I’m not really sure who Damon Linker is, but this recommendation on his website doesn’t give me a lot of confidence:
Damon Linker is one of the most arresting and honest writers of his generation on the subjects of faith and politics.
And if you Google “Damon Linker”, the second hit you get, after his own website, is a critique I wrote on this site.
Linker clearly doesn’t like me because I make Baby Jesus Cry, and, as you’ll see, he harbors a great deal of love for Jesus. In fact, in his latest piece at The Week, “Why atheism doesn’t have the upper hand over religion,” he gives the Saviour credit for human altruism and for the fact that we humans admire it so much. But what it does is not do is show any advantage of religion over atheism. Rather, Linker proves beyond any doubt that he understands neither evolutionary biology nor science in general.
Linker begins with a gratuitous slap at yours truly, for I supposedly instantiate the philosophical dimwitedness of New Atheism:
In my last column, I examined some of the challenges facing religion today. Those challenges are serious. But that doesn’t mean that atheism has the upper hand. On the contrary, as I’ve argued many times before, atheism in its currently fashionable form is an intellectual sham. As Exhibit 653, I give you Jerry Coyne’s latest diatribe in TheNew Republic, which amounts to a little more than an inadvertent confession that he’s incapable of following a philosophical argument.
My “diatribe” was a critique of David Bentley Hart’s new book, which Linker has promoted furiously as the kind of stuff we New Atheists need to deal with because its Srs Bsns. But if I instantiated intellectual sham, Linker does it in spades, for his piece simply makes a God-of-the-gaps argument for human altruism. This, says Linker, is something that atheism simply can’t explain:
Atheism shouldn’t be wholly identified with the confusions of its weakest exponents any more than we should reduce religious belief to the fulminations of fundamentalists. Yet when it comes to certain issues, the quality of the arguments doesn’t much matter. The fact is that there are specific human experiences that atheism in any form simply cannot explain or account for. One of those experiences is radical sacrifice — and the feelings it elicits in us.
Think of a soldier who throws herself on a live grenade to save her comrades. Or a firefighter who enters a blaze to rescue a child knowing that he will likely perish in the effort.
Or consider Thomas S. Vander Woude, the subject of an unforgettable 2011 article by the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. One day in September 2008, Vander Woude’s 20-year-old son Josie, who has Down syndrome, fell through a broken septic tank cover in their yard. The tank was eight feet deep and filled with sewage. After trying and failing to rescue his son by pulling on his arm from above, Vander Woude jumped into the tank, held his breath, dove under the surface of the waste, and hoisted his son onto his shoulders. Josie was rescued a few minutes later. By then his 66-year-old father was dead.
This is something that any father, atheist or believer, might do for his son. But only the believer can make sense of the deed.
First error: it’s not atheism that has to explain or account for altruism, altruistic feelings, or our approbation of altruism. It’s science that must do that—and sociology (which, properly conducted, is a form of science). For atheism is simply denying belief in Gods. It doesn’t have to explain anything about nature, but only denies that there’s convincing evidence for the divine. Since human morality is surely a joint product of evolution and acculturation, those disciplines are where we should look for clarity.
And, of course, altruism is not a complete mystery to scientists. “True” altruism, in which animals sacrifice their lives (or rather, their reproductive fitness) to help unrelated members of the same species, is vanishingly rare among animals. (Don’t mention vampire bats regurgitating blood to other’s offspring, for that result has not been replicated, and is questionable.) And that’s exactly what you expect under Darwinian individual selection, for no animal could be selected to sacrifice itself without getting some reproductive payback. (The rarity of “true” altruism in nature, by the way, also argues against its production by group selection, for group selection can supposedly overcome the disadvantages of individual altruism if such acts are beneficial for the persistence of the group. But that apparently hasn’t happened, for we see almost no true altruism in nature. In fact, I know of no such cases. In contrast, the way altruism and cooperation play out in human society strongly implicates individual rather than group selection.)
Kin selection is not “true” altruism, for the sacrificing individual gains genetically by saving copies of the gene that promotes sacrificial behavior. If your expected genetic benefit (discounted by the degree of relatedness to those you’re saving) exceeds the genetic cost, then the behavior will evolve. In other words, you’d be willing to voluntarily and certainly sacrifice your life to save more than two children—each of whom shares half your genes. And if your chance of dying (or loss of reproduction) is less than certain, then you’d try to save even one child. This, of course, is the rationale for why parents care more about their own kids than other people’s. And it’s a good explanation for why Thomas Vander Woude would try to save his child. He didn’t know that he would die, he simply had the impulse to try to save his child—something that’s certainly built into us by natural selection.
There are also cases of reciprocal altruism, in which you’ll sacrifice a certain amount because you expect reciprocity from those you help. You might, for instance, share food with others if you have a surfeit, knowing that they’ll remember and reciprocate when it’s your turn to go hungry. That kind of altruism can be shown to evolve in small groups in which individuals recognize and remember each other—precisely the situation that obtained over millions of years of human evolution. So surely some of our altruistic feelings come from evolution acting on individuals in the small groups of our ancestors.
But those instinctive and evolved feelings can also be highjacked, for they rest on certain cues that can be mimicked by other situations. Soldiers, for instance, form bonds with their platoons: it’s not for nothing that they call each other “brother” (i.e., “Band of Brothers.”) In such cases your feeling of solidarity may piggyback on your evolved feelings for either kin or groupmates, and cause you to, say, fall on a grenade, or take horrific chances in wartime to save your “brothers.” Remember, the cue for helping is likely to be familiarity with others, not explicit recognition of a genetic relationship.
Remember the video I showed a few weeks ago of a mother cat suckling a brood of ducklings? Explain that one, atheists! But of course we can: the ducklings happened to be around when the cat, infused with motherly hormones by her own impending litter, was willing to take care of anything. Does that constitute proof of God for Linker? Is it The Argument from Suckling Ducklings? I suppose that the frequent phenomenon of human adoption, something that’s deeply altruistic yet evolutionarily maladaptive, also constitutes evidence for God!
We highjack evolutionary feelings in a maladaptive way all the time. When you don a condom before sex, you are deliberately doing what evolution doesn’t “want” you to do: sacrificing your reproduction. But you’re doing that because you like the cue that evolution has given us to reproduce: the pleasure of the orgasm and the sheer wonderfulness of sex. We don’t impute condoms to God; we impute them to the fact that we’ve evolved to be wily enough to overcome our evolved tendencies: to get the sizzle without the steak.
Finally, as Peter Singer and Steve Pinker have noted, morality can be—and certainly is—culturally inculcated. As we become more and more familiar with other cultures, their inhabitants become more “brotherlike”: we see that we stand in no special moral position with respect to them, and so will help them, especially when it doesn’t cost much. (Really, how much of our reproduction do we sacrifice by giving $100 to Doctors Without Borders?) Therefore we will help them, and our feeling of satisfaction accompanying that help can also be explained either by evolution—reciprocal altruism could depend on a cue of approving of sacrificial acts—or by culture (we’ve learned that people behave better when they are rewarded for sacrifice, and that depends on the approbation of people who see that altruism). In fact, people are more likely to be altruistic when other people are around to see it; “free-riding” (benefitting from other’s sacrifices without paying back) is more common when you can do it undetected.
Linker shows his abysmal ignorance of all this when briefly considering, and then dismissing, the alternative explanations:
Other atheistic theories similarly deny the possibility of genuine altruism, reject the possibility of free will, or else, like some forms of evolutionary psychology, posit that when people sacrifice themselves for others (especially, as in the Vander Woude case, for their offspring) they do so in order to strengthen kinship ties, and in so doing maximize the spread of their genes throughout the gene pool.
But of course, as someone with Down syndrome, Vander Woude’s son is probably sterile and possesses defective genes that, judged from a purely evolutionary standpoint, deserve to die off anyway. So Vander Woude’s sacrifice of himself seems to make him, once again, a fool.
Things are no better in less extreme cases. If Josie were a genius, his father’s sacrifice might be partially explicable in evolutionary terms — as an act designed to ensure that his own and his son’s genes survive and live on beyond them both. But the egoistic explanation would drain the act of its nobility, which is precisely what needs to be explained.
We feel moved by Vander Woude’s sacrifice precisely because it seems selfless — the antithesis of evolutionary self-interestedness.
Oh, my dear Mr. Linker, we save our children based on inborn impulses that just say “save your kids”. Those impulses don’t include a brain module that says “but first make sure your kid isn’t sterile, and it would help if he were a genius.” In the same way, putting on a condom doesn’t eliminate the possibility of having an orgasm. It’s the cue that’s important—whatever cue evolved over 6 million years to guarantee an evolutionarily beneficial result. And over those six million years, the chances that a child would one day be fertile were very high.
And yes, we feel moved by that sacrifice, but, as I’ve said, the emotions of approbation for sacrifice can also be explained in both evolutionary and cultural terms. Culture, by the way, is surely an important source of moral feelings. As developmental psychologist Paul Bloom explains in his recent book, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil (recommended), babies start off being pretty selfish towards strangers and then must be taught to help others. As I wrote about Bloom’s views when I reviewed his book:
The empathy that seems inherent in “human nature” is directed only towards those the infants are familiar with, like family. It is not directed at strangers. In fact, infants are spiteful little things, and do not like even equality with strangers. They will, for example, prefer to have one cookie while another infant nearby gets none, over the alternative where both infants get two cookies. In other words, infants sacrifice their own well-being just to affirm their superiority in the acquisition of goods. Several other studies show the same thing. Infants are empathic but not altruistic.
Bloom argues, then, that the altruism comes from education, an argument also made by Peter Singer in his superb book The Expanding Circle. I quote Bloom:
“And so there is no support for the view that a transcendent moral kindness is part of our nature. Now, I don’t doubt that many adults, in the here and now, are capable of agape.
. . . When you bring together these observations about adults with the findings from babies and young children, the conclusion is clear: We have an enhanced morality but it is the product of culture, not biology. Indeed, there might be little difference in the moral life of a human baby and a chimpanzee; we are creatures of Charles Darwin, not C.S. Lewis.”
Of course Linker has his alternative theory: altruism comes from God, and it’s instilled in us divinely by the Christian God. I am not making up this conclusion from his piece:
What is it about the story of a man who willingly embraces a revolting, horrifying death in order to save his son that moves us to tears? Why does it seem somehow, like a beautiful painting or piece of music, a fleeting glimpse of perfection in an imperfect world?
I’d say that only theism offers an adequate explanation — and that Christianity might do the best job of all.
Christianity teaches that the creator of the universe became incarnate as a human being, taught humanity (through carefully constructed lessons and examples of his own behavior) how to become like God, and then allowed himself to be unjustly tried, convicted, punished, and killed in the most painful and humiliating manner possible — all as an act of gratuitous love for the very people who did the deed.
Why does Vander Woude’s act of sacrifice move us? Maybe because in freely dying for his son, he gives us a fleeting glimpse of the love that moves the sun and the other stars.
Which is to say, he gives us a fleeting glimpse of God.
That might sound outlandish to atheists. But for my money, it comes closer to the truth, and does more to explain the otherwise irreducibly mysterious experience of noble sacrifice than any competing account.
Don’t buy it? I dare you to come up with something better.
I just did in the post above, Mr. Linker. And your theory doesn’t explain altruism in non-Christians, does it?
To close, I’ll simply repeat the words of Linker’s hero, David Bentley Hart:
If my salad at lunch were suddenly to deliver itself of such an opinion, my only thought would be “What a very stupid salad.”