Does the Evolution of Altruism Pose a Challenge to Christian Anthropology?

Lluis Oviedo
Thursday 13 January 2022
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study: Current Research 
  3. Discussion: Theology coming to terms with the altruistic wave
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

A central question in anthropology is to what extent human nature can transcend the natural instinct of self-preservation and reproductive achievement. Such an instinct usually informs someone’s behaviours in order to out-perform adversaries. From the perspective of a biology-informed anthropology, this might be the dominant drive of human behaviour; the only ‘game in town’. Other anthropologies – social, cultural, and philosophical – are focused on a more complex approach: a combination of competition and cooperation which together  define human behaviour.

In the last 20 years, several studies have tried to better understand altruism, compassion, and prosocial behaviour as central features in humans and other species. Recent publications – to be presented later – emphasise the role played by social drive. They focus on mutual assistance in the evolutionary process, moving beyond sheer self-centred drives. However, the issue is not so much about the extent to which altruistic tendencies in the past influenced our evolutionary success, but about how this altruistic trend could increase in present time and contribute to the evolution of our species. If there is such an evolutionary trend, we could expect that people would become much more peaceful, cooperative, and kind over time.

From the perspective of a science-engaged Christian anthropology, these advances in evolutionary theory are challenging. Some data show a decline in violence and aggressivity, and a growth in indicators of empathy, compassion, and prosocial behaviour for any given population. This trend is problematic from a traditional Christian understanding of human nature, because it invites us to reconsider several central tenets of Christian anthropology, including the doctrine of original sin. But the situation is actually more complex. On the one hand, the validation of the growth in empathy and compassion would confirm a primary declaration of Christian anthropology, that is, that humankind is created in the image and likeness of God. Since God is loving and merciful, people created in accordance with this divine model should be compassionate, kind, and altruistic. On the other hand, this trend would impact negatively on the second and third principles of Christian anthropology, that is, the finitude and frailty of human beings, and the consequent need for divine grace to restore and improve the finite human condition. In sum, the problem is that a natural evolution towards greater goodness and loving attitudes would shatter the idea of human frailty and invalidate the announcement of grace and salvation, which is a key point for Christian faith and theology.

The puzzle can be described in the following way: as we become more aware of human goodness and loving character, our theological understanding of human beings as fallen creatures and subjects to redemption seems less consistent. In other words, what could be welcomed as good news would turn out to be bad news from the perspective of a theology that considers both scientific data and its own tradition. Theology suffers a setback when it seems that its own diagnosis of the human condition can be called into doubt – we are not as fallen as previously thought – and that the central schema linking human frailty or sinfulness with the promise of redemption or salvation from that sinful state is undermined. If the data are right, we assist to a (at least prima facie) process of natural self-improvement following the general evolutionary pattern of surviving through greater fitness; the rest could be neglected.

What is needed now is a double effort. In a first step, we ought to assess to what extent this scientific hypothesis can be confirmed, or not, considering the available data. Things are probably more complex: what we expect from true scientific engagement is a more nuanced view about how egoism and altruism combine in human evolution, before we are able to predict future scenarios of human evolution. Once we get a better picture of how things proceed through a long evolutionary process, we need to move to the second step: building a theological view which takes into account the available data and the best theoretical frameworks we can come up with. We might need to modify some aspects of traditional Christian anthropology to accommodate these recent insights, otherwise theology will lose relevance and Christian faith will lose credibility. The point is that theology is called to review its own tenets and to overcome this new crisis – as it has done many times in the past – and, by doing so, to develop a more nuanced and precise discourse, capable of providing hope and resilience to the next generations.

2. Fields of Study

A book published in 2014 carried the odd title of Extraterrestrial Altruism (Vakoch 2014). In the book, the author considers the scenario of sending signals to outer space and contacting distant civilizations whose intentions are less peaceful than we would expect. A thesis that emerges in some chapters is that a society able to capture those signals and to respond to them, or even to travel through deep space, would have reached an evolutionary level so high that it would entail a more altruistic attitude – provided that the evolutionary arrow points in that direction. Indeed, recent science fiction movies have moved away from representing aggressive aliens coming to invade and destroy us, to representing more peaceful and friendly extra-terrestrials, whose mission is to teach us how we can avoid war and our own destruction. In the movie Arrival (2016), the aliens’ purpose was no other than saving  humanity.

Of course, science fiction is a representation of the anxieties and expectations of our contemporaries which lead to speculations on the altruistic nature of civilizations far away from our planet. On a more realistic note, recent studies – as those to be introduced in the next paragraph – have provided evidence of the roles that both cooperation and altruism have played in ours and other species evolutionary success, and the consequent expectation regarding our present and future condition. If we focus more on the bright side of human evolution, we can expect that more pacific and generous attitudes will overcome egoism and instincts for dominance. It is important for a scientifically informed theology to assess the magnitude of both claims.

In evolutionary studies, a good number of new books and academic articles have changed the emphasis on the selfish drive (e.g. Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene (1976)) towards a clear emphasis on collaboration and altruism. For instance, a central point in Michael Tomasello’s essays (2009; 2016) is that human evolution was strongly driven by the development of cooperative attitudes arising from new ecological conditions that forced our ancestors to discover new activities for survival, e.g. hunting. Hunting bigger preys required joint attention and coordination among hunters; this opened the path to moral norms and social arrangements. Several titles published in the last decade have claimed such a seemingly neglected aspect of human evolution. Martin Nowak for instance, in his popular book Super Cooperators (2012), applied game theory to the study of evolutionary processes, showing that cooperation explains better than competition the growing complexity that humanity has reached, in contrast with previous Darwinian models. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis in A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and its Evolution (2011) made a similar point based on behaviourist research to show how cooperation can explain better human evolution. Michael Shermer’s book The Moral Arc: How Science Makes Us Better People (2015) can be included in this list.

More recently, we find at least four books stressing similar positions on the basis of fresh paleoanthropological data and evolutionary psychology. The list includes: Rutger Bregman, Humankind (2020); Richard Wrangham, The Goodness Paradox (2020); Nicholas Christakis, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of Good Society (2020); Gaia Vince, Transcendence (2020). The common ground of these recent books is that we can understand human evolution only in terms of a greater collaboration or a limitation of selfish attitudes, except perhaps when it comes to male competition for mating (Miller 2011). However, another story can be told. As Jay Feierman indicates (in a private exchange), competition is unavoidable when related to mating, and it has been an engine of evolution; cooperation is the correct adaptive strategy when trying to maximize utility in each population. However,  it works only at the in-group level, while competition works at the inter-group level, and it stimulates creativity and the use of available resources. A balance between in-group cooperation and inter-group competition might have driven human evolution and shaped our current situation and main features.

The arguments that these new studies present are several. For instance, Wrangham proposes that humans have engaged in artificial self-domestication by selecting the more docile and less aggressive children, rendering us a more socially driven species. This process was obviously applied to other species as well, as Darwin analysed in terms of artificial selection (Darwin 1959) so that we can now enjoy the company of domesticated pets. For Bregman, archaeological evidence supports the idea that in human evolution cooperative traits take the upper hand over aggression and warfare, at least at in-group level. Gaia Vince assumes an interactive model which integrates genes, environment, and culture to favour behaviours prone to communication and cooperation. Big societies, well connected and interacting, were thriving better than small and isolated ones; cultural evolution becomes the engine in the process that renders us highly social and interrelated. Christakis identifies an arrangement in our constitution, a ‘social suite’ (in his terminology) which predisposes us through a long coevolution – genetic and cultural – towards sociality and coordination (Christakis 2020).

The common motive in these books is the perception of a dominant trait in human nature, derived from a long evolutionary process, which predisposes us to live in integrated and collaborative groups. According to this research, we can expect an acceleration of this evolutionary tendency which, consequently, will lead us to build a better, more integrated society.

At this point, I take the second step in the review of the available literature: after analysing the bio-cultural origins of human goodness, we need to establish to what extent the evolutionary arrow continues to point in the same direction, that is, to select better and more socially driven individuals. It is important to quote another popular author, who has endorsed with great optimism the idea of a progress towards goodness and growing altruism. Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of our Nature (2012), pleads for a positive view of recent human evolution: according to him, despite persisting wars and violence, the available data clearly point to a decline in figures of aggression and other negative traits, and towards a better future. This thesis is confirmed in his newest essay Enlightenment Now (2019), in which he advocates ideas stressing progress and rationality, again making the evolutionary arrow pointing towards finer social attitudes. This trend leading to morally better individuals and a righteous society might be linked to the expectation of achieving modern ideals, a new version of the optimistic features of Enlightenment. This confidence is based less on philosophical or ideological grounds, and more on science and data.

Two other research areas provide arguments and nourish the positive views about an evolutionary trend. There arguments are supported by both the biological/genetic and the cultural levels, and they ensure a more sensitive and altruistic disposition in our species. The first research area is clearly scientific and includes the fruitful field of altruism-studies supported by empirical and experimental research. The second research area is the academic discipline of economics. A third research area could be mentioned: the studies on human enhancement which usually are included in the area of transhumanism and related studies on the future of humanity; however, for the purpose of my study, it is better to focus on more scientific programs.

Regarding the first research area, an extensive bibliography was published in 2003, under the auspices of Templeton Foundation, reviewing hundreds of titles, and relating these studies to religious and spiritually inspired virtues (Post et al 2003). In 2016, a doctoral candidate and I reviewed 383 articles and book chapters on this topic, published between 2006 and 2015 (Oviedo 2016). This large number offers a hint about the great interest this issue raises, and it shows the plurality of disciplines involved: from psychology and biology to economics and medicine. The main issue in our analysis was the specificity of altruism; the evidence to the date showed that even if altruistic behaviours can be observed in other species, the extent and level of altruism in humans are nevertheless rather unique. The second issue concerned the innateness of altruistic behaviours; the evidence does not help to settle the question, and the complex interaction between genes and culture or education and living experiences seems to offer a more convincing explanation. The third issue is more relevant for the topic of this article: are altruistic features growing in a given population? The available evidence cannot confirm this most looked-for tendency; very few scientists dare to express such optimism. The fourth question concerns the scientific understanding of altruism; the current research has advanced biological explanations that apply to kin and reciprocal altruism, but these explanations become less convincing when we consider cases of extreme altruism towards people with whom the agent has no relationship. It seems that psychological theories focusing on cultural dimensions and repeated interaction – as in cooperative games – offer complementary explanations. The last issue in that extensive review from 2016 concerned the role that religion plays in these pro-social attitudes; the link between religion and prosocial behaviour has been the object of intense debate in the last few years. Some theses have pointed to that link as the best way of understanding the persistence and expansion of religion from an evolutionary perspective.

Even in the field of economics, a growing literature starting at least two decades ago, and growing in the last years invites us to consider an alternative to the focus that we find in classical economic studies, namely on rational choice theories. One example is the collective work lead by Ernst Fehr, Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life (2006). Moreover, Antara Haldar offered an excellent review of this new tendency in economics; a tendency which is becoming more mainstream (Haldar 2018). More recent examples are the contributions of Mark Carney (former Governor of the Banks of Canada and England) (2021) and Minouche Shafik (2021), both of which defend an overcoming of the usual economic rational-choice orthodoxy in favour of models that stress more trust and cooperation.

To sum up, the conspicuous number of studies of altruism and cooperation in  recent years reveals the great interest in this topic within the scientific community, together with studies on empathy and compassion. The more a scientific gaze tries to make sense of that human trait, the more we become aware of the great difficulty to consider it as a dominant feature or as a central clue in human past and future evolution.

As we can see, not everybody agrees on a diagnostic or description about the course of human evolution and its consequences. At a first glance, we can distinguish between two kinds of optimists: those who rely on natural progress, driven by a combination of genetic and cultural evolutionary pressures; and those who do not trust human nature and rely on artificial technological means to complete what genetics and culture would be unable to accomplish by their own means.

However, experts have tended to ignore the religious factor, including the ways in which religion have been employed as a tool for human betterment. Most authors working on the evolution of altruism, including the authors of the recent books mentioned above, do not pay any attention to religion as a civilizational clue that greatly influenced social engagement and cooperation. This is a point that some other scholars have stressed, such as David Wilson with Darwin’s Cathedral (2003) or more recently Joseph Henrich in The Weirdest People in the World (2020). These contributions emphasise the role religion has played – at least in the past – to build more socially engaged and diversified or – strangely enough – less endogamic collectives.

What can we learn from this literature and the significant number of studies that have focused on the bright side of human nature? At first sight, the panorama is a bit confusing. Rather than a consensus, what we get is an expectation, based on scientific data and views, pointing towards the right direction in human evolution as a trend that could in the long run defeat the worst tendencies that emerge in our condition and make headlines in the news, like psychopathological violent behavious, indiscriminate shootings, or terrorist actions. Theologians should be very demanding when dealing with science. They should  like to get the best science, the most reliable theories based on the highest possible evidence, and to avoid pseudo-science, or views that are still maturing and built on scarce or dubious evidence.

Now, nevertheless, theologians are becoming much more receptive to research on altruistic behaviour and related issues, such as empathy and compassionate attitudes. These topics are becoming centre stage in scientifically informed anthropologies, and this puts emphasis on an investigation of the bright side of human nature and the possibility of defeating its darkest expressions. Another question is to what extent these studies and analysis manage to change our representations and biases about human nature, and about selfish instincts for dominance. Such growing literature and concerns could amount to a Zeitgeist, a new cultural sensitivity or ‘imaginary’, which is slowly replacing previous and more pessimistic, simplistic, and negative views of humankind, including those found in traditional Christian theology. Perhaps theologians need to apply, here,   Donald Davidson’s “principle of charity”  and try to understand what the stakes are. After all, theology should not ignore this trend; it needs to take it seriously, and it should make its move into the game.

3. Discussion: Theology coming to terms with the altruistic wave

Theologians need to position themselves within the current panorama of studies on the positive and social aspects of human evolution. Theology needs to join other disciplines involved in this highly relevant research movement. It is important to remember that this movement is far-reaching: it includes economic strategies and social policies, and also education and ethical formation. Theology will have to interact and engage with this new area of study, especially if it takes seriously its mission to be more context-sensitive, and more attuned to the ‘signs of the times’.

Theology needs to reformulate some doctrines in light of this trend, and also address some emerging puzzles. Let me express them in the format of open questions. The first question refers specifically to Christian anthropology, and is perhaps the easiest: To what extent does the described responsivity towards altruism confirm the Christian tenet that we are created in the image of God? The second question – which belongs within the area of anthropology – is trickier: Should we revise the traditional doctrine of original sin in the light of those new developments? The third question is: Is the Christian faith’s proclamation of grace still necessary for human salvation? And the fourth question moves from anthropology to the theological study of religion: Is prosociality the most important issue for making sense of religion in dialogue with its scientific study, and should we deem other factors as less relevant? This list of questions opens up a range of theological issues which transcend the limits of the present article. I will focus now on the possible revision of original sin, and leave the other three issues for future studies.

But before that, I need to address an issue that lurks behind any attempt to make room for scientific research in theological studies. It is far from clear to what extent theology needs to pay attention to the kind of factual knowledge provided by science, and still more when such knowledge clearly contrasts with the divinely revealed content, encoded in biblical and early Christian traditions. The challenge consists in accommodating our theological perception to new insights provided by scientific advancements, while at the same time trusting the essential teachings revealed in the biblical texts. A possible response consists in simply dismissing the scientific data that openly contradict ancient and pre-scientific knowledge. Another option is to concede that those doctrines that were deemed so essential and paramount no longer carry such theological importance. In any case, it seems difficult to apply concordism on revealed texts. A wise hermeneutics needs to respect scientific data and to re-establish the meaning of revealed contents.

Many attempts have been made at assessing the consequences of altruism studies on Christian anthropology. In this larger area of discussion, it seems that the doctrine of original sin faces the greatest challenges in accommodating these new insights. This is obviously neither the first and nor the most difficult puzzle that theology of original sin must address. Everybody who is trying to make sense of such traditional doctrine are familiar with the struggle of reconciling theological ideas with the evolutionary representation of human origins, and how this representation moves away from,  and even clashes with, the mythical format that frames and supports the doctrine of original sin in the Genesis narrative. Nevertheless, the classic Darwinian understanding of human nature and origins could aid in updating the traditional Christian view: this update might simply flow from considering the central features of the evolutionary engine – the struggle for survival; survival of the fittest, etc. – to inform the theological notion of a sinful condition that has afflicted human beings since a (mythical) beginning.

From the perspective of a well-established tradition anchored in an Augustinian anthropology, human nature is so corrupted that it is unable to do anything right or to accomplish good deeds. This pessimistic tradition is present in some medieval strands and in most of Reformed theology. But now being corrupted and unable of doing good deeds appears to stand in sharp contrast to the biological idea that our species has been very successful; the only species that survived among a series of other hominin species.

In the last few decades, several books have attempted to use evolutionary anthropology to better integrate theological ideas. A good example is the book by Daryl Domning and Monika Hellwig, Original Selfishness (2006). Their perspective offers an explanation of the apparent paradox just described of fallen homo sapiens achieving biological success. Domning and Hellwig attempt to translate into a scientific language and framework what theology views as a long process that went wrong from the very beginning. For them, human evolution builds on the selfish drive that ensures survival and reproductive success for humans. This drive was necessary in a very threatening and competitive context. The problem arises when the selfish drive becomes much less useful and even dysfunctional when humans move into bigger social aggregations, where social virtues and collaboration are more conducive than aggressivity and domination. Domning recognizes that selfishness is not the only drive of human evolution: other impulses for self-control and cooperation can be found since the early times. However, the selfish side is so strong that only a special revelation, such as the one associated with the work of Christ, could help to overcome the strong selfish drive.

The first puzzle seems to have been solved: what is wrong for theology appears as right and fitting for evolutionary biology, but only to an extent. The latter applies, possibly, a broader time-arch than the former; and just at some point both – the theological and the evolutionary views – converge to recognize that human evolution needs to be corrected, otherwise it could derail in a catastrophic way, as recent history has shown.

Other recent studies aim at reviewing and reformulating the doctrine of original sin, such that it could become more akin to our scientific understanding of human origins. In the context of the puzzle I am analysing, it is relevant to mention studies that highlight the role of cultural evolution, in addition to the biological or genetic one (Hays and Burdett 2017; Van den Toren 2018). From a cultural  perspective on human beings, sinfulness or our negative dimension are less due to some genetic constitution and more due to imitation and learning processes in human beings. In general, many theologians find it difficult to point to an origin of sin, as if it were something that arose at some specific point of human evolution.

In light of these developments and recent studies on human cooperation and altruism, a theological understanding of human frailty becomes more complex and puzzling. By summarizing the available data, we can see that theology needs to accommodate to a multilevel evolutionary pattern when trying to update the doctrine of original sin. Since the process is so complex and it involves several dimensions – genetic, social, cultural and even epigenetic (Matern 2017) –  cooperation and altruism represent  only one piece of the puzzle of how evolution proceeds, and we also need to take into account the relevance of selfish and aggressive attitudes, as well as and generous traits.

The recent research on the evolution of altruism reviewed in the present article invites us to better specify the central topic of Christian anthropology. At the very least, theologians need to consider additional driving forces of human evolution: not just a selfish impulse impressed in our genetic nature that compels us to prevail and to ensure resources and mating success, but also forces aimed at cooperation and coordination. The issue is that it is not clear which force will prevail or have the upper hand in the long run. History reports extensively on both: war and cruelty on one side; social integration and solidarity on the other. Theology needs to accommodate that double narrative, and allow for the coexistence of both principles in human nature: on the one hand, there is a selfish or competitive principle that favours survival – and in this sense should be considered positive – but turns out to be dysfunctional in a more evolved setting. On the other hand, a second principle predisposes us to social virtues, collaboration, and morality. I do not think that the current research on altruism prevents us from considering this double standard or that it invites us to discard the negative selfish drive. As long as the available evidence does point in another direction, we are entitled to keep this double principle. We need to remain aware of the huge risk of assuming a naïve anthropology; that is, an anthropology that fails in accounting for those negative trends which, unfortunately, still manifest in human behaviour and show no signs of fading away.

4. Conclusion

Theology is called to recognize some intriguing insights delivered by contemporary evolutionary research. Following a tradition that perceives the natural and the supernatural realms as deeply entangled (De Lubac 1946; Knight 2001), theology can adopt the insights of  recent research into altruism, and its increasing saliency in scientific research, and consider it as an invitation to view religious traditions from a more nuanced perspective. For instance, original sin can no longer be presented in simplistic or reductive ways, or even within a dualistic model. Original sin appears now to be placed in a thicker network of human features – positive and negative, or even more ambiguous or with double value – and it is important to preserve the complexity of this network in order to avoid oversimplifying evil or narrate it in poor terms.

After examining the current developments in the study of altruism and cooperation in human evolution, the true puzzle concerns, in my view, the naturalistic positions that such studies are exerting against a supernaturalist theistic theology. There is now a new narrative about human origins, human meaning and future, which does not need to resort in any way to religious or transcendent categories: everything seems to make sense just inside an “immanent frame”, as Charles Taylor described (Taylor 2007). There is a last issue: to what extent theology can claim the value of its own narrative, which features a central agent transcending history and physical reality, and how theologians can include references from the newest scientific insights. Theology needs to offer its own narrative about human progress as something inscribed in a divine salvific plan, and to avoid a complete secularized interpretation of this progress.


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Cite this article

Oviedo, Lluis. 2022. “Does the Evolution of Altruism Pose a Challenge to Christian Anthropology?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 5).  

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Lluis Oviedo 
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