This drive for multiplication trumps even the host organism itself. What makes complex organisms a worthy host for such a powerful force is that they are able or willing to be “self-deceived” in order to attain gene fitness and perpetuation of their genotype. Consequently authors such as Richard Alexander would say “When we speak favorably to our children about Good Samaritanism, we are telling them about a behavior that has a strong likelihood of being reproductively profitable.” (p. 44)
Everything is reduced to reproductive success. More sophisticated views of altruism use game theory and sociobiology to explain the presence of altruistic values. These views are still reductionist, but provide explanations for altruistic tendencies in the context of community. In general the human sense of morality is attributed to a utilitarian impact on survival. This drives the diversity of species and the diversity and persistence of social organizations and cultural traditions. Hill comes back to Alexander’s views later in the chapter:
Richard Alexander … argues that natural selection only grants quasi-altruistic acts that are actually disguised, self-interested forms of selfishness, nothing more. In his article, “The Search for a General Theory of Behavior,” Alexander further states, “Society is based on lies … ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ But this admirable goal is clearly contrary to a tendency to behave in a reproductively selfish manner. ‘Thou shalt give the impression that thou lovest thy neighbor as thyself’ might be closer to the truth. (p. 56)
It isn’t coincidence that Alexander uses religious language. In this view religion exists because it increases reproductive success. Religion is a cultural tradition that produces group loyalty which in turn increases both group and individual survival probability. “Such self-preservation is the impetus for religious belief, subjugation and ritualistic group bonding.”(p. 57) The propensity for religion isn’t genetic, as though there exists a “God gene” transmitted from parent to child. Religion is passed from one generation to the next, but the mechanisms involve culture and tradition. These are equally powerful mechanisms. In fact, some will argue that theories of altruism can move beyond individual survival and self-interested pseudo-altruism when values are passed on through culture and religion. We still have natural selection, but this selection acts on a group level rather than an individual level.
In the reductionist view there is purpose to human culture, including human religion. But the purpose is to preserve the survival of the species. Cultural traditions exist as long as they benefit group survival. For this purpose truth is largely irrelevant. A successful society can be based on lies. Most are to some degree. Lies can bind people together into a cohesive and powerful group. The lies don’t have to be religious in the usual fashion to achieve this purpose.
In the following chapters Hill will critique these reductionist explanations and argue that a better understanding of the whole person is necessary to understand altruism and morality. Humans are more than a bundle of genes.
What are the most significant scientific challenges to Christian faith?
How would you respond to someone who pointed to sociobiology to discount religion?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.
If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.