Can Evolution Explain Altruism?

It’s my hobby to interact with people and talk about my Savior, Jesus. He’s the Creator (Col 1:16) and the promised Messiah (Gen 3:15.) Despite my multitude of sins and those of all repentant sinners (John 3:16), He demonstrated his great love (Rom 4:8) by taking on the full wrath of the Father to atone for wickedness (Rom 3:25)

Inevitably in some of those conversations, skeptics bring up evolution as a reason not to repent. The conversation sometimes includes this phrase:

There’s no need for your sky daddy. Evolution explains everything without him

I’m with Greg Bahnsen when he says that evolution can’t explain ANYTHING. But one of the questions I’ve asked God-deniers about evolution’s explanatory power is “How is altruism consistent with evolutionism? How does evolution explain altruistic behavior?”

NOTE: As a blog that uses the presuppositional method to honor God’s revelation and expose the irrational nature of all philosophies that attempt to derive knowledge, logic, morality or anything else without God, you may wonder why I’m asking this evidential question. What follows will be the application of Proverbs 26:5. I will enter into the worldview of the God-denier to show that his OWN explanations are full of unjustified assertions and catastrophic contradictions

This is apparently a question that triggers God-deniers, because when I post that question on social media, there are all kinds of caustic and derogatory remarks about my lack of intelligence, my lack of education, and their desire that I be quiet. Once in a while a skeptic will try to answer. Here’s a recent answer I got to the question “Why do evolutionists think think altruism is beneficial (in this case public education)”

Alturism (sp) can improve the survival rate of the herd making it easier for individuals to thrive. Education improves the herd so ensuring a well educated public can improve individual life

What is Altruism?

Wikipedia defines altruism as “Altruism is the principle and moral practice of concern for happiness of other human beings or animals, resulting in a quality of life both material and spiritual.”

Merriam-Webster tells us that altruism is “behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species”

I will reference these definitions later in the post, so prepare to be pointed back here for a reminder of these foundational definitions. We all recognize altruism in humans when people are selfless. Altruism is on display when a person gives money to the homeless and when a person helps at the scene of an accident and when a person helps build houses on a mission trip. In those interactions, there is no benefit and may even be sacrificial on the part of the giver. Sometimes, altruism is seen in ant and bee colonies.

What is evolution?

In 1859 Charles Darwin released one of the most influential books of all time, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection for the Preservation of the Favored Races. In it, he lays out a case for a mechanism known as natural selection, which he says

Natural Selection is the principle by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved

Darwin reveals his biological theory that attempts to explain the origin of the great diversity of life. This theory requires that uncountable sequential individual heritable changes be preserved by natural selection for evolution to have veracity. He said

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.

For evolution to have explanatory power, there must be uncountable sequential individual heritable changes that are preserved solely by natural selection. Now Darwin had no idea about DNA or the unimaginable complexity of genetic code that is stored on DNA, but scientists after Darwin discovered the code of DNA which serves as the source of inheritance, the mutation of which supposedly provides for novel traits.

Let’s analyze what is currently being taught as evolution before we go forward. From OpenStax college textbook Biology 2e p. 24

The source of this diversity (tremendous diversity of life on earth) is evolution, the process of gradual change during which new species arise from older species. A Phylogenetic tree can summarize the evolution of various life forms on Earth. It is a diagram showing the evolutionary relationships among biological species based on similarities and differences in genetic or physical traits or both.

Same book, p492

Evolution by natural selection describes a mechanism for how species change over time…Natural Selection, or “survival of the fittest” is the more prolific reproduction of individuals with favorable traits that survive environmental change because of those traits. This leads to evolutionary change…More offspring are produced than are able to survive, so resources for survival and reproduction are limited. The capacity for reproduction in all organisms outstrips the availability of resources to support their numbers. Thus, there is competition for those resources in each generation.

From RationalWiki

All species on Earth originated by the mechanism of evolution, through descent from common ancestors.

To summarize their claims on what evolution is:

  1. Evolution is unguided
  2. Evolution can be verified by showing the gradual process of uncountable sequential individual heritable changes
  3. The mechanisms of evolution are natural selection acting on random mutations
  4. Genetics determines traits, behaviors, and reproduction
  5. Organisms that are the most fit (greatest fitness) in their environment persist to pass their genes to subsequent generations
  6. Fitness is “individual reproductive success and is equal to the average contribution to the gene pool of the next generation that is made by individuals of the specified genotype or phenotype”
  7. Evolution’s sole driver is to reproduce genetic material in the competition for limited resources.

What is Evolutionism?

Evolutionism is the belief that evolution is the only explanation for all of biology. Those who practice evolutionism are ruthless in protecting this belief. Practitioners expel, malign, and/or punish anyone who dissents from the common evolutionism narrative.

According to those practicing evolutionism, the theory of evolution cannot, must not, and will not be criticized. Efforts to offer any anything other than complete obeisance to the theory are met with swift and unmerciful retribution in an effort to silence critical thinking. In practice, it strongly resembles religious fervor in protection of the dogma. This is generally what happens when someone makes a social media comment that even hints there might be problems with evolution’s ability to explain all of biology

What do Scientists Say About Altruism?

So, scientists have recognized that it is counter-intuitive to assume that altruism fits within the evolutionary explanations, and I’m sure you can see that from the definitions of evolution from above, there is a large plausibility barrier to overcome. In the recent social media encounter that I mentioned above, one of the God-deniers said:

The scientific research would beg to differ. The evolutionary origins of human altruism explained: https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0,5&qsp=3&q=evolutionary+origins+human+altruism&qst=ir…

And if you’re not reading science to change your mind, then what are you doing?

Essentially, he told me that science DOES have answers, and I’m ignorant of those answers because I’ve never read them. But I’m an intrepid ApoloJedi and will analyze the writings of scientists who promote evolutionism to see if they can demonstrate altruism to be sufficiently explained by the mechanisms of evolution. I will analyze three sources from the modern academic paradigm (which some will conflate with “science”):

  1. Human Altruism – Proximate Patterns and Evolutionary Origins by Fehr/Fischbacher 2005
  2. Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins
  3. OpenStax Biology 2e 2018 Rice University

Fehr/Fischbacher

The first link in the search result from the post above yields a paper written by Ernst Fehr and Urs Fischbacher for degruyter.com. The paper was written in 2005 and has been cited 82 times.

From page 6

Current gene-based evolutionary theories cannot explain important patterns of human altruism pointing towards the need for theories of cultural evolution and gene-culture coevolution

They clearly recognize the counter-intuitive nature of the claim that evolution can sufficiently account for altruism. The implication is that a NEW theory/mechanism is needed. They call their new mechanism “strong reciprocity”. They define Strong Reciprocity as

Strong reciprocity is a combination of altruistic rewarding—a readiness to reward others in response to fair outcomes or behaviour—and altruistic punishment—a willingness to sanction others for norm violations

Reward? If there is a reward, it’s not altruism. Right from the beginning, they change the definition of altruism from something that is unselfish to appeal to the inherent selfishness. “Fair outcomes”???? Now they have to explain how evolution produced justice so that fair outcomes can be measured. Rather than explaining away the questions, they are multiplying their explanatory deficits. They spend the next 20 pages showing data and charts about how there are social rewards for reciprocity and punishment for selfishness for humans. It’s hardly groundbreaking to show data that when people are nice to others, the others are generally nice back or when someone is ungrateful for altruism, that’s the last time they get free generosity. And it’s definitely not in accord with Merrian-Webster’s definition of altruism from above. The point is that they are not demonstrating that evolution explains altruism. They are NOT demonstrating a gradual process with innumerable slight successive modifications in heritable traits are pushing some mysterious proto-altruistic behavior into fully-developed altruism. Some have done the altruistic test on monkeys showing strong reciprocity, but (as I have been reliably reminded over and over by evolutionists) humans did not evolve from monkeys. At best, these experiments can ONLY assert another rescue device (convergent evolution) proposed by evolutionists to protect their theory from refutation. These experiments do NOT demonstrate the evolution of human altruism.

On page 30, in their section titled “Evolutionary Origins” they introduce the term “Reciprocal altruism” (RA) as a mechanism for producing altruism in evolutionism. But they never get around to explaining how RA gets included into the genetic code. If it is not included in the genetic code, which is the mechanism for heredity, is RA explainable by evolution? RA is described throughout the next 5 pages as being a learned behavior, so unless they are proposing classic Lamarckism, RA can be ignored. In addition to it not being passed on through heredity, it is another way they are redefining altruism. Altruism is selfless, but RA requires reciprocity (if you do something nice, the expectation is that the gifted person reciprocates with something nice), so it is NOT altruism!!!!! Again on Page 30

This does not mean that there may have been considerable obstacles in leaving a relationship; yet, unless the available outside options and individuals’ decisions to stay in or to leave a relationship are modelled explicitly, it is impossible to study their impact on the evolution of altruistic behaviour.

Impossible indeed!

Thus, repeated interactions plus the existence of strategies which condition cooperative behaviour on past outcomes (i.e., reciprocal altruism) are unlikely to be an evolutionary explanation for human cooperation in larger groups

Unlikely and Impossible

In the concluding paragraph of their paper, which they title “Open Problems” they say:

There is experimental evidence indicating that repeated interactions, reputation-formation, and strong reciprocity are powerful determinants of human behaviour

I agree with this, but as has been shown, this is NOT evolution. These are post hoc attempts to describe observations to protect a theory from refutation

Although recent evidence (Henrich et al. 2001) suggests that market integration and the potential gains from cooperation are important factors, our knowledge is still extremely limited

much more evidence on how these affect altruistic rewarding and punishment is necessary

At the ultimate level, the evolution and role of altruistic rewarding for cooperation in larger groups remain in the dark

At the level of proximate theories of human motivation, we still lack parsimonious and tractable formal models of reciprocal fairness, which make precise, testable, predictions

to enhance the study of the evolution of altruism, there is a great need for sharp, empirically testable predictions that are rigorously derived from the evolutionary models

Their conclusion admits they cannot even test the evolutionary mechanism in the present, so how can they extrapolate their theories dozens, hundreds, thousands, or millions of years into the past?!?!?? As they said, “the evolution of altruistic rewarding remains in the dark”

Richard Dawkins

In 1976 Biologist Richard Dawkins attempted to explain altruism in his book, The Selfish Gene. Here are some quotes from his book:

My purpose is to examine the biology of selfishness and altruism.

We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes

Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.

Any altruistic system is inherently unstable, because it is open to abuse by selfish individuals, ready to exploit it.

We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism—something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.

If there is a human moral to be drawn, it is that we must teach our children altruism, for we cannot expect it to be part of their biological nature.

In the world of the extended phenotype, ask not how an animal’s behaviour benefits its genes; ask instead whose genes it is benefiting.

The genes are not destroyed by crossing-over, they merely change partners and march on. Of course they march on. That is their business. They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose we are cast aside. But genes are denizens of geological time: genes are forever.

There exists no objective basis on which to elevate one species above another.

As you can see, Dawkins is unable to sufficiently demonstrate that evolutionary mechanisms can sufficiently account for altruism. Dawkins is deficient at the same points of Fehr/Fischbacher – he is forced to redefine altruism as beneficial to the giver OR prescribe that altruism be TAUGHT since genes are naturally selfish (Learned). At the pinnacle of the book when Dawkins should reveal how evolution explains altruism, he instead tells us that society is the inheritance mechanism for altruistic behavior rather than evolution (“we must teach our children altruism, for we cannot expect it to be part of their biological nature”). This scientist, who some might say knows more about evolution and biology than any man alive and whose book was meant to explain how biology produced altruism, ultimately claims that the heritable mechanism for altruism is NOT evolution but society!!!!

Is there room for critical rebuttal of Dawkin’s claims? Stephen J. Gould had this to say about the ability of Dawkin’s theory to account for altruism:

the fatal flaw (in Dawkins’ selfish gene theory) was that “no matter how much power Dawkins wishes to assign to genes, there is one thing that he cannot give them – direct visibility to natural selection.

With no direct visibility to natural selection, how can genes direct phenotypes to preserve themselves via altruism? Dawkins never explained; he just assumed and crafted another post hoc theory in an failed attempt to stave off refutation. Dawkin’s attempt to explain altruism via evolution is shown to be a failure as well

OpenStax Rice University

On page 1444, the authors of Rice University’s Biology 2e textbook address altruism…or rather, they fail to address it in the subchapter titled “Altruistic Behavior”

There has been much discussion over why altruistic behaviors exist. Do these behaviors lead to overall evolutionary advantages for their species? Do they help the altruistic individual pass on its own genes? In the 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, scientist Richard Dawkins attempted to explain many seemingly altruistic behaviors…Selfish gene theory has been controversial over the years and is still discussed among scientists in related fields…The lowering of individual fitness to enhance the reproductive fitness of a relative and this one’s inclusive fitness evolves through kin selection. However, these behaviors may not be truly defined as altruism in these cases because the actor is actually increasing his own fitness either directly or indirectly.

Unrelated individuals may also act altruistically to each other, and this seems to defy the selfish gene explanation. An example of this observed in many monkey species where a monkey will present its back to an unrelated monkey to have that individual pick the parasites from its fur. After a certain amount of time, the roles are reversed and the first monkey now grooms the second monkey. Thus, there is reciprocity in the behavior…This behavior (Reciprocity Altruism) is not necessarily altruism.

Evolutionary game theory, a modification of classical game theory in mathematics, has shown that many of these so-called “altruistic behaviors” are not altruistic at all. The definition of pure altruism, based on human behavior, is an action that benefits another without any direct benefit to one’s self. Most of the behaviors described above do not seem to satisfy this definition.

You can see from their explanations that there is no mechanism for generating altruistic behavior, and as this section gets deeper into the deficit of actual explanations, even the concept of altruism is wiped away as if it never really exists (from above – “Most of the behaviors described above do not seem to satisfy this definition (altruism)”.) We see altruistic behavior in humans. We’ve all done it ourselves. We know it exists, but it’s mechanism, purpose, and history are all BLIND to science. In their first paragraph they invoke a sciency-sounding phrase, kin selection, as if merely naming an observation actually explains it. Kin selection like convergent evolution like strong reciprocity are terms that hide the explanation under the guise of science. People hear “kin selection” and assume, “well, it’s got a fancy name, so someone must have demonstrated that evolution is the only explanation for it.”

Although I have been unreliably told that evolution can account for altruistic behavior, the writings of science publications are devoid of sufficient explanations for it. Notice the concluding sentences of this section:

What is clear, though, is that heritable behaviors that improve the chances of passing on one’s genes or a portion of one’s genes are favored by natural selection and will be retained in future generations as long as those behaviors convey a fitness advantage.

Essentially, they are saying “despite a lack of evidence of altruism at all or a mechanism for developing proto-altruism to fully functional altruism, it’s true. Just believe that evolution has the power to do it! We KNOW it because natural selection ALWAYS conveys a fitness advantage…even if we can’t demonstrate it. Trust us, we’re scientists!”

Well, trust has to be earned and after reviewing the best that evolutionism has to offer for explaining the natural forces of survival-of-the-fittest producing behaviors that lower fitness, their writings are woefully deficient of demonstrations.

Can Evolution Account For Altruism?

No. Those who believe in evolution recognize that altruism exists, and in an effort to create post hoc theories for its existence, they must either redefine altruism, revive classic Lamarckism, disregard their own definitions of what evolution means or some chimera Frankenstein fantasy combination of all three distractions.

Many of you know that this is a blog dedicated to the truth of God’s eternal revelation. As a recovering evidentialist and aspiring presuppositionalist, it is my intent to always revere Christ Jesus as the authority in all matters and not put the God-denier in the judge’s seat as if he/she can correctly judge evidence in accordance with a perfect perception of reality. Only God has a perfect perception of all of reality, but God, who is the source of all knowledge, has revealed some of his knowledge so that we can know those things with certainty (Proverbs 1:7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge). So, without humble submission to the Eternal Monarch, justified true beliefs are not possible for the God-denier. This article could have been very short: Does a mechanism which purportedly replaces God (evolution) sufficiently account for behaviors that God commands (altruism)? No – evolution cannot account for altruism. So, evolutionists are wrong about altruism being consistent with evolution not only because of the Christian worldview…

  1. God’s Revelation in creation and scripture are true
  2. Evolutionism is discordant with God’s Revelation

…but evolutionists are ALSO wrong about altruism because of the inherent contradictions contained within their own worldview

  1. Altruism is selfless
  2. Evolutionary biologists propose that genes are selfish
  3. Genes are unchanged by learned behaviors
  4. Altruism is a learned behavior
  5. Natural selection is survival of the fittest
  6. Altruism is artificial intrusion that prevents the least fit from succumbing to natural selection

This article entered into the worldview of the God-denier and using their own assumptions, their own research, and their own conclusions to show that they cannot account for altruistic behaviors as a result of evolutionary processes. To be clear, they cannot account for ANYTHING without humble submission to the LORD of glory, who is worthy of all praise