altruism, Being Fully Human, belonging, Compassion, eveolution, faith and science, process theology, Progressive Christianity, selfishness, tribe

The Altruism Gene

dnaWe all seek to be more compassionate people and to demonstrate that compassion in our daily lives. I’ve mentioned that I have two boys. My firstborn, Jackson, is 22 years old. Twenty years ago when Jackson was just a toddler in the process of potty training, grandma came over to babysit. As the morning wore on, she found the need to visit the restroom. Shortly after sitting herself on the commode there was a gentle knock on the door. “Yes?’ She asked. “Whatcha doin grandma.” “I’m just going to the bathroom sweetheart.” “You want me to help you wipe your butt?” Not that’s being willing to take one for the team!

And it is an example of altruism. The unselfish concern for others. Altruism is the active practice of love and compassion.

So where does altruism come from?

Evolutionary Biologist Edward O. Wilson suggests that arose as part of our biological development. But that’s only half of the story. In his book The Meaning of Human Existence, he also suggests that selfishness is part of our biological development. Hence, human beings have evolved in such a way that we are in a continual inner struggle with the contradictory forces of selfishness and altruism.

Altruistic and Selfish DNA

It’s all there spelled out in our DNA. One on hand our genetic makeup is the result of a process in which only the strongest individuals survived. This individual survival instinct continues to play itself out in the choices we make to pursue our own interests, needs and desires. But on the other hand, our genetic makeup allowed us to survive as a species through collaboration and sacrifice for the good of the whole. So we also have this altruistic instinct that automatically thinks about caring for others, even when we derive no benefit from it ourselves, even when we pay a personal cost in doing so.

As a result of this multilevel selection, individual selection and group selection, we now live with inherent internal conflict. Within groups, selfish individuals are more likely to survive than altruistic individuals. But groups of altruists are more likely to survive than groups of selfish individuals. So it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that our common language is protective of the group with individual selection promoting behaviors we label as sin, and group selection promoting behaviors we label as virtues. We gain an advantage as an individual by being selfish, but our group is more likely to survive if we act altruistically.

Are Humans Essentially Good or Bad? 

One of the most enduring philosophical debates is whether we as human beings are at our root good or evil. Sinner or saint?  The answer is yes. We are both team player and whistle blower. We buy from our local farmer’s market and from the shelves at WalMart. We donate our money to peace initiatives and invest our money in stocks that produce the machinery of war. We obey the rules and we break them. We are simultaneously champions of truth and hypocrites – not because of a religious or philosophical failing, but because of the way we originated across millions of years of biological evolution.

It isn’t the forces of good and evil with which we struggle at all – it is conflicting biological traits. These conflicting pressures have produced an unstable mix of innate emotions and shifting moods. We are in turn proud, humble, angry, loving, vengeful and empathetic. This unique combination of self focused and other focused traits is the essence of our humanity and the source of our creativity.

So if altruism is nothing more than a biological development, what does that tell us about god?

Faith and Science

There were no debates in my house about evolution vs. creation when I was growing up. My mother’s approach was one of simple faith. She believed God created the universe – and that God could do that anyway God chose.

And so I learned to see science and faith, not as competitors but as complements of each other. Science itself was borne out of a desire to understand the “mind” of God, and science-based theological reflections have never been difficult for me to make. As Albert Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

And yet in some places and in some hearts, battle lines between faith and science were clearly drawn. The explosion of scientific knowledge, the accuracy of mathematical physics, and evolutionary science based on random variation resulted in intolerance as people painted themselves into either the corner of science that would seek to disprove the existence of God or the corner of Faith that would shut its eyes to the very wonder of scientific discovery.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, science and faith have a comfortable connection in process theology. So, let’s first define theology not as the study of God, but as the study of the human understanding of God. Alfred North Whitehead introduced the idea of process theology and gave us a whole different way of understanding God. I still use words like “god” as placeholders in order to have precisely these kinds of conversations.

Meant to Be?

But to get a feel for what I mean by God, and to understand process theology, we have to let go of the image of God taught in so many of our Christian churches and households. And I don’t just mean giving up the idea of God as an elderly white grandfather figure. I mean letting go of definitions of God that necessitate a faith that contradicts scientific reality. That means letting go of three beliefs about God:

First, that God is a cosmic moralist who keeps a record of our sins and will punish us for our trespasses.

Second, that God is unchanging and absolute.

Third, that God is a supernatural controlling power.

It is belief in these three attributes of God – that God is all knowing, that God is all powerful, and that God keeps score – that leads to the teaching of predestination. Predestination is the idea that God has already determined who is going to heaven and double predestination means that God has already decided who is going to hell. The big catch is that you have no idea where you are destined to end up, no matter how piously or horribly you behave. In my first theology class I learned that Pine Rest Mental Hospital was founded in large part to care for people who had literally driven themselves crazy with worry about what would happen to them after death.

While collapsing under such uncertainty is an extreme reaction, I am fascinated by the way in which we routinely use predestination language to explain even the most mundane occurrences in our life. I guess it was meant to be. It must be part of the plan. It’s Fate. Destiny. God’s will.

In marked contrast, process theology affirms that everything is in the process of changing. Like the teaching of impermanence in Buddhism, nothing stays the same. Every new thought, every interaction, every gain and every loss changes us in some way. Everything we do makes a difference, however subtle. We can’t, as Heraclitus said, step in the same river twice. And because we are continually sloughing off cells and growing new ones, we can’t even take a step with the same foot twice!

Claiming the Power to Create

Which means we are at the very least co-creators. Every decision that we make has the potential of changing every other possible decision in the whole cosmos. So we owe it to the cosmos to be about something more than passive existence. It is up to us to claim our own power to create. Because here and now, in this relative world, our choices make a difference in influencing our own lives and all of creation for good or for ill. What we do has consequences for our self and for others.

And we humans are intensely interested in the behavior of others. Just look at the racks of People magazines and the proliferation of reality television shows. We are gossips and social media sponges. Our minds are constantly evaluating everyone in terms of trust, love, hatred, suspicion, admiration, envy and sociability.

At the same time, we are compulsively driven to belong to groups and to define ourselves in relation to others. Not only that, we all tend to think of our own group as superior – no matter how gently we try to express those sentiments. In fact, studies show that not only do we sense our own superiority, but we also quickly come to think of members of other groups as less able and less trustworthy, even when we know the groups have been selected at random.

The truth is, we have the intelligence and the capacity for altruism that is necessary to turn this world into a utopia. But we are handicapped by the dysfunction of our species: we are addicted to tribal conflict. It’s amusing when we watch the Detroit Lions play or when we root for our kid’s soccer team. But it is deadly when expressed in real life ethnic, religious and ideological warfare. We have hereditary myopia. It is just harder for us to care about people beyond our own tribe and country, or about those whose births are one or two generations away.

The Future We Choose 

So what choices will we make? We have the social intelligence and the memory necessary to evaluate scenarios and predict consequences. We can imagine different futures, then choose which we would like to see while planning our path forward. What path will we follow?

My mom tells the story of three scientists got together and decided that by using all of their knowledge, they could create a human being. So they approached God and told her that they could create a human being without any help from her at all. Then they asked if they could prove it. God was very skeptical, but finally said, “Sure, let’s see what you can do.” Excitedly, the scientists started running around collected dirt and putting it in a pile. But after a few minutes, God said, “Hold on a minute. If you don’t want my help, you’re going to have to get your own dirt.”

We are quite literally on the precipice of abandoning natural selection and truly taking on the role that we once reserved for nature or for god. Now that we have mapped our own DNA, we can also alter it. What will be the consequences as we step into the ability to change the genetic makeup of unborn human beings? should we? If so, how much? Shall we have longer lives? Better memories? Less aggressive behavior? More pleasing body odor? Will our choices err on the side of individual conquest or group survival?

And how much more do we just not now yet? Think about it. Scientific theories are consistently proven wrong over time. Our images of God are also consistently proven wrong over time. Maybe god finally equals the right answers. Or maybe there are no right answers and no permanent resolutions. The Jewish name for God YWHY is usually interpreted as I AM WHAT I AM. But another equally valid interpretation is I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE. Nothing absolute. Nothing concrete. Nothing even particularly well defined. Hmmmm. God as a process…

And if God is a process, then we are a process. Continually evolving and developing. So if we are both selfish and altruistic, if we need a tribe and we need to stand out, then let’s stand out because it is hard for people to understand the depth of our compassion. And let’s join the tribe of the entire Cosmos so that the only limits to how far we extend that compassion are the limits of our imagination.



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