Check out a recent article in New Scientist on the deep-seated altruism of humankind. The article isn’t conclusive, but it does pose problems for those who wish to collapse the fundamental distinction between humankind and the animal kingdom.

Not that Homo sapiens is the only species in which individuals bestow kindness on others. Many mammals, birds, insects and even bacteria do likewise. But their largesse tends to be reserved for their genetic relatives; this makes sense in evolutionary terms, because by helping someone who shares many of your genes you improve the chances of propelling this common DNA into the future. Humans are different, for we cooperate with complete genetic strangers – workmates, neighbours, anonymous people in far-off countries. Why on earth do we do that?

Read the whole thing for their answers, though you may be disappointed. Giving empirical evidence for what humans do in situations is interesting. However, their leaps to explain our current situation through our ancestor’s pattern of living seem entirely speculative and baseless. Do they fall prey to Chesterton’s entertaining critique of evolutionary anthropology in The Everlasting Man? You be the judge.

Science is weak about these prehistoric things in a way that has hardly been noticed. The science whose modern marvels we all admire succeeds by incessantly adding to its data. In all practical inventions, in most natural discoveries, it can always increase evidence by experiment. But it cannot experiment in making men; or even in watching to see what the first men make. An inventor can advance step by step in the construction of an aeroplane, even if he is only experimenting with sticks and scraps of metal in his own back-yard. But he cannot watch the Missing Link evolving in his own back-yard. If he has made a mistake in his calculations, the aeroplane will correct it by crashing to the ground. But if he has made a mistake about the arboreal habitat of his ancestor, he cannot see his arboreal ancestor falling off the tree. He cannot keep a cave-man like a cat in the back-yard and watch him to see whether he does really practice cannibalism or carry off his mate on the principles of marriage by capture. He cannot keep a tribe of primitive men like a pack of hounds and notice how far they are influenced by the herd instinct. If he sees a particular bird behave in a particular way, he can get other birds and see if they behave in that way; but if he finds a skull, or the scrap of a skull, in the hollow of a hill, he cannot multiply it into a vision of the valley of dry bones. In dealing with a past that has almost entirely perished, he can only go by evidence and not by experiment. And there is hardly enough evidence to be even evidential. Thus while most science moves in a sort of curve, being constantly corrected by new evidence, this science flies off into space in a straight line uncorrected by anything. But the habit of forming conclusions, as they can really be formed in more fruitful fields, is so fixed in the scientific mind that it cannot resist talking like this. It talks about the idea suggested by one scrap of bone as if it were something like the aeroplane which is constructed at last out of whole scrapheaps of scraps of metal. The trouble with the professor of the prehistoric is that he cannot scrap his scrap. The marvellous and triumphant aeroplane is made out of a hundred mistakes. The student of origins can only make one mistake and stick to it.

Read the whole chapter as well. In fact, if you have to choose, just read this.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

4 Comments

  1. Great Post Matt — Great Choice of Quotes. I posted on this here

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  2. So altruism is a form of blinkering irrationality? Remember, the recipients refuse “unfair” offers, and get nothing instead. Is that the point? Humans are special because they’re irrational?

    Or are humans really so different? This, for example, is nonsense:

    Humans are different, for we cooperate with complete genetic strangers – workmates, neighbours, anonymous people in far-off countries. Why on earth do we do that?.

    Scads of organisms cooperate with “complete genetic strangers;” symbiosis crosses species lines. It is a fallacy to assume that the cooperating pair must share genetic closeness to further either one’s reproductive prospects.

    Furthermore, the article never explains that forms of cooperation vary; not all forms are zero-sum games (I win, you lose, and there can be but one winner). This article is thought-provoking, but entirely oversimplifies the discussion.

    To its credit, the article states that evolutionary speculations are “contentious,” and “it seems likely that the argument over adaptation and maladaptation will continue.”

    Contrast that with the supposed dogmatism represented in Chesterton’s straw man. (Never mind that the situation has improved greatly in the past hundred years; in Chesterton’s day, no one had sequenced a genome, discovered the Burgess Shale, or found a funky hobbit-like fossil called homo floriensis.)

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  3. So altruism is a form of blinkering irrationality? Remember, the recipients refuse “unfair” offers, and get nothing instead. Is that the point? Humans are special because they’re irrational?

    Or are humans really so different?
    Eh?

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  4. What is “the fundamental distinction between humankind and the animal kingdom?” If it is rationality, then I argue that the aforementioned “deep-seated altruism” is hardly evidence for that.

    I refer you to this (other) New Scientist article for a different perspective. There’s much more to human altruism than the first article lets on.

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