Theology and Evolutionary Psychology, Chapter 5: Family Values?

One of the big research areas in evolutionary psychology focuses on cooperative behavior, altruism, and reciprocity. How can these seemingly unselfish behaviors emerge from the selfish Darwinian mechanism of natural selection? How can Nature "red in tooth and claw" produce pro-social behaviors?

There has been tons written on this subject, but today we will focus on kin selection.

Kin selection depends upon the idea of inclusive fitness, first explicated by W.D. Hamilton. Hamilton's breakthrough was due to his analysis of the social insects (e.g., ants, termites). The social insects had been a puzzle since the time of Darwin. Why? Well, many of the workers in social insect colonies are born sterile. They never reproduce. This is puzzling in that if the worker never reproduces its worker DNA never replicates to produce more workers. It would seem that sterile workers would die out very quickly. Yet, there they are. Why?

Well, the answer is this: All the insects are siblings. They are brothers and sisters. This insight prompted Hamilton to propose the idea of inclusive fitness.

Basically, the idea is this: Copies of my genes don't just reside in my own body. Copies of my genes are spread out across all of my genetic relatives.

For example, if I have gene X there is a 50% chance that my brother or sister has this gene as well. What this means is that if a gene emerged that encouraged me to sacrifice on behalf of my family and children that gene would thrive as there is a high probability that across everyone I saved multiple copies of that gene are represented. Thus, although I might die my genes (or copies of the same gene carried in my family) thrive. This is kin selection.

The behavioral implication of kin selection is simple to state: My degree of cooperativeness with a person is directly correlated with our degree of genetic relatedness. (For the technically inclined Hamilton's Rule states that a cooperative action will be performed if C < R x B, where C = Cost of the action to the actor, R = Genetic relatedness between actor and recipient, and B = the benefit to the actor. The point being that if you hold C and B constant and raise R--genetic relatedness--the right side of the equation will outweigh the Cost which leads to cooperative behavior.)

The theological implication for all this is simple: Family is a Darwinian locus. Bluntly, family is selfish (genetically speaking). That is, all the time, love, and effort I spend on family is, from a Darwinian perspective, the epitome of selfishness. I'm simply working to propagate my genes in the gene pool. Family life is in the Darwinian Hall of Fame.

This situation is very ironic given the focus on family in American churches. It really is darkly funny. The people so upset about evolution being taught in schools are the very people touting "family values." It's like denying the reality of the electron while being an electrician.

I point all this out not to be mean or mean-spirited. I'm just trying to educate the Christian witness. To trumpet family values to the larger culture strikes educated critics of Christianity as the height of silliness. Christians would do well to seek another platform.

And I think Jesus would agree with me. One of the embarrassing things about Jesus for the Religious Right is how suspicious Jesus was of family. I think Jesus instinctively knew that family was a Darwinian black hole, sucking up most of our time and resources. As Jesus stated, "What credit is it to you if you greet only your brothers and sisters?" Exactly. Family isn't a moral demonstration.

So what is a moral demonstration? Well, here's one: Adoption. Or being a loving step-parent. Or mentoring an inner city child. Or helping care for impoverished children on other continents.

These are true moral demonstrations. Why? Because we get nothing, Darwinianly speaking, from these actions. According to Hamilton's rule, it's all cost. Which means the act (using a Darwinian calculus) is altruistic.

So, dear Christians, let's downplay Family Values. Maybe we should push for Jesus' Values, where every child of the world is treated as our own.

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23 thoughts on “Theology and Evolutionary Psychology, Chapter 5: Family Values?”

  1. Ok, you've got me interested. Can you recommend some books on this?

    I guess this post was something of a revelation for me, because I had always considered social evolution as separate from biological evolution. Kin selection selecting for self-sacrifice is a fascinating example of the marriage of the two.

  2. I was also thinking about an argument that CS Lewis expounded on that I hear used frequently among my Christian circles. The arument is that common among all humanity, across cultures, is this moral similarity. In no culture, for example, is greed looked favorably on. This moral law therefore moral lawgiver argument is commonly used to argue for God's existence. Perhaps it is better suited to argue for our own existence.

  3. This reminded me (for some reason) of Stanley Hauerwas' ideas around abortion. He says (to paraphrase) that he doesn't think the important question is whether a fetus is a human or not, but the question the Church should be focused on is, how does the Church become a place that welcomes the unwanted?

    Going along with your idea, it seems like often in church we are not focused on the teachings and practices that might move us beyond our biological impulses (loving enemies, forgiving, welcoming the unwanted and marginalized, etc.) or that might help us actualize our loving, self-sacrificial impulses (I'm still not convinced that altruism/self-sacrifice/love [although there is problem equating all of these] can always be boiled down to selfishness).

  4. Richard,

    If we deal relationally with others, the reasons (biological, social, psychological, ethically) can be seen as mixed. The perfect case study is a family reunion: sometimes "red in tooth and claw" and sometimes joyous. Robert Frost's line about home being the place "where they have to take you in" and Jesus' "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—-yes, even his own life—-he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26) can be congruent. But sorting it out isn't without effort and wisdom.
    Darwinian categories may help but not always. They simply should not be rejected out of hand.


    George C.

  5. Pecs,
    A good introduction to evolutionary psychology, although it is getting a bit dated, is Robert Wright's The Moral Animal. I loved the book.

    Ron and George,
    Thinking along with you both, I'd like to add that I'm not arguing that family is BAD, just that it can be self-interested. A locus of temptation. Family is one of the greatest goods. It's just not a moral good or a distinctly Christian good. But it is, clearly, one of the greatest things in life (if functioning properly).

  6. I enjoy Robert Wright's stuff as well, I found "Non-Zero" to be helpful in thinking about the manner in which cooperation can be thought of as an evolutionary adaptive process that doesn't reduce it down to selfishness in ways that Dawkins continues to do (although he is a fun read too...if you can appreciate his rhetorical ninja-ness).

    I appreciate this conversation and these posts Richard. It reminds me that when Jesus tells us to "hate our mother's and father's" (I don't have a bible near me right now, so I hope that is a close paraphrase) he is perhaps not undoing "honor your father and mother" but reminding us of the tension that exists between the two. That is, we can't become too "selfish" in terms of family loyalty that we exclude others. Having worked with pastors in therapy (and noting my own workaholic tendencies in academia), though, I wonder if the other side of the tension is accepting/helping others to the exclusion of your family? So perhaps we can lean too far the other way as well and the goal is finding the practical wisdom in each situation to move between the two tensions?

  7. "These are true moral demonstrations. Why? Because we get nothing, Darwinianly speaking, from these actions. According to Hamilton's rule, it's all cost. Which means the act (using a Darwinian calculus) is altruistic."

    I'm a little confused here.

    If you're playing the evolutionary psychology game, it seems there is no way to propagate a trait that is "all cost". There might be benefits that we don't understand, but things that are "all cost" should simply go away.

  8. Ron,
    I too loved Nonzero. Regarding your point, I hope people don't put family and stranger in tension. What I'd like to see is not loving stranger over family (or visa-versa), but rather see family love as the bedrock incorporating strangers AS family and INTO family: Storge transformed into xenia.

    Cost as in "expense" rather than "deficit." Plus, were using a Darwinian calculus. Take Mother Teresa as an example. She forgoes her own genetic interests (remains celibate) and devotes all her worldly efforts and resources to non-familials. According to Darwin, she just paid the ultimate cost. Thus, her efforts, genetically, were altruistic. Humans are the only know animal that will do this.

  9. Thanks for this reflection Richard. I think something can be similarly in critique of Christian couples who employ fertility treatments because they want "a kid of their own". I deeply empathize with that evolutionary drive, but adoption in a world with so many unwanted and uncared for children is quite clearly the more 'Jesus-ish' (viz. Christian) option.
    Am I wrong?

  10. Regarding your point, I hope people don't put family and stranger in tension. What I'd like to see is not loving stranger over family (or visa-versa), but rather see family love as the bedrock incorporating strangers AS family and INTO family: Storge transformed into xenia.

    I'm with you on this, but let me try to explain what I was trying to say more clearly. Given our biological impulses towards family, I do think we experience Christ's call as a tension. I can't quickly and easily transform strangers into "family"...this takes practice and practices to help with this transformation. While this transformational process is occuring, it might help to hold these two in dialectic tension, allowing one side of the pole to lead and correct tendencies towards the other if need be (hence, Christians who are moving towards others at the exclusion of their own family or Christians who are turning inward toward family to the exculsion of others). I am not thinking that this is a zero-sum game where it is one or the other, but that the move to transcend biological impulse is long, needs concrete practices and practice, and that holding this dialectic in tension while moving to the "synthesis" of an encompassing love that includes the stranger as family in family may be a helpful corrective so that one is not tempted to only make it about one side. I am not sure if this making sense...

  11. Daniel,

    I was just thinking along those lines myself. But why deploy fertility treatments as the line at which you are ethically obligated to adopt? I think you can make pretty convincing arguments against having biological children at all (in this country), simply from the standpoint of choosing to limit consumption in a world with too many people competing for limited resources. While I find this a compelling argument, I'm not sure I'm capable of standing by it, happily.

  12. Ron,

    A chaplain colleague of mine once said: to truly honor father and mother means behaving honorably, not agreeing with them or walking in lockstep with them or being complicit in their less than honorable behaviors.


    George C.

  13. Pecs--while I wasn't thinking this at the time of my original post, I think I would nevertheless stand by it in retrospect with the additional observation that adopting is expensive. Or at least, I've been told that it is. Pregnancy just kinda happens (it's fairly cheap!). But when you start putting loads of money towards fertility treatments... it seems like you might as well be adopting.
    For couples who aren't infertile and don't have loads of money floating around, it may not be best to ask them to adopt. Does that make sense?
    It is somewhat arbitrary, but I'm just trying to paint a picture... not necessarily write the law of the land.

  14. Perfect sense. It is an issue of consumption, I think. Choices of "consumption" (using resources) to the point of fertility treatments are unjust, in that they serve to increase the inequality gap between us and the "have nots." In fact, you could even look at them as being indirectly harmful, because the global population is such that in order for us to have the kinds of lifestyles we have (afford fertility treatments) others have to suffer (there just are not enough resources to go around; some have to go without). What I was trying to say, is that I think you can make the same argument for having biological children at all. Maybe for most people, it is not an ethical issue if you are considering between 0 and 2. But how about between 2 and 10? Having 10 children in this country would probably be considered by most people to be excessive.

  15. Ron,
    I see what you are saying. And, to be honest, I was too quick. It is not easy at all to treat strangers as family. Thus, the reality (which I blew right on by) is one of tension and, often, hard choices.

    Daniel and Pecs,
    Your exchange is fascinating, thought-provoking and challenging. I had not considered the ethical ramifications of all this. I learn so much on this blog.

  16. Richard,

    Living in Boulder, it is hard to not be thinking globally with the choices I make. It is part of the culture here. Something like 10% of the city population bicycles to work every day. Carbon footprints, recycling, and sustainability are the subjects of many conversations around here. I have the local culture to thank in educating me on the global ramifications of my daily choices, and for becoming concerned about the inequality in consumption.

    What I have been thinking lately is that the culture (maybe more so once you get out of the south :)) is way ahead of the church in this respect. The church should be leading the charge in reducing our consumption and living sustainably but that couldn't be farther from the truth. After all, "this world is not my home" so screw walking to work!

    There is a guy I know, in Abilene of all places, who is trying to change this. See this website:
    I am skeptical of his enterprise succeeding in Abilene, but I support any Christians who choose to be on the front lines on this issue.

  17. I don't have time to digest all of this, but I feel the need to add that perhaps, just perhaps, genetics were designed by God as a way to put a part of His image into us? The way you write about the Darwinian emphasis, it does sound selfish.

    And yet God clearly placed some value on having a "begotten" son come into the world to bring about the adoption of all the others.

    Having struggled greatly with childlessness (and being in the process of adopting), I've thought about these things a lot. I don't think I could be convinced that the desire for a "child of one's own" is inherently selfish...though it can certainly become so. As just about any human endeavor can.

  18. In answer to the earlier question of good places to start reading about these ideas, I'll mention several good sources:
    1) W.D. Hamilton's collected papers in the "Narrow Roads of Gene Land" (Vols 1, 2, 3)
    2) Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene"
    3) Robert Axelrod's "The Evolution of Cooperation

  19. Sheila, thanks for your input. I don't think a desire for "one's own" children is intrinsically selfish in a morally reprehensible way. And God certainly has used evolution to give us certain drives (although it seems we got other, less helpful, drives in the process was well--'fallen' drives), and the drive to community (of which the desire to have children is an instance) is certainly quite healthy.
    But I don't think it's too extreme to say that the culture assumes having one's own children is always preferable to adopting someone else's. And while this is how we are wired (and therefore such a desire is understandable), I'm not sure it's particularly consistent with Christian discipleship and self-sacrifice (would adoption be 'seed-sacrifice'?).
    God's shalom to you.

  20. "Thus, her efforts, genetically, were altruistic. Humans are the only know animal that will do this."

    But if you start with evolutionary assumptions, don't you have to suppose that, if this altruism continues to show up in a population, it's because there *is* some genetic value to it?

  21. Pecs,
    Culture often seems to outrun the church. The American civil rights movement comes to mind.

    Good recs. I've not read Hamilton's collected papers, however.

    Daniel, Shelia,
    As I said somewhere (I'm loosing track of everything I've written while keeping track of multiple post threads), I don't want to say family isn't a good or even a God-given good. It's just not a moral good. A good family is like a sunset or chocolate or deep friendship. It is intrinsically rewarding. Yes, we sacrifice for it, but lots of very rewarding things take effort and sacrifice. So let me say loud and clear: A healthy family is one of the greatest of goods, a God-given good. But, as Jesus pointed out, family isn't really a moral demonstration.

    Not necessarily. Memes can ride on top of the genes. For example, the meme of chastity makes no Darwinian sense, it has zero genetic value. But it keeps sticking around. Why? Because memes propagate faster than genes. Like a virus that kills a host but infects someone else before the host dies (which, now that I think about it, is a pretty dark metaphor :-) The point is, altruistic memes can thrive given their speed of propagation. As Richard Dawkins wrote in the Selfish Gene, human culture allows us to overthrow the tyranny of the genes. And if those memes promote altruism, so be it.

  22. So I started off trying to write a comment and ended up writing an essay, which I then decided to post on my blog.

    My only concern is that selfishness in the scientific sense of Darwinian biology is not necessarily the same thing as selfishness in the moral sense of Christianity, especially for those of us who believe that God used evolution as one of his tools in creating.

    Anyways, that is sort of splitting hairs. Good thoughts though.

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