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Monday, November 07, 2005

Two views: Why are people willing to sacrifice themselves for others?

It was Friday afternoon on the Toronto subway system. Grandmother Rosalia DeSantis was travelling home from her job with a public sector union. She felt hot and dizzy, and she leaned over the edge of the platform at Lawrence West Station, to see if a train was coming soon....

Later, in Sunnybrook Hospital's emergency ward, she learned what had happened to her. She had fainted, hit her head, fallen into the gap, and was lying across a track bleeding. The train was coming into the station in seconds.

How had she survived? Two men who knew neither her nor each other - Theo Parusis, 25, and Alvaro Meija, 26 - jumped down onto the track and hoisted her up to safety, five seconds before the train rolled over the spot.

To most of us, these guys are heroes. But they are considered by evolutionary psychologists to be "the last remaining unsolved problem in evolution" (Gabriel Dover, "Anti-Dawkins" in Rose, Hilary and Steven Rose, Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology (London: Random House Vintage, 2001). p. 48.)

Why are these guys a problem? Because according to evolutionary psychology, human beings are simply evolved animals, and animals do not do things like that. For example, in a recent letter to science journal Nature (October 27, 2005), researchers revealed that chimpanzees will not help other chimps unless they know them, even if helping would cost nothing, never mind that it might entail a risk. So if chimps don't do it, people cannot really be doing it either. There must be some explanation that shows that the young men's behaviour was really selfish at heart. Many ingenious suggestions have been offered along that line.

For example, I once heard an evolutionary psychologist explain that Mother Theresa was really passing on her intellectual genes, so to speak, by encouraging people to become Catholic nuns through the example of her good works.

I remember wondering idly whether she would have stopped her good works if she observed that no one had in fact become a Catholic or a nun on account of them. Somehow, I do not think so.

Indeed, the gulf that separates evolutionary psychology from an understanding of the spiritual nature of the human can be estimated by comparing the evolutionary psychology explanation of Mother Theresa's motivations with her own writings on the subject.

According to one of the most popular theories of evolutionary psychology, our genes themselves are selfish. and they trick us into doing things that will get them passed on. From the standpoint of evolution, then, it makes no sense that two young men would risk their lives to save an old woman.

As science writer Mark Buchanan explains in New Scientist,
In evolutionary terms it is a puzzle because any organism that helps others at its own expense stands at an evolutionary disadvantage.

Indeed, the great evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane said that he would not sacrifice himself for a brother but he would do so for two brothers or eight cousins. His genes would then be preserved. Haldane may have been joking, but he was referring to a genuine theory of human action, a theory that can easily account for "nature red in tooth and claw" but not for the Toronto subway incident or for Mother Theresa.

Actually, there's nothing new here. It was all explained a long time ago, but materialism creates apparent difficulties where there are no real ones, because it needs to find materialistic motivations where there aren't any.

Here's the deal. Sacrifices for relatives and friends only are not really at the heart of human love. That is not exactly a new idea: Jesus warns
If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5, 46–48, NIV)

So does that mean that those who follow Jesus are doing it simply for a reward? Well, not exactly:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:24-26, NIV)

Yes, eventually, there is a reward, but it turns out to be eternal fellowship with God. Those who seek fellowship with God are not much interested in rewards in the ordinary sense that either people or chimps are motivated by a "reward," that is, by some external benefit. Fellowship with God is an invitation to a changed, higher form of life. From a Christian perspective we begin to experience this higher form of life when we serve others, as Jesus did, without clinging to concern for ourselves.

So the mistake of the evolutionary psychologist is that he is looking for a self-contradictory (and therefore non-existent) explanation: a way that Mother Theresa, for example, really does benefit in a selfish way from her selfless good works - when in reality selfish, this-worldly benefit would merely serve as a distraction from her chosen task of following Jesus. No wonder materialism is coming under serious fire these days! it does not explain the specifically human behaviours, only those that we might share with animals.
If you like this blog, check out my award-winning book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you looking for the following stories?
"Academic Freedom Watch : Here's the real, ugly story behind the claim that 'intelligent design isn't science'?".

Roseville, California, lawyer Larry Caldwell is suing over the use of tax money by Darwin lobby groups to promote religious views that accept Darwinian evolution (as opposed to ones that don’t). I’m pegging this one as the next big story. It will be interesting to see the line that the “separation of church and state” people take.
How to freak out your bio prof? What happened when a student bypassed the usual route of getting frogs drunk and dropping them down the chancellor’s robes, and tried questioning Darwinism instead.

Christoph, Cardinal Schonborn is not backing down from his contention that Darwinism is incompatible with Catholic faith, and Pope Benedict XVI probably thinks that’s just fine. Major US media have been trying to reach rewrite for months, with no success.

Museum tour guides to be trained to "respond" to those who question Darwinism. Read this item for an example of what at least one museum hopes to have them say.

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