The scriptures are clear - nothing is more important than love

Reciprocity, kin selection and group selection under the microscope in the hope of finding convergence on love. Photo: David Hoffman/

WASHINGTON, June 11, 2012 — “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

As almost two centuries of scientific enquiry have shown, biology struggles with the concept of love because it is a self-sacrificing trait and natural selection does not appear to be able to foster genuine selfless behavior.

Science seeks to account for the anomaly of the existence of love through reliance on the concepts of reciprocity, kin and group selection. Through the prisms of these theories, any behavior that appears to be selfless or altruistic is seen to be selfish, ultimately performed in the interests of propagating one’s genes. 

If correct, this view would have the effect of stripping love and selfless behavior of any moral authority. Religion and science disagree on many points, but this I suggest, right here, is the great impasse.

Because reciprocity, kin and group selection underpin the divide it is worth briefly explaining them – not in order to further them – but so we can be informed in our task of finding convergence. 

Looking at reciprocity first: ‘reciprocal altruism’ was a concept introduced by the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers in 1971. He suggested it is an evolutionary strategy where the gene has learnt that by deferring immediate gains it comes out ahead because of the benefits it receives from future reciprocations given to it by others. Trivers uses ‘reciprocal altruism’ to explain the existence of such apparently non-selfish phenomena as friendship, gratitude, trustworthiness etc.

The second of the triumvirate, ‘kin selection’, is an idea that was introduced by Darwin and much elaborated by those who followed. In it, altruistic behavior is attributed to the gene furthering its own interests by protecting duplicates of itself in the individuals’ offspring or kin. 

Mathematical rigor was added to the concept of ‘kin selection’ in the 1930s, as embodied in the remark attributed to the British geneticist (and general rogue) JBS Haldane that he would “lay down his life for two brothers or eight cousins”; thus formulating the metrics of an exchange by which the gene would benefit through kin selection.  

The last of the three, ‘group selection’, is the one currently making the headlines. It isn’t a new theory by any means, but it had fallen out of favor for various reasons. Its resurgence owes much to the work of two Wilsons: David Sloan Wilson, and EO Wilson, and in particular EO’s latest book The Social Conquest of Earth (2012). 

The theory of ‘group selection’ holds that the unit of selection upon which natural selection operates – normally thought to be the gene – will on occasions be the group, be it a species, a tribe, a community, or even a country. Altruism is explained away within this context because its existence within individuals within the group is said to make the group fitter as a whole, thus indirectly ensuring its survival as a trait within those individuals. 

If that is a précis of the three pre-eminent theories on the issue, then last year the status quo between them was upset by EO Wilson’s announcement that kin selection was no longer his mechanism of choice. Some 150 of the world’s leading biologists took issue with Wilson, including signing a letter of protest that was published in the renowned Nature magazine. Personally, I am alarmed at the level of the debate. The issue should be that science is robbing Religion of its moral authority, not how it is doing it. 

There are, of course, easy ways out of this problem, such as adopting Stephen Jay Gould’s view that science and Religion are “non-overlapping Magisteria”. But I don’t believe they are non-overlapping.  I believe in convergence, and agree with the words of the geneticist and Christian, Francis Collins, that “these views can be rendered into a very satisfying harmony.”

But if science and Religion are to come together, the question I ask is how is it to be done when most of science seems interested only in refining the reasons why it can’t be done. My great faith is that the seeds of convergence might be found on the fringes of conventional thought, where all ingenious thinking seems to germinate. 

Mate selection is one such theory that deserves to be in the mainstream. In 1975 the biologist Amotz Zahavi put forward the ‘handicap principle’ which provided a mechanism by which altruism might become a target of mate selection. Recent developments in game theory are giving Zahavi’s theory new impetus. On a similar road is zoologist Jeremy Griffith’s 1991 ‘love indoctrination’ thesis which took a teleological path to the study of love and selfless behavior. Through the study of chimps, Griffith postulated that altruism became instilled in the human species through maternalism in conjunction with an extended infancy. 

However, my personal favorite is probably John Hurrell Crook’s 1980 idea that consciousness allows us to ‘stand in others shoes’ as it were. This ability to identify with others, he suggests, may cause us to help them as if they were ourselves. The burgeoning field of neuroscience is bringing the question of consciousness back to the forefront of - dare I say – public consciousness; which means this theory should receive the attention it deserves. 

That is probably enough depth at this time - this post is long enough! Suffice to say that the existence of these theories is enough to give me hope that science will yet reinforce the supreme importance of love rather than undermining it. Having that hope is important because it means that we have don’t have to abandon science – we just have to accept it as a work in progress!

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Jasper Macmasters

Jasper seeks to make sense of the human condition from wherever truth and knowledge can be found. He is guided by the words of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who said “The discovery of truth is prevented most effectively, not by the false appearance things present which mislead into error, nor directly by weakness of the reasoning powers, but by preconceived opinion, by prejudice, which as a pseudo a priori stands in the path of truth and is then like a contrary wind driving a ship away from land, so that sail and rudder labour in vain.”

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