Thinking With the Wrong Head or, Richard Dawkins on Altruism

As many of you are well aware, the existence of genuine love or altruism is often leveled against the naturalistic worldview as evidence of its implausibility.  But those who buy into such pathetic argumentation simply don’t understand the richness of the Darwinian perspective.   You may be surprised to learn that the New Atheists, especially Richard Dawkins, are actually romantics at heart.  I dare say that the conception of altruism explicated so eloquently in his acclaimed work The God Delusion would move even the hardest of hearts to start composing Shakespearean sonnets! 

Like many great romantics, Dawkins begins his discourse on love with a rousing passage on the ontological foundation of love itself:       
“The most obvious way in which genes ensure their own ‘selfish’ survival relative to other genes is by programming individual organism to be selfish.  There are indeed many circumstances in which survival of the individual organism will favour the survival of the genes that ride inside it.  But different circumstances favour different tactics.  There are circumstances – not particularly rare – in which genes ensure their own selfish survival by influencing organisms to behave altruistically.”
In this stirring piece of prose Dawkins skillfully uncovers the underlying foundations of naturalistic anthropology.  Through it we learn that man is but a passive composition of matter blown and tossed by the mindless and purposeless wind of biology (please note that you should ignore the teleological language he employees; words like “tactics” and the like).  We see that, at its core, altruism is rooted in pre-programmed instincts involuntarily thrust upon us by our “selfish” genes.  From this foundation he weaves a beautiful tapestry of possibilities–sure to make many a fair maiden’s heart pound with passion:     
“We now have four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other.  First, there is the special case of genetic kinship.  Second, there is reciprocation:  the repayment of favours given, and the giving of favours in ‘anticipation’ of payback.  Following on from this there is, third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness.  And fourth . . . there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying unfakeably authentic advertising.”
In order to fully appreciate the profundity of the kaleidoscope of Darwinian explanations offered here we must pause to consider exactly what kind of love is being presented to us. 

The Four Loves

Classically speaking, there are four kinds of love.  The Greeks distinguished between the different forms of love using four distinct words: agápe, éros, philía, and storgē.  Dawkins’ elaboration on altruism seems to fall within the realm of éros, and storgē–the forms of love that come upon us in waves of emotion entirely outside of our control.  For we undergo these forms of love as mere passive receptors.  They are the product of a diverse range of factors including our environment and, yes, even our biology.  Storgē is quite simply the feeling of affection that we have for our kin—e.g., the “fluttery” warm feeling experienced by a mother holding her child—and éros is the feeling of desire—e.g., a wave of sexual longing, or craving a succulent piece of steak.  While, according to the classical understanding, we can make choices that intentionally direct our lives toward things that engender these types of love, they are ultimately brought on by forces outside of our volition.  Thus, they stand in marked contrast to agápe (self-giving love), and philía (friendship) which are rooted in the will.
But Richard Dawkins, in a stroke of poetic genius, turns away from the classical veiw and paints a picture of a world in which true agápe and philía are but an illusion.  For him altruism can only be explained in terms of éros, and storgē: 
“What natural selection favours is rules of thumb, which work in practice to promote the genes that built them.  Rules of thumb, by their nature, sometimes misfire.  In a bird’s brain, the rule ‘Look after small squawking things in your nest, and drop food into their red gapes’ typically has the effect of preserving the genes that built the rule, because the squawking, gaping objects in an adult bird’s nest are normally its own offspring  The rule misfires if another baby bird somehow gets into the nest . . .”
He goes on to explain:  
“I am suggesting that the same is true of the urge to kindness – to altruism, to generosity, to empathy, to pity.  In ancestral times, we had the opportunity to be altruistic only towards close kin and potential reciprocators.  Nowadays, that restriction is no longer there, but the rule of thumb persists.  Why would it not?  It is just like sexual desire.  We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile or otherwise unable to reproduce).  Both are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes:  blessed, precious mistakes.”
In other words, true acts of love are glorious (?) mistakes; accidental properties of nature brought about by instincts and passions mechanically instigated by our genes.  Now, I don’t know about you, but this moves me to tears every time I think about it.  If you don’t feel the same, stick with me and I think you’ll change your mind.    

The Blessedness of Darwinism

Contrary to what some might think it’s clear that Darwinism, with its robust foundation of unintentional self-edifying desire, warm fuzzy feelings, and brute instincts, is a powerful platform upon which to build and explain deep, meaningful, expressions of love.  Take, for example, the Catholic priest in North Africa who is currently harboring nearly 700 Muslims in his church.  He’s literally risking his own life to protect them from an extremist group attempting to eradicate the Muslim population in their country.  Thanks to Dawkins we now understand that he is not intentionally laying down his life for his fellow man because they are made in the image of God and therefore intrinsically valuable.  And he is surely not acting in accordance with the virtues of courage or fortitude.  Rather, and I say this in the most beautiful and uplifting way imaginable, he is undergoing an evolutionary misfire.  Just dwell on that notion for a moment.
You see, in a strange and (to use the adjectives so aptly employed by Dawkins) blessed and precious quirk of fate this priest is mistakenly extending charity to Muslims.  Mind you, this is ultimately a meaningless and quit unintentional happening in the life of the universe–and I really don’t have to explain to you how heartwarming that fact is—but we can all appreciate the beauty of this utterly futile event!
Herein lies the real magic of Darwinism.  No matter how meaningless our actions are, we can make them sound nice by attaching uplifting adjectives like “blessed” or “precious” to them.  This is especially helpful when considering a variety of seemingly “self-less” acts performed my people every day.  Consider the gentleman who cared for and eventually married his invalid fiancé.  We all know the real reason he tenderly cared for her, after she had that unfortunate fall and became paralyzed from the waist down, is because of an irresistible sexual impulse built into him by his “selfish” genes.  You see, his brain mistakenly thought he needed to preserve her to bear children and preserve his genetic code (and possibly do his laundry).  The folk way of viewing love might have mistaken his actions as being actual acts of self-giving and service; sacrifices he intentionally chose because he valued her and recognized her personhood.  The folk way would even have us thinking he was acting in accordance with the virtue of charity.  But, in truth, he was just thinking with “the wrong head”—as my grandfather’s drill sergeant might have described it.  Now this might sound crass but there is really no need to despair because if we close our eyes and click our heels . . . we’ll soon see that this evolutionary misfire is the stuff of poetry.        

The Strengthening Weakness of Love

As Christians, we sometimes forget what Christ really brought – what He really brings – into this world. We find it easy to place our message on a bumper sticker, or to put it on a t-shirt, or to make a really cool song out of it. It’s easy to sign a petition or pass a piece of legislation, but we have to ask ourselves, “Is this what Christ really came for?”

Would Christ go to the Republican National Convention? Would He partake in the march against homosexual marriage? Would Jesus really Occupy Wall Street? Would He mock the Republican candidates, or call Obama a Nazi? If we easily see Christ doing any of these things, we must ask ourselves if we are worshiping a Christ of our own invention; if we cannot see Christ doing these things, we must ask why we choose to do so in His stead.

God is omnipotent and powerful, there is no denying that; but out of His love to us He is weak. It is in this weakness that He is ultimately, eternally, and infinitely strong. Love makes one weak because by its very nature it requires sacrifice and self-giving. In the mere act of creation we see God’s weakness displaying His strength. With the mere mention of creation, He brings it about, yet the act itself is one of sacrifice. Here we see His strength in creation, but His weakness in sacrifice.

On the cross we see the strength of God crushing sin of death, but this strength is only seen due to the weakness of His love, His willingness to die on our behalf that He might remove death from our nature.

I am not trying to say that God is not omnipotent – far from it – but instead drawing light to the fact that within the bounds of love the world could turn upside down; what is strong could be weak and what is weak could be strong. In a strong world, in the world of the Übermensch (Nietzsche’s “Superman”), the one who is able to enforce his will on others is the strong one. In a weak world, the one Christ displayed to us, the greater the servant, the more power he has. This is quite the paradox, that the weaker we act, the stronger we really are. Such is the mystery of God’s love.

Where does this leave us Christians in the 21st century? Should we continue to make power plays for political offices? Should we continue to push “our guy” to take charge of the nation? Should we pray for the day that we control the schools, the government, and make this a “Christian nation” once again (or for the first time)? Is this really what the strengthening weakness of love looks like?

Perhaps we as Christians need to reconsider what it is to have strength. Perhaps we need to realize that strength is found in weakness. Hope is not found in acquiring a political goal, but in the self-emptying act of service towards those who cannot repay us.

The love of God is weak enough to cause God to stoop down to become a man. It is weak enough to grab that girl who suffers from life. It is weak enough to cause our all-powerful God to serve humans (for what is love if not service?). The love of God is weak enough to look at the young man intent on a life of self-destruction and long for the young man to turn around to his original purpose, which is Christ. The love of God is weak enough to wander through the hospital wards soothing the broken bodies, sacrificing for the sick, and giving grace to those who can no longer continue.

The love of God is weak enough to take the almighty Eternal and place Him within the womb of the Theotokos. The love of God is weak enough to cause the Eternal to walk where we walk, to experience the pain that numerous victims worldwide have experienced. The love of God is weak enough to cause Christ to give His life that we might have life. But the love of God is strong enough to ensure that all of this has an actual, eternal effect.

The love of God is strong enough to grab the girl who suffers from life and give her a new life. It is strong enough to draw humans to love God as well and serve Him (for what is love if not service?). The love of God is strong enough to look at the vapid young man and convict him of his ways; it is strong enough to turn the young man from death to life. The love of God is strong enough to wander through hospital wards proclaiming that He is the ultimate healer, that in His love all will be made whole someday.

The love of God is strong enough to shape and save our nature through His glorious Incarnation.  The love of God is strong enough to cause us to walk where the Eternal has walked and is walking. The love of God is strong enough to cause Christ to raise from the dead that we might have life.

If God’s love displays His eternal strength through weakness, then what should this say of us mere Christians? Shall we continue to pursue the power on display in the world? Certainly there is nothing wrong with standing up for justice in the public square, but should this be our primary vehicle for displaying God’s love?

Christ came down as a king, but never claimed the seat of Rome. He came down as a ruler, but to a kingdom without a border. Christ came down as the Lawgiver, yet made no declarations or decrees for the nations to follow. If we become a people who seek after kingships, after controlling borders, after laws then we have forgotten what Christ accomplished.

The millions of humans who are abducted into slavery every day don’t need another Christian song or another tract; they desperately need the love of God to rescue them from their plight and restore their humanity. The millions of homeless people don’t need another sermon on how they’re worthless or how trusting in God will make things better; they need food, they need shelter, they need help (even if they’re crazy, this doesn’t make them not human; all are fallen from God, so all are crazy in degrees, the man who mumbles to himself is only slightly crazier than you). Those who are hurting, lost, in despair, wondering about the next paycheck, suffering from abuse, don’t need another law, another rally, another city to occupy, another mega-church, another politician to save us all; they need only Christ, they need His love, they need His followers to cease seeking after the worldly idea of power and instead become weak that they might truly become strong.

In short, the world doesn’t need more Christians attempting to live up to the standards of their culture; it needs more Christians attempting to live up to the standards of Christ. The world needs people who display their strength in their weakness, and this is only possible through Divine love.

Random Thoughts: 9/9/2010

* Saying embryonic stem cell research is justifiable because of the medical advances it might bring is equivalent to saying that Dr. Eduard Wirths was justified in his experiments because of the medical advances he brought about.

* I can’t imagine Paul walking into a pagan temple and taking a hammer to the idols placed within; I can’t imagine he would support burning the holy book of another religion, even if the religion is false.

* A church’s success isn’t measured by how controversial they are or by how big their congregation happens to be. True success in a church is found in the following; fidelity to the truth of God and service to the unfortunate. Should a preacher ever utter a word of heresy from the pulpit or a member ever want for life’s necessities, only then can the church truly be called a failure.

* The world wants nothing to do with Christ for one of two reasons. Either they want nothing to do with Christ because His pure light has exposed their sins or the only image of Christ they’ve seen has been from His followers who’s sins have hidden the pure light of Christ. We should never be an excuse for unbelief.

* Would abortion exist if those who went to picket abortion clinics also chose to take in an unwed mother during her pregnancy and handle her medical woes?

* If Christians were to act in pure love towards each other and towards the world starting tomorrow we would all be committed to the hospital for insanity because the world does not know how to handle true love. But we should not placate the world for fear of our insanity, rather we should desire to live more fully in the insanity of God’s love.

* Christ gained nothing out of dying for us and redeeming us. His glory is infinite, so He did not increase His glory or add to it. His act of death was a pure sacrifice, one where He gained nothing in the process. Let us follow His example.

* War is a hell of a thing – it requires men to kill other men. It requires the human nature to be at combat with human nature. To kill a man is in effect to kill oneself, no matter how justified the action may be. Is there anything in this world more unnatural than warfare?

* “Christianity is a crutch to handle the trials of this world” isn’t an argument against Christianity; it’s an argument against the world.

Hedonistic America and Marriage

In reading this article on CNN, I was struck by how our culture has completely forgotten what marriage and love are. In the article, one couple is interviewed where, though married, they live in separate homes. The reason is the father claims the kids don’t need a new mother and the wife claims that living separately helps the marriage and allows each partner to maintain their respective space. In reading the comments by CNN readers, most focus on the happiness of individuals within marriages, some going so far to say that if it makes you happy, then do it.

The idea of placing one’s happiness, so long as it brings no harm to others (but even here, we see a gray area), as the central theme to one’s morality has become quite popular in America. The above example is perfect; the obligation of husband to wife and of wife to husband, the obligation to be self-sacrificial, to be selfless, and to become one is viewed as immoral by the masses because such obligations supposedly prevent happiness. When happiness is prevented and said happiness wouldn’t necessarily bring harm to any other individual, our culture looks at the prevention and views it as wrong.

When this is applied to marriage, what we have are two individuals who come together in a legal sense, but who remain two individual. Though minimal sacrifices are made, each individual seeks to continue on in his or her independence and individuality. The idea that one can have a successful marriage that ends centers on the idea that happiness is humanity’s ultimate ethical end. Under the view that happiness is central, a marriage can be successful as long as both parties are happy. Once both parties have decided that the marriage makes them unhappy, they can peacefully obtain their divorce and be on their ways. Thus, the marriage was “successful” because both were happy for a time and amicably divorced.

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