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Altruistic Animals: Compatible With Evolution?

by  Caleb Colley, Ph.D.

The humanistic sociologist Auguste Comte coined the term “altruism,” derived from the Italian altrui, which means “other” (Rhode, 2005). Under Comte’s definition, altruism signified an unselfish regard for the welfare of others (Rhode, 2005). People are not entirely self-interested. If they were, then families would be nonexistent. Yet, 90 percent of Americans marry (Coltrane, 44[4]:395). Modern instances of what we generally call altruism abound. For an example of obvious altruism on a grand scale, over $4.25 billion was raised for Hurricane Katrina-related relief and recovery (“Hurricane...,” 2006).

The animal world also is filled with animals that appear to help other creatures. Eduardo Porter noted in The New York Times, “altruism isn’t an exclusively human trait. Vampire bats are pretty altruistic, too, regurgitating blood for members of the group that haven’t eaten. Sterile worker bees, which are incapable of conscious thought, let alone moral behavior, are about as altruistic as a living creature can be: they give their lives so their queen may reproduce” (2005). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy reveals:

In numerous bird species, a breeding pair receives help in raising its young from other ‘helper’ birds, who protect the nest from predators and help to feed the fledglings. Vervet monkeys give alarm calls to warn fellow monkeys of the presence of predators, even though in so doing, they attract attention to themselves, increasing their personal chance of being attacked (Okasha, 2003).

As we ask of all relevant features of scientific data, we ask of the phenomenon of altruism in the animal kingdom: Does it best fit the creation model or the evolution model? Evolutionists categorize altruism as a product of genetic determinism (i.e., genetics explain all behavior), while Christians believe that God instilled altruism as an instinct in animals and a psychological, moral force in humans (see Thompson, 2004, pp. 23-24; cf. Jackson, 1992).

Of course, we are ignorant as to exactly what goes on inside the heads of animals and humans. We do not expect a dolphin to answer intelligibly when we ask, “Why did you help that other creature, even when it created the potential of danger to your own health?” Animal altruism troubled Charles Darwin, who popularized evolution in the 1800s. Darwin wrote that “[n]atural selection will never produce in a being anything injurious to itself, for natural selection acts solely by and for the good of each. No organ will be formed, as Paley has remarked, for the purpose of causing pain or for doing any injury to its possessor” (1859, p. 228). As Okasha well noted, “From a Darwinian viewpoint, the existence of altruism in nature is at first sight puzzling.... Natural selection leads us to expect animals to behave in ways that increase their own chances of survival and reproduction, not those of others” (2003).

Indeed, traditional evolutionary theory has emphasized the individual, to the neglect of any social obligation. McFadden commented, “Altruism—helping others at our own expense—puzzled Charles Darwin, whose theory predicted that individuals should act selfishly to serve their self-interest. Why should wolves share their kill; or sparrows draw attention to themselves by issuing a warning call when they spot a hawk” (2004)? Major observed, “If a bird helps a breeding pair build its nest and feed its young, without breeding itself, then it would seem to be a loser in the struggle for life. While this individual is busy helping others, it is missing out on the opportunity to produce heirs of its own” (1999). How, then, do evolutionists account for altruism in animals?

EVOLUTIONARY EXPLANATIONS

Group Selection

Evolutionists have suggested that natural selection involves “group selection,” whereby a member of a group of animals would do something for the biological benefit of its entire group. In this way, evolutionists argue, the fittest group will survive, and natural selection will have met its obligation. Of course, there are severe problems with natural selection (Thompson, n.d.; Thompson and Harrub, 2003, pp. 227-270). Problems with group selection theory further illustrate the flaws in natural selection as a mode of evolution. As evolutionist Bryan Appleyard observed, “[Group selection theory—CC] makes no sense in the context of the selfish gene because all the gene can possibly see is the survival of its own particular organism” (1998, p. 112, emp. added). The selfish gene is Dawkins’ notion, reflective of Darwin, that the individual gene will do whatever it takes to ensure that the individual in which they are stored produces additional copies of the gene (1989; cf. Thompson, 2004).

Even if we were to admit that group selection occurs, however, it would not prove that genetic determinism is responsible for altruism in animals. Major explained:

[Group selection theory—CC] does not explain how the gene for altruism can survive over the long term. If an individual carrying this mutation behaves unselfishly and, as a result, leaves fewer or no offspring, then the mutation will die out. Also, the group needs to discourage cheaters—individuals that take advantage of altruists to further their own selfish interests, and thus neutralize the benefits of altruism for the species as a whole (1999).

By attempting to account for legitimate altruism by introducing a faulty hypothesis that maintains dependence on the genetically selfish individual, evolutionists have moved right back where they started.

Kin Selection

Dawkins (1989) proposed a solution to the problems with the group selection idea: “kin selection” (i.e., since close relations share genes, a gene may prompt its organism to help others who are closely related). The theory of kin selection is responsible for much of the development of sociobiological research. McFadden objected: “Altruism isn’t always restricted to kith and kin. When a female vervet monkey is attacked, non-relatives will often come to her aid. Studies show that the likelihood that a non-relative helps depends on how recently the distressed monkey groomed the helper” (2004).

Even if we were to suppose that some animal altruism occurs due to some “kin selection” mechanism, evolutionists “still have a gaping hole in an attempt to explain altruism. If, for example, I help a blind man cross the street, it is plainly unlikely that I am being prompted to do this because he is a close relation and bears my genes. And the animal world is full of all sorts of elaborate forms of cooperation which extend far beyond the boundaries of mere relatedness” (Appleyard, 1998, p. 112).

Furthermore,

cheating still is possible. A mutation could arise that mimicked the identifying features of individuals that carried the gene for altruism. This introduces the need for some sort of policing strategy.... The problem now is that the difficulties have multiplied. The evolutionists sought to explain a highly complex social behavior in biological terms, and ended up having to explain other complex behaviors, such as cheating and policing (Major, 1999).

Again, if evolutionists merely repackage selfishness and call it “altruism,” they fail to explain how real altruism fits in evolutionary theory. They may insist that altruism is only apparent. But such a notion is untenable, particularly in the wake of such a generous, altruistic outpouring of support to those devastated by Katrina. Evolutionists are forced to dichotomize aspects of beings, artificially separating the biological from the psychological/moral. The fact is, we differentiate between selfish human acts and altruistic acts, because we can identify altruism when we see it. Altruism is real, and even in the light of kin selection theory, remains biologically inexplicable.

Game Theory

A more recent evolutionary explanation involves attributing even more psychological human qualities to biological features of animals that “help”: game theory. “Game theory seeks to make sense of competition by analyzing different moves in as clear a mathematical way as possible” (Appleyard, p. 111). When applied to animal altruism, game theory suggests that various organisms play an instinctive, mathematical “game” to determine what is best for the group. When some lions share a zebra corpse, for example, they are playing a sharing game that involves “subtleties of calculation and...a remarkable distillation of all the complexities in any confrontation” (p. 111). In short, game theory is the idea that organisms cooperate because it is beneficial (p. 112).

Observe that reductionist, evolutionary game theorists again have reduced a discussion of altruism to an explanation of survival tactics. In order to prove that game theory accounts for the altruism exhibited in nature, evolutionists would be forced to prove that animals are capable of solving very complex mathematical equations about which advanced college students study regularly (see “Certificate...,” 2006). Such proof is—and will be—unavailable. Furthermore, evolutionists would need to explain why, on occasion, some members of a particular “kind” of animal help members of another “kind,” which would seem to be excluded from the “game.” For example, dogs occasionally “adopt” orphaned kittens (“Mother Dog...,” 2006).

Game theory cannot explain why animals, with no prior training, occasionally appear to help humans. For example, a group of New Zealand swimmers had to depend on a group of dolphins, which formed a protective circle that kept a great white shark at bay (McFadden, 2004). Moreover, proof that all animals coexist by playing these types of “games” would fall woefully short of proving evolution and disproving the biblical creation account. The Creator endowed animals with instinctive dictates that allow them to live together.

CONCLUSION

Having demonstrated that the major evolutionary explanations of altruism fail, we reach the conclusion that evolution logically implies that altruism, as an instinctive motivation in animals, or as a psychological/moral factor in humans, is imaginary (cf. Lipe, n.d.). However, we observe altruism in nature and in the clear teaching of the Bible (John 15:13; Philippians 2:2-4). Altruism embarrasses evolution, but makes perfect sense in light of the biblical creation account.

REFERENCES

Appleyard, Bryan (1998), Brave New Worlds: Staying Human in a Genetic Future (New York: Viking).

“Certificate Program in Mathematical Modeling in Political Science and Economics,” (2006), University of Rochester, College Center for Academic Support, [On-line], URL: http://www.rochester.edu/College/CCAS/certificates/cert_mathmodel.html.

Coltrane, Scott (2001), “Marketing the Marriage ‘Solution’: Misplaced Simplicity in the Politics of Fatherhood: 2001 Presidential Address to the Pacific Sociological Association,” Sociological Perspectives, 44[4]:387-418, Winter.

Darwin, Charles (1859), The Origin of Species (New York: Avanel, 1979 reprint).

Dawkins, Richard (1989), The Selfish Gene (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press), second edition.

“Hurricane Katrina One Year Later: Where Did the Money Go?” (2006), Charity Navigator, [On-line], URL: http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm/bay/katrina.article/cpid/452.htm.

Jackson, Wayne (1992), “The Blind Bookwriter,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/321.

Lipe, David L. (no date), “The Foundations of Morality,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/rr/reprints/Foundations-of-Morality.pdf.

Major, Trevor (1999), “Ethics and Darwinism [Part II],” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/73.

McFadden, Johnjoe (2004), “The Kindness of Animals,” The Hindu: On-line Edition of India’s National Newspaper, [On-line], URL: http://www.hindu.com/2004/12/14/stories/2004121401511000.htm.

“Mother Dog Adopts Litter of Kittens” (2006), WNBC, [On-line], URL: http://www.wnbc.com/news/9927844/detail.html?rss=ny&psp=news#.

Okasha, Samir (2003), “Biological Altruism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, [On-line], URL: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism-biological/.

Porter, Eduardo (2005), “Putting Charity Through the ‘What’s in It for Me?’ Test,” The New York Times, [On-line], URL: http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10814FF3B540C718C DDA90994DD404482.

Rhode, Debora L. (2005), “Altruism and Hurricane Katrina: Lesson For and From the Public’s Response to Social Needs,” Stanford Center on Ethics, [On-line], URL: http://ethics.stanford.edu/newsletter/December%2005/Altruism.htm.

Thompson, Bert (no date), “Neo-Darwinism: A Look at the Alleged Genetic Mechanism of Evolution,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/rr/reprints/NeoDarwinism.pdf.

Thompson, Bert (2004), The Many Faces, and Causes, of Unbelief (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press), second edition.

Thompson, Bert, and Brad Harrub (2003), Investigating Christian Evidences (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).




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