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The War of All Against All

Evolution and Altruism


In the new novel The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, an unnamed catastrophe has wiped out most of humanity. What remains is a colorless, lifeless shell where “long lines of charred and rusting cars,” filled with incinerated corpses, sit “in a stiff gray sludge of melted rubber.”

The survivors find themselves living in what Thomas Hobbes called “the war of all against all”: scrounging for food while avoiding their fellow men, many of whom have turned to cannibalism.

Among the survivors are the unnamed protagonists of the novel: a man and his 10-year-old son who was born after the catastrophe. As the father tells his son, “I was appointed by God to [take care of you]. I will kill anyone who touches you.” At the same time, he wants to preserve his son’s goodness, which is next-to-impossible in this post-apocalyptic wasteland. In the novel’s world, the boy’s survival depends on his father eradicating his altruistic impulses. The man must teach his son that being willing to “give that little boy half of my food” is a bad idea.

McCarthy’s protagonist isn’t the only one who has trouble reconciling our survival instinct with our capacity for altruism. As the philosopher David Stove pointed out, altruism—the willingness, that is, to sacrifice for others—is obviously disadvantageous in what Darwin called “the struggle for life.” In a world where the goal is to pass on your selfish gene, helping someone else pass on theirs makes no sense.

While Darwin himself never acknowledged the difficulty posed by altruism, his acolytes and disciples did. Their responses led to the creation of the discipline known variously as “evolutionary psychology” or “sociobiology.”

Whatever it’s called, the evolutionary “explanation” for altruism is basically the same: It’s really selfishness in disguise. When the son offers to give away half of his food, it’s not goodness—it’s a kind of enlightened self-interest. We do what we perceive as “good” for others so that they, in turn, might do the same for us and, thus, increase both of our chances for survival.

Of course, the transaction being described isn’t “altruism” at all; it’s called “cooperation.” It’s the stuff of zebras and baboons, both of which live in large groups for mutual protection and neither of which would knowingly sacrifice its life to save another’s.

But in the Darwinian scheme, true altruism “has no place in nature.” When you start from the assumption that our behavior is the product of “selfish genes,” then you must agree with the sociobiologist who wrote “scratch an ‘altruist’ and watch a hypocrite bleed.”

Little wonder that Stove called Darwinism, especially sociobiology, a “ridiculous slander on human beings.” Darwinism not only cannot account for what is most essentially human—that is, things like altruism and music—it insists on denigrating them, as well.

In contrast, Christians understand that while we are born with the capacity for selfishness and even cruelty, we are also capable of caring for others. Because we are created in the image of God, we not only don’t have to be at war with our neighbors, we can willingly die for them, as well.

For Further Reading and Information

Apply today for the 2007 Centurions Program and study Biblical worldview for a year with Chuck Colson! Deadline for applications is this week!—November 30.

Ron Charles, “Apocalypse Now,” Washington Post Book World, 1 October 2006, BW06.

Roberto Rivera, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It,” The Point, 20 October 2006.

Paul Mitchell, “Free Will and Destiny: The Theological Foundations of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy,” BreakPoint Online, 31 May 2002.

BreakPoint Commentary No. 060823, “Of Rats and Men: Darwinian Fairytales.”

BreakPoint Commentary No. 061009, “So Easy a Caveman Can Do It: Music and the Human Soul.”

BreakPoint Commentary No. 021230, “So Close . . . So Far: The Blank Slate and Human Nature.”

Regis Nicoll, “Materialism’s Unsolved Mystery,” BreakPoint Online, 23 June 2006.