Altruism, Evolution and the Importance of Religion

supercoopRoger Highfield and Martin Nowak’s book, SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed, takes a look at new ideas emerging in the field of evolution due to mathematics and game theory being applied to biology.   The basic tenet of the book is that as biology and evolution are viewed through the lens of math theory, it becomes obvious that evolution requires cooperation as much as competition to work.  There is not only natural selection involved in the survival of the fittest, but also natural cooperation which aids the survival of cells and species.  Nowak writes:

“By cooperation, I mean more than simply working toward a common aim. I mean something more specific, that would-be competitors decide to aid each other instead. This does not seem to make sense when viewed from a traditional Darwinian perspective. By helping another, a competitor hurts its own fitness—its rate of reproduction—or simply blunts its competitive edge.”  (Kindle Loc. 217-20)

“Given how many times multicellularity evolved, it seems unlikely that there is a single explanation for its origins, save that the same basic strategy—cooperation—was the right answer when it came to dealing with various problems.”  (Kindle Loc. 2595-97)

The scientific fact of cooperation between cells and members of a species, not to mention the cooperation between species within ecosystems, certainly can help break down some resistance to evolutionary theory by theists.  It changes the tenor of the discussion about the relationship between God and evolution.  Evolution thus can be viewed not as a mindless and heartless process of competition to the death, but of one which also has a morally life-giving dimension. Cells and species can decide to cooperate and are not forced along by evolutionary fate.  Even some of humanity’s moral dilemmas can be understood as the tension caused between evolutionary cooperation and competition.

“Many problems that challenge us today can be traced back to a profound tension between what is good and desirable for society as a whole and what is good and desirable for an individual.”  (Kindle Loc. 291-92)

Selfishness can be individualistic, but it has a social dimension as well which expresses itself in family, clan, tribal or even national levels of cooperation. “Me” versus “others” is one dimension of human relationship and survival but so is “us” versus “them.”   Identifying with an “us” requires cooperation.  There is in us a biological warfare going on – a fight between two dimensions of being human – the self versus the social self.   This certainly is related to many human moral issues and to the call of religion for us to practice self-denial in favor of the community.

One human element to emerge from this cooperation and which aids it is language.  The birth of language is another version of which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

“We like to think that we created language, but this is back to front. Language created us. Locating the origins of language could help to shed light on the origins of humanity.”  (Kindle Loc. 3118-19)

“The birth of language is perhaps the most amazing event to occur in the last 600 million years, one that is of equal significance in the unfolding drama of evolution to the appearance of the very first life. That is because language provided a vast new stage upon which Darwin’s struggle for existence could play out, a novel mode of evolution and a remarkable spur for cooperation, even among people who are separated in time and in space.”   (Kindle Loc. 3100-3104)


Language is one of the things that lifts humans above being passive victims of evolution.  With the evolution of language humans began through social cooperation influencing and even controlling not only their environment but their genetic make up.

“In this way, language propelled human evolution out of a purely genetic realm, where it still operates, into the realm of culture.”  (Kindle Loc. 3107-8)

The development of culture means humans gain some control over their destiny.  As the book points out, the emerging field of mathematical analyses of evolution suggests there is a connection between evolution and the appearance of ethical behavior.   Religion in general advocates cooperation and self-denial.  Religion as such aids in the natural cooperation which is an essential element in evolution, especially human evolution.  Intentional cooperation (culture), not mere acting according to genetic instinct, gives humanity an evolutionary edge by lifting humanity above being the product solely of natural selection.

Indian Mound Burial Ground

“In this way, my work on cooperation highlights which kinds of behaviors are important for human evolution and success in daily life. We have five mechanisms that can work separately and together to help everyone to get along. What is remarkable is that from an analytical, quantitative, and mathematical basis I can come up with ideas that should seem as familiar to secular ethicists as they are to followers of religions. Diverse faiths are united by the reciprocity of the Golden Rule, as we saw in chapter 2. Evolution, which at first glance seems to present problems for faith, actually hones selfless, altruistic, and perhaps even saintly behavior. The teachings of the great world religions have much in common in that they provide ancient recipes for how to lead a fulfilled life. For millennia they have analyzed the human condition to ameliorate suffering and sadness. They have come to the conclusion that love, hope, and forgiveness are essential components of what is needed to solve the biggest problems. They call for unselfish action. Jesus says if you give, then your left hand should not know what your right hand is doing. Krishna says to the prince Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita: You have to see yourself in every creature. You have to experience the sufferings of others as your own. For those who follow a faith, the solution comes when the drive to be selfish is overwhelmed by love. In the language we have encountered in this book, the teachings of world religions can be seen as recipes for cooperation. Now, for the first time, aspects of these powerful ideas have been quantified in experiments, captured in equations, and enshrined in science.” (Kindle Loc. 4848-61)

The human is not merely genetically driven but can arise above biology due to cooperation, community and moral thinking.  Humans can aspire to something greater than evolution alone would predict.  Evolution tested and viewed through mathematical theory shows the moral demands of religion are an important part of natural cooperation.


One thought on “Altruism, Evolution and the Importance of Religion

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s