Survival of the nicest: Altruism and Darwin

Scientific proof that altruism is an evolutionary trait is deeply relevant to Jewish moral teachings
(Charles Darwin image via Shutterstock)
(Charles Darwin image via Shutterstock)

Having just marked the 32nd International Darwin Day, it’s worth exploring an area of inquiry that is growing around the world yet has not taken root in Israel. Scientists and philosophers are suggesting that we can learn moral imperatives from the theory of evolution.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook said this more than 100 years ago, as did Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik in the mid-twentieth century. Yet Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has been ridiculed for taking the same stand today. As a rabbi and evolutionary psychologist, I feel that the study of evolution is crucial. Moral reasoning and values education can learn much from science. Hume’s axiom, the is-ought divide that separates science and religion into separate realms, is being challenged. Advances in cognitive neuroscience and artificial intelligence are eroding the assumption that what is does not impact on what ought to be. For example, soon cars will drive themselves: what if the car must choose between injuring one person or more? We assume that it is better if only one person is injured. But what if you are in that car? Scientific “is” must help us confront moral “oughts”.

Interpreting some biblical stories as metaphors reflecting the human condition teaches us where we can go wrong if we do not extend evolutionary reasoning beyond its biological bounds. Will we be more moral by confronting biology’s impact on human behavior? Yes! We read in the second chapter of Genesis that Adam was fashioned from the adama, the earth, and we then read that Adam was to work the land and protect it. Looking at what humans have wrought over the past 50,000 years, it seems that we took to heart the verse “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” Humans tend to deplete natural resources. When water and food are scarce, animals in the wild slow their reproduction. Global warming is part of a natural cycle, but our species is not doing much to slow the process.

Biologists teach us that cooperation can outdo competition. Evolutionary psychology knows that slaughtering enemies is the way we humans potentially behave when confronted with the challenge of establishing authority, especially in the face of limited resources. Sometimes we need to do horrible things for a greater good. This is how we should read the murders carried out by David and Solomon. When faced with perceived competition, even the best of us may revert to murderous rage. It’s possible to teach that cooperation leads to better outcomes. Rather than competing with the Chinese over global warming, both sides could seek common cultural ties towards salvaging the world – we could slow the pace of further destruction and avoid the inter-continental competition called war.

In Breishit we are confronted with one dysfunctional family after another, families running on deceit not trust, competition not cooperation. Evolutionary theories of parent-offspring competition and sibling rivalry help us see how Moshe, Aaron and Miriam provide a tikkun, a repair, to the families of Genesis, as siblings who know how to work together. Yes, Miriam gossips to Aaron about Moshe’s wife, but this is the exception that proves the rule.

A study I conducted shows that reading stories about altruism increases people’s sense of moral elevation. Darwin writes of moral sentiments resulting from the process of natural selection; if we were to grasp this, we could work with our biological impulse to cooperate and replicate a greater social concern for one another. The American evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers shows how altruism evolves through evolution: bats must consume a certain amount of blood each day in order to survive. When a bat is sick, another bat, not necessarily kin, will share some of its blood with the sick bat. Once the sick bat recovers, it can repay the favor. If the first sick bat does not share blood after he recovers, others in the cave will not share with him if he gets sick again, leaving him to die. So bats that evolved the trait of sharing are more likely to survive than selfish bats.

Humans have overcome that biological trait, have subordinated our drive to altruism and morality to our subjective experiences of the Other. Altruism — the ability to sacrifice my own needs for another — would have improved chances of survival of any group or clan: in Darwinian terms, it is adaptive to behave altruistically. Individuals who possessed the altruistic trait would out-survive and out-replicate those who did not. Eventually a whole clan would be more likely to be altruistic, cooperative and moral, and would reproduce at higher rates. If we add culture to the mix, the spread of altruism would outstrip the predictions based on purely biological selection. The tendency to altruism would be spread through culture to eventually become the main mode of operation.

In the words of evolutionary biologists Wlson & Wilson: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.” By educating to evolutionary theory we can bring people and peoples closer. As Rav Kook wrote, “we will bring all of humanity closer to its creator.”

Rabbi Paul Shrell-Fox, is a lecturer and academic advisor in the MA program at the Schechter institute of Jewish Studies. His research focuses on evolutionary theory and how evolution impacts the development of Jewish ritual practice.

About the Author
Rabbi Paul Shrell-Fox, PhD, is a lecturer and academic advisor in the MA program at the Schechter institute of Jewish Studies. His research focuses on evolutionary theory and how evolution impacts the development of Jewish ritual practice.
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