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Altruism and Altruistic Love

Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue Original Article

The concept of altruism, or disinterested concern for another’s welfare, is a common human characteristic, and has been discussed by everyone from theologians to biologists. This volume brings together renowned researchers from various disciplines to examine the evolutionary, neurological, developmental, psychological, social, cultural, and religious aspects of altruistic behavior.

Altruism is most famously recognized as occurring within a biological family, often called kin-altruism. However in human societies altruism goes well beyond mere familial relations and is “widely lauded and is commonly considered the foundation for a moral life.” (pg. 3) Altruism is recognized as affirmation and care for another person for their own benefit, regardless of how their benefit impinges upon one’s own success.

But can true altruism be explained under evolutionary theory? E.O. Wilson claims, “Human behavior – like the deep capacities for emotional response which derive and guide it – is the circuitous technique by which human genetic material has been and will be kept intact. Morality has no other demonstrable function.’ Under this account, real altruism does not exist, for there is always some mechanistically based “selfish” behavior guiding any altruistic act.

For example, Darwinian philosopher Michael Ruse argues that a Darwinian interpretation of social behavior and of the morality that underlies it requires that they be reproductively beneficial. Thus Ruse writes that “all organisms including ourselves are the products of evolution” and “animal behavior must itself be subject to natural selection.” (pg. 153) Natural selection often rewards cooperation; however, Ruse maintains that genetically “selfish” behaviors do not necessarily entail consciously selfish behavioral motives. But ultimately, these behaviors must exist due to an evolutionary past where they enabled their underlying genes to reproduce. Under evolution, “human moral behavior – has to be such that it is going to serve the individual.” pg. 158). Under Ruse’s view, “Darwinian evolutionary biology is nonprogressive, pointing away from the possibility of our knowing objective morality” and thus “Darwinian evolutionary theory leads one to a moral skepticism, a kind of moral nonrealism.” (pg. 165)

Working under a Discovery Institute research grant, Former Discovery Institute fellow Jeffrey P. Schloss wrote that there are some behaviors that remain unaccounted for under Neo-Darwinism:

“Human beings often manifest radically sacrificial, consequentially altruistic behavior that reduces reproductive success without compensatory reciprocation or kinship benefit. Behaviors such as voluntary poverty, celibate orders of benevolence, Holocaust rescuers, and religious asceticism or martyrdom are examples in humans that have provoked reconceptualism or substantial refinement of evolutionary approaches to human altruism. And even less extreme behaviors, such as adoption of non-kin, anonymous philanthropy, and costly investment in reproductively inert endeavors such as art or funeral caches have stimulated the extension or nuancing of initial sociobiological accounts.” (p. 221; internal citations omitted)

According to Schloss, highly sacrificial acts or reproductive sacrifice are unaccounted if “the calculus of biological benefit – remains tied to fitness.” (pg. 235) Schloss concludes that “in the last analysis, either we deny the existence or importance of the human propensity toward counterreproductive behavior or we invoke accounts of its origin that posit some measure of uncoupling from genomic evolution and concomitant transcendence of biological constraints.” (pg. 235-236)

This is a lively debate that is unlikely to be settled soon. However, Altruism and Altruistic Love provides a wide range of views from leading thinkers in this diverse field.

Other contributors not associated with Discovery include C. Daniel Batson, Don S. Browning, Antonio R. Damasio, Hannah Damasio, Frans B. M. de Waal, Gregory L. Fricchione, Ruben L. F. Habito, William B. Hurlbut, Thomas R. Insel, Jerome Kagan, Melvin Konner, Kristen Renwick Monroe, Samuel P. Oliner, Stephen J. Pope, Stephen G. Post, Stephen D. Preston, Elliott Sober, Lynn G. Underwood, David Sloan Wilson, and Edith Wyschogrod.

Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue