Christianity: Genetically Sound or Suicidal?
 
Chantal Pasquarello


Humans love to think of themselves as fundamentally selfless, conscience-driven individuals, while, in Robert Wright's eyes, "we are all self-promoters and social climbers" (Wright 313).  Wright explains all altruistic behaviors as a part of a "shameless ploy" by our genes to ensure the perpetuation of the invaluable genetic code (212).  His assertion that human altruism is really fundamentally self-serving in nature is intriguing in light of many of the hallowed conceptions we tend to have regarding our own innate kindness towards each other.  Viewed under the microscope of Christian morality, which demands that its followers perform good deeds without drawing attention to them, Wright's notion of altruism initially appears to present a serious conflict of interest for the faithful.  Upon closer examination, however, several deep-seated similarities emerge between the two doctrines, leading one to conclude that Wright's selfish notion of altruism does less to disprove or disparage Christian ideals than it does to make Christianity look, genetically speaking, "natural."

Wright spends a considerable amount of time exploring human altruism--a universal trait that appears, prima facie, to have no genetic benefit.  Wright uses the example of "selfless" honeypot ants, sterile workers that hang from the ceilings of their colony's underground nest, their abdomens turgid with food.  These "living storage bins" survive solely to aid their kind in the event of a dry spell, at which time they can provide nourishment for their kin (213).  Initially, the plight of these sterile workers appears hopeless and ultimately futile, a kind of "evolutionary suicide" (157).  However, if we stop to consider the relatives that this one swollen ant could be saving by sacrificing itself, altruism begins to look more genetically attractive.

If the liquid food that one ant carries saves the lives of four of its full siblings, two of whom are sisters (and therefore share 75% of the sacrificial ant's genes instead of the usual 50% in brothers), then the ant's behavior is ultimately genetically beneficial.  The sterile, altruistic ant's genes will be passed on to the next generation via its relatives if they survive; it scores major points in the genetic game.  Thus, especially in the case of organisms with a high degree of relatedness, "altruism of extraordinary magnitude is justified in the eyes of natural selection" since it will, in the end, ensure the survival of the altruist's genes in one form or another (164).  This kind of kin altruism makes sense, then; we should be willing to sacrifice ourselves for our family, especially those members who are most closely related to us, since they share at least a fraction of our genes.

How, then, do we explain non-kin altruism?  Even if we accept that sacrificing ourselves for our family is really fundamentally self-serving, why are we inclined towards kindness for those who are not genetically tied to us?  Again, the answer lies in selfishness.  Wright proposes that people extend favors to each other simply because they will someday be able to collect on them.  Take the vampire bat, for example; after extracting blood from its prey, a bat may return to its cave to regurgitate some food for a friend who has had less luck that night.  By sharing what it has when it has it, the altruistic bat can increase its chances that the friend it helped will help him out later on in its own time of need.  The same goes for humans.  This tendency towards reciprocal altruism is evident in all cultures throughout the world.

People tend to perform acts of kindness towards others in the hopes that their kindness will be repaid with interest.  Wright points out that our tendency to feel more sympathy for a homeless stranger than a slightly hungry man can be explained in terms of this logic.  The more desperate the person we aid is, the larger the payback may be, so that "our deepest compassion is our best bargain hunting" (205).
Herein we can also explain gossip--another human universal.  People are always trying to make themselves look good, and what better way to accomplish this end than to make others look bad?  Thus, we lean towards hypocrisy, publicizing the sins of others while hiding our own.  We all want to be known as "good" guys - as reliable reciprocal altruists - so that others will associate with us.  If we proclaim our virtue loudly enough, we can develop a sound reputation, leading others to think that we are trustworthy altruists.  Thus, Wright's assertion that, "we all want to do--or, more precisely, to be seen as doing--what everyone says is good" (212).

When we think of Wright's theory in terms of Christianity, an ugly contradiction rears its head.  Consider, for example, the popular scripture passage that urges Christians to be kind and faithful to their God without making a show of their upright moral character.  In performing acts of kindness, the Bible urges us not to draw attention to our good deeds.  We are told to continue to groom ourselves well when we are fasting so as not to draw attention to our sacrifice, and not to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing when we give to the needy.  Indeed, it is a sin to stand up and pray loudly as the Pharisees were so fond of doing; instead, people of faith are to worship quietly and let their good deeds go unrecognized--for they'll be rewarded soon enough in the next life.  Matthew 6:1 warns readers to "be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them.  If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven."

When juxtaposed with Wright's take on human goodness as a means to an end (committing kind acts in the hope of not only building a trustworthy reputation but also in the hope that the kindness will be repaid twofold later on when we need it more), such religious ideals would indeed create a considerable amount of conflict in the mind of a faithful person.  While genetic self-interest is urging the person to do a good deed and draw attention to it, Christianity is preaching the exact opposite lesson: don't let your kindness be seen!  Society reflects this ideal of quiet goodness by looking down on immodest people, as well.  Not many heroes are well loved for highlighting their actions to make themselves look good.  When Tom Cruise saved two children from a house fire, the press lauded his unassuming demeanor regarding the whole incident. Had he immediately conducted a full-scale operation to maximize his reputation through his good deed, he would have been hailed as an international jackass--a selfish fame-monger out for his own good.  But this tactic appears to be precisely what our genes would support.  It would be in our genetic interest to make the most of our goodness, but Christian morality preaches against it.

In light of these apparent contradictions, it would seem that many of our traditional Judeo-Christian values, those ideals of selflessness and unassuming piety that are so entrenched in our social structure, actually go against human nature.  Selflessness without recognition seems to be unnatural in a certain genetic sense.  It may therefore be possible that the values of modesty and meekness purported by the Christian faith are also unnatural; Christianity may be preaching doctrines that are nearly impossible to live up to!  If this is so, it seems a small wonder that so many people spend so much time wracked with guilt for feelings or urges that they really cannot control.  The genetic desire to be seen as good conflicts with the Christian ideal of quiet heroism and could lead to serious frustrations!  Tom Cruise's motivation to emphasize his good deed in saving the aforementioned children appears natural--a genetically sound course of action.  However, his very desire to proclaim his good works goes against the Christian morality of the New Testament.

Consider, however, the fact that Christianity does promise an eventual reward for good deeds--just not a reward in any earthly sense.  The main thrust of Christian morality is that, if you abide by God's rules in this life, you will be rewarded in the next.  Given that you actually believe in a heaven, the benefits from acting altruistically are pretty high.  Using the same example of Matthew's gospel, Christians are told not to proclaim their good deeds on Earth because "your Father, who sees what is done in secret, shall reward you openly" (Matthew 6:5).  In this sense, exaggerating your good works to others here on earth has essentially the same effect as keeping your mouth shut and waiting until the next life to collect on your reward.  Both have the same ultimate goal: achieving some sort of compensation for seemingly selfless or altruistic acts.  Bragging to others may help you achieve higher status, increasing your perceived reliability as well as the likelihood that you will be able to gain from others.  Conversely, living your life as a quiet, unassuming do-gooder may not seem to bring much of a prize here on Earth, but the Bible promises a much greater reward in the next life.

In this way, altruism appears to be in your best interest in both cases, and is, ultimately, selfishly motivated.  While it may seem horrible to help a friend and then brag about it simply because you may be able to gain from it genetically, performing the same act out of Christian kindness and keeping quiet about it (bearing in mind the hefty praise you'll receive later on) actually has the same effect.  Either way, you're acting in your own self-interest by helping the person out.  Wright explains that the main reason to act altruistically is that you stand to gain from it genetically. Christians are promised an eventual reward, so they gain as much as the person who brags on earth, just in a different sense.

Aside from the rewards to be had in the next life, the promise of immortality inherent in Christian ideals may be very genetically appealing.  Thinking even more closely about it, the promise of eternal life in Heaven and the allure of immortality via our genes seem not contradictory, but complementary! According to Wright, the idea of immortality through our offspring is what predominates our day-to-day decisions (although we may not realize it).  According to the Bible, the desire to live forever with Christ in Heaven is what should drive our choice-making here on Earth.  If it is true that our genes are telling us that behaving altruistically will allow us (or copies of ourselves) to live forever, then isn't the Christian religion giving us the exact same lecture?  The New Testament begs us to "do unto others," as we would have them do unto us; its chapters overflow with lessons of justice and fairness to our neighbors.  The teachings of the Bible after the coming of Jesus Christ are dominated by one theme: that of love for each other.  If we follow this advice and think always of others, then we are assured a place in the next life.  Similarly, if we follow the "advice" of our genes to help others in their time of need, we are increasing the likelihood of our genetic immortality.  Consider the sterile honeypot ant that sacrifices itself as a living food bin for its fertile relatives; it will actually be able to pass on its invaluable genetic legacy through its altruistic act.  Had the ant acted selfishly, not only would its relatives have died, but its genetic legacy as well.  The altruistic choice ensures genetic immortality in the same way that it guarantees everlasting life in Heaven.  Thus, in the end, the goal is identical, the motivation the same; immortality in one sense or another is the object of the game.

Put this way, the ideals of most of the religions of the world seem to be not only genetically "intelligent," but evolutionarily necessary.  Despite some of its contradictions within Wright's take on Darwinian human nature, Christianity appears to be an almost complementary aspect of human life--a re-affirmation of ideals that our genes already whisper to our unconscious.  The notion of altruism as a means to an end is emphasized in Wright's explanations and, it would seem, confirmed by the Christian promise of celestial rewards and everlasting life for seemingly selfless acts.  Seen in this harsh light, the ideas of familial loyalty and love appear much more sensible and much less noble.  The intractable bonds of friendship and family that humans hold so dear seem to be merely self-serving, and people who want to believe that their deep and unqualified devotion to their siblings and friends is selfless and pure in nature appear to be sadly mistaken--blinded by a genetic mechanism called love.

If we further conclude from these observations that, since some of the values fundamental to the Christian religion correspond with our genetic inclinations, Christianity is the "natural" faith, the question of other religions comes into play.  Is a religion with no notion of an afterlife (and, thus, ultimate reward for good deeds) unnatural or doomed to fail?  More importantly, this entire issue seems to bring some unsettling "truths" about human nature to the fore.  Even if we deny that our altruistic acts are really genetically self-interested, we cannot deny that most of our good deeds are performed out of some sort of civic duty or religious reverence and are therefore motivated, at least in part, by the promise of some sort of recompense.  Wright's description of altruism as fundamentally self-serving thus corresponds nicely with the apparently contradictory Christian command to do good and remain modest, leaving us to suspect our every action.  If altruism and the habit of inflating one's reputation really "only exist by virtue of their past contribution to genetic proliferation," and are, in essence, involuntary tendencies designed specifically to increase our offspring, while Christian values of goodness and righteousness are really actions performed in order to reach the promise of the next life, how can we praise (or blame) anything we do (340)?  If we are all motivated by similar forces, with religions like Christianity re-affirming these inclinations, it would seem that we are merely going through the motions and are not really responsible for our actions.  Not only that, but Christianity now appears not as a divine and beautiful covenant of love, but a calculated complement to pre-existing forces, throwing the very notion of spirituality as incorruptible and free of the baseness of human nature asunder and introducing a whole new strain of doubt and suspicion into the values we hold so dear.