While driving to Davis for a meeting earlier this week, I happened to hear part of a show on NPR about altruism. The show began with a quote from noted geneticist and atheist Richard Dawkins, which illuminated the brutal nature of the natural world.The quote reads, in part:
The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.
This quote is from The River of Eden, and you can find the entire quote here. And, given what I know of evolution by natural selection, this seems true to me. In essence, a population will expand until it outstrips the resources available to it, at which point starvation and conflict for resources will set in.
We human beings are subject to natural selection, of course, so we are subject to the same issue: population expanding until we run out of resources. On a social scale, of course, this means poverty, homelessness, suffering, all that.
As a Christian, I can’t help but think about this. I don’t intend to use this platform to prove that God exists; either you believe already or you don’t. And I also don’t intend to convert you to Christianity; either you are a Christian already or you aren’t. This is just me, pondering how this explanation of natural selection and suffering ties in with my own faith.
Any approach to the problem of suffering from a Christian perspective includes at least a nod to the Book of Genesis, where suffering is said to have its origin in mankind’s willful disobedience to God. I’ve never been one to think of Genesis as a literal document; I don’t believe that the Garden of Eden literally existed, and I’m not certain we can think of the Fall as an actual historical event. Rather, I like to think that the scribes of Genesis used mythological imagery — perhaps even imagery that they borrowed from neighboring peoples — to explain to themselves some fundamental facts about the universe: that we exist, that God exists, and that there is a fundamental disconnect between us and God.
So, given: There’s a lot of poverty, suffering, homelessness, and so on in the world. I’m not trying to develop an answer to the question of why God allows this suffering; I’m just taking it as given, and accepting that natural selection suggests it must be so.
And here’s where I think the ancient scribes of Genesis were really on to something. As human beings, we seem unique in our ability to actually recognize suffering, and to respond in a positive way to it. To be sure, naturalists have observed altruism in other species, but I think humanity is still the record holder in our ability to respond to suffering of others, not just in our own local gene pool but outside of it as well.
Now, in the Gospels, Jesus taught us that the primary commandments are to love God, and to love one another. We are commanded to feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, help the poor, and so on; love is shown through sacrifice of our resources, our time, and ourselves. God’s love for us was great enough that he was willing to sacrifice His son, after all. I conclude, then, that to love to the point of sacrifice is what brings us closer to the divine image of God.
So, whenever we give of ourselves to the poor, the weak, the homeless, and so on, we are turning toward God. And whenever we refuse to do so, or when we tear down the institutions that do, we are doing exactly the opposite.