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Monday, June 25, 2007

Recent Column: Can you choose to help? Or are you simply spreading your selfish genes?

(Note: This column won an Award of Merit at Write Canada 2007. It was originally published in Maranatha News, June 2006.)

by Denyse O'Leary

Canadian Andrew Brash, a Calgary resident, was only a few hundred steps from his dream - the summit of Mount Everest. Then, he saw something that made him turn aside.

Australian mountaineer, Lincoln Hall, was sitting on the ridge in a thin shirt, with no hat or gloves. His guides had left him for dead and, his hands nearly frozen, he was trying to jump over a cliff. Brash prevented him from jumping and thus saved his life. But Brash did not think of himself as a hero, even though days before, a group of 40 climbers had not stopped to help a Briton dying on the mountainside.

If all this sounds a bit like the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30 37), maybe that is because life imitates not merely art but prophecy. In every age, there are those who help, at a cost to themselves and those who don't.

Helping at risk to oneself is not new. When the Air France Airbus crashed in Toronto on August 2, 2005, a number of motorists helped passengers to safety. Similarly, on November 6, 2005, Grandmother Rosalia DeSantis was travelling home on the subway and, feeling hot and dizzy, she leaned over the edge of the platform . 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.

One thing I learned while writing By Design or by Chance? (2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy and while co-authoring The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007) is that materialistic philosophy has a hard time accounting for altruism. The most fashionable theory today argues that you do not act to benefit others because you think God wants you to but in order to spread your selfish genes, as a product of evolution. Thus, you might help your own relatives, because they have some identical genes with you. Therefore helping your relatives spreads at least some of your genes. But you are unlikely to help people who do not share genes with you. The famous evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane put it this way, "Would I lay down my life to save my brother? No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins."

The main problem with the materialistic theory expressed by Haldane is not that it offends religious believers but that it ignores the evidence. The evidence is that people often help unrelated others in situations where they cannot expect any reward, may suffer a disappointment or undergo a serious risk, and have no reason to think that they will spread their genes. This is only a small part of the growing conflict between Christianity and Darwinism that I have been tracking for a number of years now. It is certainly a far cry from "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13, NIV) and "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom 5:7 8 ). These sayings do not even mention relatives. Jesus died both for friends and for non-friends. No wonder there are growing worldview conflicts.

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?

My other blog is the Mindful Hack, which keeps tabs on neuroscience and the mind.

NEW!! Evolution in the light of intelligent design - look up intelligent design topics here.

Animations of life inside the cell, indexed, for your convenience.

Anti-God crusade ... no, really! My recent series on the spate of anti-God books, teen blasphemy challenge, et cetera, and the mounting anxiety of materialist atheists that lies behind it.

Catholic Church A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

Collins, Francis My review of Francis Collins’ book The Language of God

Columnists weigh in on the intelligent design controversy A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

Darwinism dissent Lists of theoretical and applied scientists who doubt Darwin

Gilder, George A summary of tech guru George Gilder's arguments for ID and against Darwinism

Intelligent design academic publications.

Intelligent design-friendly students should be flunked, according to bio prof Evolutionary biologist’s opinion that all students friendly to intelligent design should be flunked.

Intelligent design controversy My U of Toronto talk on why there is an intelligent design controversy, or my talk on media coverage of the controversy at the University of Minnesota.

Intelligent design controversy timeline An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

Intelligent design and culture My review of sci-fi great Rob Sawyer’s novel, The Calculating God , which addresses the concept of intelligent design.

March of the Penguins A critical look at why March of the Penguins was thought to be an ID film.

Origin of life Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.

Peer review My backgrounder about peer review issues.

Polls relevant to the intelligent design controversy A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

Stove, David O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove’s critique of Darwinism.

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