Monday, June 25, 2007

Recent Column: Can you choose to help? Or are you simply spreading your selfish genes?

(Note: This column won an Award of Merit at Write Canada 2007. It was originally published in Maranatha News, June 2006.)

by Denyse O'Leary

Canadian Andrew Brash, a Calgary resident, was only a few hundred steps from his dream the summit of Mount Everest. Then, he saw something that made him turn aside.

Australian mountaineer, Lincoln Hall, was sitting on the ridge in a thin shirt, with no hat or gloves. His guides had left him for dead and, his hands nearly frozen, he was trying to jump over a cliff. Brash prevented him from jumping and thus saved his life. But Brash did not think of himself as a hero, even though days before, a group of 40 climbers had not stopped to help a Briton dying on the mountainside.

If all this sounds a bit like the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30 37), maybe that is because life imitates not merely art but prophecy. In every age, there are those who help, at a cost to themselves and those who don't.

Helping at risk to oneself is not new. When the Air France Airbus crashed in Toronto on August 2, 2005, a number of motorists helped passengers to safety. Similarly, on November 6, 2005, Grandmother Rosalia DeSantis was travelling home on the subway and, feeling hot and dizzy, she leaned over the edge of the platform . Later, in Sunnybrook Hospital's emergency ward, she learned what had happened to her. She had fainted, hit her head, fallen into the gap, and was lying across a track bleeding. The train was coming into the station in seconds.

How had she survived? Two men who knew neither her nor each other Theo Parusis, 25, and Alvaro Meija, 26 jumped down onto the track and hoisted her up to safety, five seconds before the train rolled over the spot.

One thing I learned while writing By Design or by Chance? (2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy and while co-authoring The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007) is that materialistic philosophy has a hard time accounting for altruism. The most fashionable theory today argues that you do not act to benefit others because you think God wants you to but in order to spread your selfish genes, as a product of evolution. Thus, you might help your own relatives, because they have some identical genes with you. Therefore helping your relatives spreads at least some of your genes. But you are unlikely to help people who do not share genes with you. The famous evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane put it this way, "Would I lay down my life to save my brother? No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins."

The main problem with the materialistic theory expressed by Haldane is not that it offends religious believers but that it ignores the evidence. The evidence is that people often help unrelated others in situations where they cannot expect any reward, may suffer a disappointment or undergo a serious risk, and have no reason to think that they will spread their genes. This is only a small part of the growing conflict between Christianity and Darwinism that I have been tracking for a number of years now. It is certainly a far cry from "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13, NIV) and " while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom 5:7 8 ). These sayings do not even mention relatives. Jesus died both for friends and for non-friends. No wonder there are growing worldview conflicts.

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), anoverview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.

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