The interesting problem of altruism

We know and recognize kindness when we see it.  Kindness is everywhere–in the grocery store, among families, hopefully in manners our children exhibit.  But have you ever considered the origins of kindness?  Apparently, the search for the origin of kindness or, more specifically, altruism, is something that is popular in scientific circles.  Allow me to explain.

In Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution one of the major themes is that of natural selection.  Natural selection happens when a species adapts to its environment over time.  When certain species fail to adapt, it also fails to survive.   This leads to survival of the fittest.

One of the problems in this theory, however, came about when Darwin observed how certain life forms behaved with a sense of altruism; this confused him because he considered an animal’s sacrificial kindness to be a point of weakness in the animal kingdom–not a likely trait to last in the process of natural selection.

In a recent book, “The Price of Altruism,” Oren Harman writes about an eccentric scientist, George Price, whose equation solved this Darwinian conundrum.  Price concluded that altruism was an important aspect in nature, not because it promoted survival of the fittest, but because it took into consideration the value of cooperation.

Animals and societies that cooperate actually increase the ability to survive in tough environments, whereas competition–each man for himself, so to speak–leads to deadly cycles of violence and social fragility.

This is not suprising:  The Bible addresses the value of altruism in human community.  As a small band of tribes, Israel had to cooperate in order to ward off the numerous empires that clashed in Palestine.  King David united all of the tribes of Israel and emphasized cooperation in facing many enemies that sought to wipe the small nation off the face of the earth.

In Leviticus 19:34, God instructed Israel to treat immigrants in their midst as citizens in order to improve cooperative economic ventures: “And you shall love the alien as yourself.”  And the author of Psalm 133 celebrated altruism with the words: “How good and pleasing it is when kindred live together in unity” (NRSV).

Jesus echoed a similar ethic: We are to “deny ourselves,” follow him, and serve “the least of these.”  When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus said that we are to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Jesus also mentioned that those in the world know who his disciples are because his disciples love one another and are united in their mission to spread the Gospel.

We are to be selfless for no other reason than to follow God’s will for our life and glorify God by giving ourselves in the service of others.  That seems pretty counter intuitive in a world that prizes competitive prestige and power.

It was this counter intuitive aspect of altruism that led George Price, a staunch atheist, to “discover” the origin of kindness as it related to Darwinian evolution.  It did not take long for him to realize that altruism was something that transcended even evolution itself.

This realization was an “eureka moment” for George Price–an ah-ha moment.  And upon cracking this code, he came to only one conclusion: That God exists.

The atheist who shored up loose ends to crack one of Darwin’s most intriquing mysteries ended up converting to evangelical Christianity as a result.

Altruism does not require scientific know-how.  Nor can kindness exist only as a result of some mathematical equation.  Rather, altruism exists because we choose to follow the path of cooperation and compassion rather than the Darwinian agenda of competition and pride.   It doesn’t take rocket science to figure this out; only some much-needed inspiration from God’s Holy Word.

Published by Joe LaGuardia

I am a pastor and author in Vero Beach, Florida, and write on issues related to spirituality, faith, politics, and culture.

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