Did the Altruistic "Snuggle for Survival" Help Humans Evolve?

From the first cells to humans, the evolution of life has been a “snuggle for survival,” says Harvard professor Martin Nowak.

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If “survival of the fittest” seems harsh, if animal documentaries “red in tooth and claw”1 make you queasy, if you have trouble reconciling Darwinian evolution with social ethics—Harvard’s director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, Martin Nowak, can ease your pain. A feature on the “Evolution of Cooperation” in the July 2012 Scientific American explains, “People tend to think of evolution as a strictly dog-eat-dog struggle for survival. In fact, cooperation has been a driving force in evolution.”

But wait, aren’t “the secrets of evolution death and time”?2 Well, yes, that too. But Martin Nowak has worked out mathematically that “looking out for number one” sometimes means looking out for your neighbor. And though humans are pros at self-serving cooperation, Nowak is convinced cooperation has been a universal driving force at every level of complexity in evolutionary history from genes to us.

“This universality suggests that cooperation has been a driving force in the evolution of life on earth from the beginning,” Nowak explains. “Moreover, there is one group in which the effects of cooperation have proved especially profound: humans. Millions of years of evolution transformed a slow, defenseless ape into the most influential creature on the planet, a species capable of inventing a mind-boggling array of technologies that have allowed our kind to plumb the depths of the ocean, explore outer space and broadcast our achievements to the world in an instant. We have accomplished these monumental feats by working together. Indeed, humans are the most cooperative species—supercooperators, if you will.”

This universality suggests that cooperation has been a driving force in the evolution of life on earth from the beginning.

Nowak presents several scenarios illustrating ways individuals practically work out when the most personally advantageous action involves helping another. “Direct reciprocity” is the idea that helping another may get you some help in return. In other instances, individuals—whether yeast cells or people—may ally to out-compete unallied individuals, making those inclined toward alliances more likely to survive and reproduce.

“Kin selection” offers one of “the most immediately intuitive mechanisms for the evolution of selflessness.” Kin selection is based on the idea that “individuals make sacrifices for their relatives because those relatives share their genes. Thus, although one may be reducing one’s own reproductive fitness by assisting a relative in need, one is still fostering the spread of those genes the helper shares.” But Nowak contends kin selection doesn’t fully explain altruism.3

“Group selection” goes beyond kin selection. For instance, “indirect reciprocity” involves helping in hope of gaining a reputation as a valuable member of the group so that the helper will himself be helped another day. Nowak invokes Darwin to validate “group selection,” quoting from Darwin’s 1871 book The Descent of Man: “a tribe including many members who … were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.”

Nowak admits, “Biologists have … argued fiercely over this idea that natural selection can favor cooperation to improve the reproductive potential of the group.” (Next week News to Note will explore the latest battle in this controversy.) Nevertheless, Nowak is confident the proof is in the math. “Mathematical modeling by researchers, including me,” he says, “has helped show that selection can operate at multiple levels, from individual genes to groups of related individuals to entire species.”

And what enables humans to be “supercooperators”? Language. “Only humans have full-blown language,” Nowak explains, “which allows us to share information about everyone.”

Nowak bases his authoritative pronouncements on the mathematics of game theory. Using game theory he simulates how individuals make decisions. As participants suffer the ill effects of blatantly selfish choices and benefit from more cooperative decisions, they eventually trend toward the cooperative.

Periods of cooperative prosperity inevitably give way to defective [uncooperative] doom. And yet the altruistic spirit always seems to rebuild itself; our moral compasses somehow realign.

Humans don’t behave in a random fashion, of course. Nowak notes people are more likely to be generous when they are being watched and more likely to cooperate when convinced of the right-ness of what they’re being asked to do. Nowak closes on a “hopeful” note: “Evolutionary simulations indicate that cooperation is intrinsically unstable; periods of cooperative prosperity inevitably give way to defective [uncooperative] doom. And yet the altruistic spirit always seems to rebuild itself; our moral compasses somehow realign.”

Evolutionary dogma is an attempt to explain life without God. But mathematical simulations and psychological scenarios based on selective probabilities and human nature do not constitute proof of an unobservable evolutionary past. No amount of cooperation between cells can create new information to build multicellular organisms. Neither can observations of the “good” and “bad” sides of human nature truly explain how it got that way.

Evolutionists can invoke the tooth-and-claw survival-of-the-fittest bit to explain the evil side of human nature. But most people don’t like to think of themselves as bad. Like Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) said in the movie by the same name, “No man alive likes to be called high-smelling and low-down.”4 Nowak’s kinder, gentler evolutionary dogma—bearing the appearance of authority accorded to anything mathematical—attempts to use evolution to explain human nature’s “good side.”

How do we know cooperation is “good”? How do we know anything is “good”? From Nowak’s point of view, cooperation—our “altruistic spirit,” our “moral compass”—is desirable because it promotes survival and human progress.

God Himself, the Creator against whom man originally rebelled, tells the real story of how man’s selfish nature came to be in Genesis chapter 3. And as to the “good side” of human nature—according to God’s standards, “There is none who does good, no not one” (Romans 3:12). Compared to God, no person succeeds at being good. Compared to God, every person on his best day is guilty of tainted motives and sins for which no good deeds can atone.

In fact, only God—the Creator of mankind—can actually define what is “good.” Without the authoritative standard God provides in His Word, pronouncements about morality and goodness are the opinions of sinful fallible people, often distorting the conscience—the “moral compass”—that according to Romans 2:14–15 God has placed in us. God our Creator tells us the truth about ourselves. We are all sinners (Romans 3:23). And the underlying selfishness Nowak’s game theory demonstrates is a symptom of man’s sinful nature, not the producer of his moral one.

Nowak said linguistic ability enables humans to cooperate effectively. How true! Language—a gift from God—has enabled cooperating humans to accomplish much. The historical account of the Tower of Babel demonstrates this truth. A common language (Genesis 11:1) enabled post-Flood generations to cooperate in their rebellion against God. Their common language enabled them to be “supercooperators”! As recorded in Genesis 11:6, God said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.” And so God, to prevent them from cooperating to accomplish even greater evil, confused their language.

Mathematical descriptions of human nature cannot explain human nature. And self-serving selflessness cannot save us. God’s Word tells us the true history of our past, the real origin of human society, the truth about our sinful nature, the genuine consequences of our rebellion against Him, and—most important of all—the only solution to the problems of guilt, suffering, and death—not good works, but the grace of Jesus Christ.

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  1. Quoted in “Why We Help,” this phrase comes to us through the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson who used it in his elegy In Memoriam A. H. H., 1850 to describe the apparent conflict between our loving God and the suffering seen in the world around us. Canto 56 describes the man
    Who trusted God was love indeed
    And love Creation’s final law
    Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
    With ravine, shriek’d against his creed.
    The Bible makes it clear that God created the world “very good” (Genesis 1:31), that man’s sin brought the curse of suffering (Romans 8:20–24) and death (Romans 5:12) into the world, and that the love of God through Jesus Christ is the solution (Romans 5:14–21) to the problems mankind has created for himself and for the world.
  2. Carl Sagan wrote, “The secrets of evolution are death and time—the deaths of enormous numbers of lifeforms that were imperfectly adapted to the environment; and time for a long succession of small mutations that were by accident adaptive, time for the slow accumulation of patterns of favorable mutations.” from Sagan, Carl. 1980. Cosmos, p. 30. New York: Random House.
  3. NewScientist: “Cooperative Robots Obey Evolutionary Law” discusses a simulation other evolutionists designed to prove “kin selection theory always accurately predicts the minimum relatedness necessary for altruism to evolve,” the evolutionary position contrary to Nowak’s evolutionary position.
  4. Rooster Cogburn, Universal Pictures, 1975.


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