Darwin’s Conundrum

001Darwin struggled with a paradox.  If evolution is a struggle for survival, how could generosity, compassion, and other altruistic virtues have spread through natural selection?

Even Darwin could see the clear evolutionary benefit to groups that inculcated ethical values in their members.  Image, he wrote in The Descent of Man, two competing tribes, equally matched, except that “one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, and aid and defend each other.”  There was little doubt that tribes highly endowed with such virtues “would spread and be victorious over other tribes.”

But Darwin’s conundrum – how did any tribe evolve such ethical qualities in the first place?  Brave individuals who risked their lives for others “would on average perish in larger numbers than other men.”

Darwin’s paradox has generated  vast literature in evolutionary psychology and sociobiology.  Scientists have demonstrated that humans have a hard-wired moral capacity; we are born with an aptitude for empathy and fairness that is built into our biology.  Neurological experiments, for example, demonstrate that an act of generosity, such as donating to charity, triggers a pleasurable response in the brain.  

Of course, having a capacity is not the same as using it. The human brain is hard-wired to learn multiple languages, too, but how many of us ever master more than one? Our moral sense may be genetically encoded, but we aren’t robots. We have free will. Each of us must choose to be decent or indecent. And there is no denying that indecent choices can also convey rewards.

Thus did Darwin put his finger on what Sir Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s Orthodox chief Rabbi, calls “the central drama of civilization: Biological evolution favors individuals, but cultural evolution favors groups.… Selfishness benefits individuals, but it is disastrous to groups, and it is only as members of a group that individuals can survive at all.”  Sacks is the author of,The Great Partnership, an eloquent argument about the interdependence of religion and science.  He writes that “Abrahamic monotheism has provided the most enduring solution to Darwin’s conundrum.  Religion…creates altruism, the only force strong enough to defeat egoism.”

Voltaire, a notorious religious skeptic, once wrote “I want my attorney, my tailor, my servants, even my wife, to believe in God, for I think I shall then be robbed and cuckolded less often.”  However cynical, Voltaire was right. Human beings are more likely to do the right thing if they think they’re being watched, which is why speeding drivers slow when they see the flashing lights of a police cruiser, and why visible security cameras reduce shoplifting.  Surveillance changes behavior.  Even the illusion of surveillance such as a cardboard police officer, a poster of staring eyes, etc. can make people more honest.  Believers know that they are being watched not by an inanimate camera or a poster, but by an all-knowing God who calls us to love our neighbor, feed the hungry, and pursue justice.

God sees. Therefore we are seen. That is a powerful spur to improve our deeds; to take right and wrong seriously; to be honest and ethical even when others aren’t.   Our genes may be selfish but we an aspire to something higher. 

Source: Darwin’s Conundrum: Where does compassion come from? by Jeff Jacoby

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