Solving the Mystery of Altruism

A man dives into an ice-cold lake to save a stranger only to drown; a woman donates blood for someone she will never know; a volunteer takes a week off work to help hurricane victims; others write checks to the community kitchen, the shelter for battered spouses, or the children’s burn clinic.

Why? Why do people sacrifice their self-interests and well-being for total strangers? The eminent evolutionary biologist, E.O. Wilson, has called it an “enduring, unsolved paradox.” It is a mystery that the Institute for the Research on Unlimited Love (IRUL) is looking to solve through the wonders of science.

Suggesting that previous concepts of self-giving love, derived from theological and philosophical thought, have been insufficient, the IRUL is turning to evolution, genetics, neurology, and positive psychology in the hope of determining how our knowledge needs to be enhanced, modified, or reworked.

So, is sacrificial love merely a mechanistic phenomenon to be studied in a lab, expressed in an equation, and calculated with error bar analysis for the purpose of advancing society toward some benevolent end? According to a nineteenth century philosopher and sociologist, yes it is.

Altruism Coined
Born in 1798, Auguste Comte became the founder of sociology. Comte was a positivist who believed that all phenomena (including human behavior) are governed by physical principles discernible through the scientific method. Interestingly, Comte also believed that altruism—a term he coined—was a moral responsibility.

Interesting, because moral responsibility implies a duty transcending human convention and, as such, is incompatible with a materialistic worldview. Nevertheless, Comte argued that morality was what is determined, scientifically, to be effective in solving our social ills.

An Evolutionary Artifact
As a materialist, Comte considered altruism a direct and necessary consequence of our evolutionary heritage. Comte’s argument went something like this: In the beginning, small clans of homo-sapiens competed for scarce resources in a hostile, untamed world. Those groups that learned to cooperate and sacrifice for the clan became more “fit” than those who didn’t. By putting aside self-interest for the common good, these altruistic ancestors were able to out-populate the rival clans that succumbed to self-interest and infighting. After countless generations, the altruist impulse became embedded in the human consciousness as an evolutionary artifact.

That has a certain intellectual charm. But it doesn’t quite explain why we should sacrifice our convenience, much less well-being, for someone outside of our clan. For example, how is evolutionary fitness enhanced for the German sheltering Jews from the Holocaust; the 9/11 fireman rushing into the World Trade Center; or for the volunteer at the AIDS hospice?

Even within one’s clan, how does evolutionary fitness explain, much less justify, the caring for an aging parent or dying child? The ever-imaginative Michael Shermer has a ready answer.

The Real, Real Thing
In a PBS special, Michael Shermer mused why he felt good about being polite to strangers he would never meet again. Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine and self-professed atheist, concluded to a diverse panel discussing the origin of morality,

It’s not enough to just fake being a cooperator and a good person because it’s hard to do… You actually have to be a good person. And you’re more likely to believe it yourself if you actually do it… And I think, over the long eons of our evolutionary history, we evolved a moral sense, an empathy, or a feeling of warmth about doing the right thing, not as a fake thing, but as a real thing.

Note that this is not a statement of fact; it is a statement of faith. It is Michael Shermer’s personal belief in a theory offered without evidence or proof … and this from someone who prizes the empirical method as supreme. But what else can Shermer do to keep his materialistic worldview from collapse?

That aside, Shermer’s fanciful explanation is unconvincing for a number of reasons. First of all, Shermer’s reasoning reduces humans to genetic robots, and altruism to a programmed response. Can such empathy be, as Shermer puts it, the “real thing”?

Hardly. It is contrary to everything we believe and experience in our humanity, including our universal longing for unconditional love: the real, “real” thing. I wonder when Shermer leaves his offices at Skeptic at the end of the day, whether he is warmed by the thought that the kisses and hugs of his loved ones are conditioned actions of automata.

Then there’s the Shermerian call to be a “good person” and do “the right thing.” By what standard? The degree to which my actions enhance the survival of the species? If so, wouldn’t the “right thing” include exterminating or, at least, sterilizing individuals with congenital defects like diabetes, autism, or heart disease? Wouldn’t it also include cutting off “useless eaters,” like quadriplegics, Down’s children and AIDS victims. Wouldn’t the species be better served by taking the resources needed to maintain these individuals, and using them for curable diseases? Why shouldn’t the hopeless few be sacrificed for the well-being of the many?

True altruism, the “caring for the least of these,” makes little sense in a fully materialistic world. Not only is Shermer’s explanation unhelpful here, Shermer himself is left with a much bigger question: Why, in a universe cobbled together by the unguided process of evolution, is the survival of the species necessarily a good thing? Since matter and energy have no teleology, “no end in mind,” whatever is, is. There’s no good or bad to it.

Our Divine Imprint
All the same, Shermer like Comte acknowledges a code of conduct that continually presses upon us, influencing us to behave in certain ways; as if some behaviors were superior to others; like honesty over deceit, fairness over injustice, generosity over selfishness, and responsibility toward others irrespective of merit, status, or reciprocity. It is a moral notion interwoven with the presumption of human dignity and equality.

But by all material appearances, humans are not equal. Each has different skills, abilities, talents, intellects, strengths, and weaknesses. So if the foundation of morality is not to be discovered from observation and measurement or scientific analysis, where is it to be found?

Martin Luther King Jr. pointed to the eternal law of God; Immanuel Kant, the moral law within; and Pope Benedict XVI, the natural law. For these and other Christians, the moral code is a revelation from God, imprinted on the human heart and illuminated by the Holy Spirit. With personal duty to God and fellow man at its core, the moral code is not a description of what is, it is a prescription for what ought to be.

The yawning gap between ought and is attests that we are not evolved as genetic automatons but, rather, we are created as free-willed agents. We have the capacity to behave in ways that defy cause-and-effect explanation. The unreliability of torture in extracting confessions or information is a case in point. The intractability of the human spirit indicates that altruism is not some epiphenomenon of the material world that can be packaged in a, yet to be discovered, physical law.

Equally flawed is the notion that even if love could be fully explained by science, the knowledge gained would lead, as the IRUL hopes, to “global human enhancement.” For example, as a result of modern scientific knowledge about healthy living, there have been more diet and exercise books purchased over the last twenty years than at any time in history, and, yet, obesity is at epidemic levels.

There is little doubt that altruism will forever remain an “unsolved paradox” for those trying to unravel it through the rubric of science. Over 100 years ago, the materialist Sigmund Freud spent his life trying and failed. In a letter to a colleague, Freud confessed,

When I ask myself why I have always behaved honorably, ready to spare others and to be kind wherever possible… I have no answer… Why I—and incidentally my six adult children also—have to be thoroughly decent human beings is quite incomprehensible to me.

But for those who accept its Divine origin, altruism is a laser beam of light emanating from the radiance of him who showed us what true love is.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10)

Editor’s note: Pictured above is the bust from the Auguste Comte monument in Paris.

Regis Nicoll


Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. His new book is titled Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.