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To Make a Difference

Every semester, I meet individually with each of my students to discuss their plans and dreams for the future, and offer some personalized career counseling.

With many, I ask them a pair of questions to try to get below the surface, and for many, it is very difficult to answer them, even for those that have thought about them before.

1)      What are you good at? What are your gifts, strengths, talents, or skills? What do your friends admire about you?
2)      What are you passionate about? What energizes, motivates, or inspires you? What makes you exult or rage?

For many, if not most, the most common passion expressed is to make a difference in the world or to help people.

It is striking to me that this should be such a common refrain, as it seems independent of any spiritual tradition or other recognizable single factor. However, there are some interesting things I have either noticed or inferred from the sum of their comments.

First, I wonder what causes this to be a universal virtue. Together tolerance and altruism seem to be the two cardinal virtues of post modern culture. I can’t help but suspect that in the secular environment that most grow up in, they are searching for purpose and meaning in their lives, and this seems like a laudable thing to do.

It is interesting why the secular culture does place such high value on service. A friend of mine rightly asserts that many things like this in secular culture are vestigial virtues left over from a Christian worldview, secularized with an evolutionary justification given, that it is better for the survival of the species if we work together.

There’s just one problem with this Darwinian “Just-So” story. It isn’t true. If this were an evolutionary development, then we should see this altruism as a universal characteristic in human history. Human barbarism tells a very different story. So much so, in fact, that anecdotal acts of altruism in ancient (and not so ancient) history stand out as exceptions to the rule.

While many of the great spiritual leaders of humanity have advocated some form of altruism, Christ was the first to make it a central tenet of His teachings, and even He “got it” from an earlier source—the Old Testament—“Love your neighbor as yourself,” the second greatest commandment. The Bible also gives a reason why altruism is a good thing—because humans are created in God’s image, and therefore worthy of respect and care.

Not convinced it isn’t Darwinian somewhere deep down? Then consider this:  why is it considered such a great teaching by spiritual leaders? Because it flies in the face of default human behaviour and is such a challenge for us to consciously change our attitudes and behaviour. If it were of some intrinsic evolutionary benefit, then wouldn’t we adopt it on our own without the need of the weight of religious duty to coerce us into it? This makes absolutely no sense from a biologically evolutionary mechanism.

In order for this survival benefit to take hold via the religious mechanism, it requires first the ability to understand abstract concepts, then the ability to communicate such concepts, and the ability to persuade others using such communication. Yes, we do happen to have all of these abilities. However, this is the most inefficient way to go about what should be a random genetic modification that benefits the whole species, not just those who hear the message and choose to accept it.

Indeed, as we have seen in history, those who proclaim and adopt such views are usually initially attacked and killed by the more violent and resisting members of the species. That such a philosophy has succeeded so well over time flies in the face of evolutionary teaching—it is not expected that natural selection would favor a trait by first seeking to destroy that trait through members of that same species.

Thus, I am forced to conclude that altruism and service are artifacts from religious and specifically Christian teachings and the reality of the spiritual nature of humanity that naturalism refuses to admit. I invite any Darwinians or naturalists to offer counterarguments to show holes in my logic here.

The second interesting thing about my students’ altruism is that one of the significant motivations towards a desire to help others was because it would make the student happy. For as much as they want to help people, they are primarily concerned with personal happiness, and it is convenient for them that helping people contributes to that happiness. If it didn’t, I get the feeling that altruism would be a less popular life goal for many.

“Aha!” exclaims the naturalist. “Here is your counterargument! The fact that it makes them happy, in other words, triggers endorphin production, shows that it is a biochemical function and therefore Darwinian! QED!”

Not so fast. Using this as evidence for an evolutionary justification for altruism still fails to get around the natural selection problem I described above. Furthermore, we would expect such a tendency to be showing increased genetic popularity as people who were somehow genetically disposed to serving others would first preferentially mate with like-minded (like-gened?) partners and produce offspring with the same tendency.

If it was a recessive trait, then we would expect such a couple to produce offspring that exclusively expressed that trait. They don’t. You will be hard pressed to show me any two year old who naturally is selfless, and even if you found one, show me that all of their siblings have the same trait.

If altruism is a dominant trait, that would allow for selfish offspring to be born to parents that both are carriers for selfishness. However, that doesn’t explain human history where violence and selfishness dominate, and selflessness is the exception.

A third option is that it could be a more complicated genetic interaction and depends on environmental triggers for gene expression to be activated or needs other genetic traits to work synergistically for it to be expressed. At this point, I am not aware of any research that even shows conclusively that the altruism gene exists, much less how it is passed on and under what conditions it is expressed. I again invite those who know if such research has been done to share it. There is still the obstacle of real, empirical evidence to the contrary—that our default behaviour is selfish, until something comes along and trains the individual to behave and think differently.

There is also the obstacle of evidence that altruism is a choice rather than a foregone conclusion once such a gene is expressed. In other words, once such a gene is turned on, it should direct that behaviour fairly consistently. It may subsequently be turned off again, and so on. However, a casual observation of human behaviour does not bode well for that hypothesis either.

Again, I come back to the conclusion that the most logical cause of altruism is spiritual rather than biochemical. We want to make a difference, to help others, to leave a mark on society because we are spiritual self-aware beings created in the image of a God who loves, serves and is good. Our sin natures have corrupted that intrinsic characteristic in all of us, though to different extents, and as it is reawakened and redeemed, begins to reassert itself.

The persistent naturalist would come back arguing that the variability shown in the extent of corruption in altruism is what they would expect from a complex trait. I would argue in return that altruism’s dominance in a given population is dependent upon the spiritual/philosophical characteristics of that population’s culture, and when you remove someone from one culture and put them into another, especially at a young age, they will adopt the traits of that culture.

This alone is not proof of a non-genetic cause. But, those that have a strong religious basis for their views on altruism are more likely to keep them upon transplantation. In particular, one who has an extremely high regard for altruism is more likely to maintain and display it after transplantation to a selfish culture, than one who is from a selfish/non-altruistic culture moving to a more altruistic culture. The selfish person will more likely show more moderation in the display of their tendency when peer pressure opposes it than will the selfless person.

This trend tends to be more pronounced in someone who was selfish and has a strong conversion experience. They will hold on to their altruism more consistently than most others, even when reimmersed in a non-altruistic society. They may backslide for a bit, but their conversion will nearly always reassert itself, even in the face of opposition.

Contrast this with someone with an altruistic background who converts to a non-altruistic worldview, then is placed back into an altruistic culture. They are more likely to revert, at least in overt behaviour to greater altruism.

While even these examples are not necessarily completely convincing, they are real observable trends, and the presence of exceptions to the trends also paradoxically seem to weaken the naturalist case because the degree of variability seems to be evidence for free will while the strength of conviction by those with strong religious views, especially those with marked changes after conversion, imply something deeper than mere genetics.

Who would have thought all of this could come from asking students about their strengths and passions?


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