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Picture a ground squirrel who spots a predator and gives an alarm call. The call alerts other squirrels who run for cover, but the call attracts the predator to the one giving the alarm. This unfortunate squirrel may give its life to protect its neighbors. How could this altruistic behavior, assisting other individuals at the expense of the calling squirrel, result from evolution? This seems contrary to natural selection, which will select for genes that advance the interests of each individual with no regard for taking care of other individuals. It is expected that the most successful squirrel will listen to other individual’s alarm calls, but not give any of its own calls.
When I was in graduate school at Cornell there was a lot of discussion of how evolution can explain altruistic behavior. The evolution process of natural selection should eliminate altruistic behavior, and yet it appeared that we do see altruistic behavior in nature. A few years later an answer was proposed by E. O. Wilson1. Sociobiology was evolution theory applied to behavior. Sociobiology answers the squirrel’s dilemma with the process of kin selection. This theory expects that, for example, ground squirrels are most likely to give alarm calls if they are living close to relatives who carry many of the same genes as the individual who gives the alarm call. That way even if the calling squirrel dies it has protected those who share many of its genes, including the genes favoring giving alarm calls to protect relatives. The result appears altruistic, but the “altruistic” behavior only persists in situations in which the behavior is really not altruistic, but is selfish. It protects, on the average, those others who share its genes, but not unrelated individuals.
This theory became the dominant explanation for behavior of humans as well as other animals. It has been used to explain rape (not necessarily evil, but just an alternate way to pass on one’s genes), adultery (maximizing the passing on of a successful male’s genes), why babies don’t resemble too closely their parents (to make adultery easier to get away with), and many other behaviors. It explained why some animals, like male African lions, sometimes kill all the young lions in their pride. This happens when a new male takes over the leadership of the pride. It kills the offspring of its rival, so that it can more quickly father its own young. This theory has been quite successful in explaining the behavior of animals.
How can we fit this together with belief in a wise Creator? This may seem like a dilemma, but it actually fits quite well with the Bible story of a world created very good, without evil and suffering, that is later victim of the results of sin. The sin was believing Satan instead of God, which essentially gave Satan permission to spread his destructive influence across the earth. The result was suffering, death, and the beginning of mutation and natural selection. We don’t know what change brought about genetic mutations and the resulting natural selection, but these influences have been seen in nature through history. Geneticists tell us that the human genome is degrading at the rate of one to several percent each generation2. There is evidence that behavior is partly influenced by genes, so mutations could cause behavioral change. No wonder the apostle Paul groaned because what he didn’t want to do, he did, and what he wanted to do, he did not do. I suggest that human behavior has been affected by mutation and selection, and that is one reason why we tend to be selfish and behave badly.
Think of what that means for a Christian believer in creation. The theory that all life is the result of evolution attempts to explain the origin of all animal behavior by mutation and natural selection, and this has prevented the origin of genuine altruistic behavior. In either naturalistic evolution or theistic evolution rape and other selfish behaviors were part of God’s plan; part of His process of creation. But the Bible describes life forms, including humans, being created perfect and they later became subject to destructive changes, apparently including mutation and natural selection. In this view God is not responsible for the suffering and selfishness so prevalent in this world.
In both of these concepts, evolution and creation, life has been subject to mutation and selection through thousands of years, but they have very different beginning and ending points. The conventional evolution theory begins and ends in a selfish, brutal competition for life. In this process natural selection usually prevents the rise of unselfish, altruistic behavior. In the biblical creation account, altruistic behavior was probably very common in other animals as well as humans, but mutations through the ages have resulted in much loss of altruistic tendencies. We humans are damaged as well as the rest of the creation, but we can seek God’s gracious help in moving farther toward the unselfish, altruistic life that He intends for us. The ultimate solution is the restoration of God’s plan that we can look forward to in a world recreated as it was in the beginning.
Loma Linda University
1 Wilson, E. O. 1975. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
2 Sanford, J. C. 2005. Genetic Entropy and & The Mystery of the Genome. Lima, New York: Elim Publishing.