May 11, 2011 | By

Evolution – Old Debates and New Findings

From the earliest years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), debates raged about the failure of evolution by natural selection to provide for empathy, that most human of human traits.  The controversy has continued ever since – and ISAS will tackle this and related subjects on May 16 at a discussion forum featuring Dr. Reuben Bell.  At the same time, noted mathematical biologist Martin A. Nowak has released a groundbreaking book entitled Supercooperators: The Mathematics of Evolution, Altruism and Human Behaviour (Or, Why We Need Each Other to Succeed) (2011).

What is the debate about?  One of the most compelling concepts about natural selection is that it is driven by “the survival of the fittest.”  As a competitive model, natural selection fits our basic sense that competition gets you ahead – and being nice leaves you behind.  Thus, many scholars have argued, and continue to claim, that Darwin simply cannot account for the most important of human attributes – empathy and the connected ideas of ethics and morals that raise humans above their animal counterparts. If this is true, then these higher characteristics must then be divinely inspired.

Yet others scoff, claiming that empathy is a weakness in the light of evolutionary science.  This claim matches a growing secular and progressive notion of human progress that was flourishing during the latter part of the 19th century.  Clearly, we see an emphasis on competition as the means to success in popular culture today.

However, there has also been respectful and thoughtful attention to the question of the origins of altruism, and an understanding that natural selection may be more nuanced than commonly understood.

Recent scientific publications have addressed this question in two different ways.  First, some have focused on the specific pathways by which altruistic behaviors have developed in various species through natural selection relative to generalized behaviors associated with the survival of a species, despite the consequences to individuals. This provides an explanation of altruism as a species-survival characteristic that has developed through natural selection consistent with Darwinian theory.  Second, some writers have explored the evolution of religion from a Darwinian perspective, hypothesizing that religious concepts have been developed by humans and evolved through time as an adaptive survival mechanism.

In Martin Nowak’s book we find the first approach.  While I have yet to read the book, it seems Nowak and his collaborators review the significant work of the past several decades on evolutionary research and find that empathy and altruism offer a “higher order” survival characteristic. Specifically, under conditions in which animals have opportunities to interact on a regular and routine basis, the opportunities for mutual benefit from cooperation outweigh the negatives – and the power of empathy emerges.

One of they key questions to ponder – which we will discuss on May 16 and which I hope will be part of the continuing ISAS dialogue – is how these findings change the original concept that religion answered what natural selection could not.  If, in fact, natural selection answers the question of the development of empathy and perhaps even of religious impulses, what is the role of religion?

On the other hand, is it not also possible to see the unfolding of empathy and the religious impulse through natural selection as an affirmation of God’s continuing and divine influence – as evidence for God, rather than a conventional, materialist refutation? Rather than being a random process, the emergence of empathy is the “coming-into-being” of a spiritual potential contained within creation.

To extend this line of reasoning, is it not also possible that all of the natural world, living and non-living alike, might come into being according to this same process of emergence, not out of randomness, but as a coming-into-being from quantum starting points that interact according to “natural laws”. The universe, and ultimately the life, that emerges reflects an underlying implicate order. This order is the consequence of a divine creative impulse before and behind the natural world.

Just some thoughts.  Join the conversation

3 Responses to “Evolution – Old Debates and New Findings”

  1. Roncooper says:

    Thank you for the reply. Dr. Noble’s response is much more old school. He presents data that shows that stroking an animal , what we call petting in America, can change it’s DNA. This isn’t theory. This is measured experimental data. In my opinion, if something like being petted can change your DNA then something like prayer could also change your DNA. The idea that we are machines is losing ground.

  2. admin says:

    Ron – Welcome. I fixed the link and found the video which looks interesting although I have not screened it in entirety. It may be that Dr. Noble is heading in the same direction as Bruce Lipton – Biology of Belief (2005). Dr. Lipton is a cell biologist who began to suspect intricate quantum-level behaviors in cells as they sense and respond to the external environment, and this has led him to a belief in the power of the human mind to influence our bodies at the cellular level.

    You might find the recent post on EOWilson’s perceptions to be of interest:

  3. Roncooper says:

    Good day. I am new to the site, but I hope I can profit from the wisdom I find here.

    I wanted to provide this link to a talk that shows that who we are and what we think can change our DNA.

    British Biologist Denis Noble Debunks Neo-Darwinism

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