Science Ch.22 - Where Does Altruism Come From?

Acts of kindness and self-sacrificial heroism occur in all populations. Are they signs of divine action in someone’s life, or are they simply normal traits that we should expect to find in humans?

When disasters such as fires, earthquakes, or tsunamis strike, we often see the best side of humanity. People rush in to rescue complete strangers, spending hours carefully clearing rubble to find victims or flying to dangerous situations just to help those who are suffering. They don’t do this for fame or fortune, and their own families gain nothing. Sometimes groups are organized by churches and other religions, but the volunteers are just as likely to have no active faith or even be militant atheists. So what motivates us to do good?

       The Bible can be interpreted as saying that humans are incapable of doing good without God’s help and motivation, and that he gave us laws to make sure we recognize our sinfulness. Another interpretation is that we can do some good, and that God’s laws are to encourage and educate us to do better, though this goodness is never enough to undo our sin. Which is right? Are we capable of doing good without God’s help?

       The Bible is realistic about humans right from the start; none of us have ever been faultless. Even when humans were in the perfect environment of Eden, without any provocation or needs, they had the inclination to break rules. We can recognize ourselves in the account of Adam and Eve; we, too, would end up ignoring the prohibition not to eat from the forbidden tree – either because we were curious or we wanted self-advancement, or simply because it was a challenge.

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All have sinned

The rest of the Old Testament confirms that humans repeatedly ruin their lives and the lives of others by breaking moral codes and rules of law; and the New Testament presents the theological conclusion: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” because we are “slaves to sin” who are merely “gratifying the cravings of our flesh” (Rom 3:23; 6:20; Eph 2:3).

       Some theological systems take this further, almost to the point of saying that humans can’t do anything that is really good. This is a common interpretation of the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. Strictly speaking, though, Calvinism doesn’t entail the idea that humans are incapable of doing good. This theology says only that they are incapable of deciding by themselves to repent of their wrongs and turn to God because every part of them, including their minds, is affected by sin.

       The existence of altruistic and other “good” behavior toward strangers is sometimes used as proof that God’s goodness affects humans, because a purely evolutionary approach would predict that you only help those who are genetically related to you.1 This is confirmed somewhat by animal studies. For example, red squirrels will sometimes adopt a baby squirrel if the mother has been killed by a predator, but researchers found they had to be somewhat related to the mother.2 This is similar to the way that people are more likely to help each other if they can find some commonality – such as being from the same ethnic group or religion.

       However, it is nevertheless true that most people will naturally help someone whether or not they are related. This suggests there is a biological basis for this apparent natural goodness.

Human cooperation and God’s law

Recently some interesting work in the field of anthropology has helped to explain how morality can naturally arise in a human population.3 It suggests that the need for cooperation in times of food shortages means that individuals who are good at teamwork and collaboration with others are more likely to survive and have children than loners who try to find food on their own. Since we inherit a lot of characteristics, such as extroversion and introversion, we are also likely to inherit the tendency to cooperate. Therefore, most of us are descended from those who were good at cooperating with people who weren’t necessarily part of their family, because they were the ones who survived disasters such as famines.

       If someone loses the trust of others, perhaps by stealing more than their share from the food store, they will be expelled from their community, so they are less likely to have any descendants. However, if they then show contrition and convince the others that they won’t do it again, they may be readmitted and survive. So another characteristic we are likely to inherit is a sense of guilt and the wish to be reconciled with people we have hurt. This is a possible start to what we might now regard as a moral code, along with concepts of remorse and restitution.

       This theory makes sense as an origin for human morality and the capability and desire to do good deeds toward others. In early history, humans needed to work with each other in order to successfully hunt wild animals such as aurochs – an ancestor of the cow that was as large and agile as a horse but as dangerous as a rhinoceros.4 If we are descended from people who successfully worked in teams, this could explain why it seems more exciting to achieve something alongside others rather than just by ourselves. It’s true that we get a sense of gratification from completing something on our own, but that is very different from the high-fives and whoops of mutual congratulation that greet the completion of a difficult task by a team. That most of us prefer to work in groups and get lonely on our own might suggest that we are mainly descended from those who did cooperate rather than from the loners, whose family line tended to die out in famines.

       If our morals do spring from our need to cooperate, we’d expect them to be universal – the need for moralists to teach them to “uncivilized” societies would simply not exist. Indeed, Christians who have tried to convert Native Americans and Māoris found that they already knew that theft, adultery, and greed were wrong. In fact, the “natives” were also sometimes surprisingly altruistic – willing to share their meager food with missionaries who had come unprepared – though, of course, many others were not so welcoming. These missionaries had to learn that preaching the gospel was not about civilizing and teaching morality, but teaching about Jesus, who had a cure for sin.

       But if human goodness can arise simply by a history of cooperation, what part does God’s law and his guidance play in our lives?

       I think it is significant that the first home given to humans in the Bible was a garden, in which the first pair were told to cooperate by tending it together. Subsequently, God gave the Israelites laws forbidding murder, theft, or even coveting what belongs to your neighbor. These laws also encouraged cooperation because you are much more likely to trust someone if they don’t lie or steal from you. Jesus later internalized these laws by turning them into attitudes. Instead of outlawing murder and theft, Jesus said we should not hate or retaliate when wronged, and we should show love even to our enemies (Exod 20; Matt 5). Jesus therefore turned laws into a morality that helps to hold society together.

       Paul said that the purpose of the law was not only to inform us what is right and wrong, but also to tell us that we are bad and not righteous (Rom 3:19-20). But they also had another purpose: to help us improve, and become a better person than when we started. We inherit a sinful nature that tempts us to commit acts such as adultery, lying, or stealing for our own benefit, but God wants to help us overcome that tendency and to grow in virtue. The Old Testament was only able to list the offenses that God wanted us to try to avoid, but the New Testament tells of a new power that will help us succeed – the indwelling Holy Spirit. The process of sanctification – making us as holy as the Holy Spirit within us – becomes the goal and purpose of life for someone deciding to follow Jesus.

Natural goodness

If our tendency to cooperate and help others is inherited, then some people have a head start on being “good.” Some individuals are born with naturally “good” characteristics, in that they are innately empathic and willing to work together with and help others. Other individuals are born with unhelpful or difficult characteristics such as selfishly caring only for their own needs and wants. Although they accept the help of others, they rarely reciprocate unless they think they will gain by doing so.

       A few individuals are born with “bad” characteristics that lead to antisocial behavior. This might range from committing acts of theft and damage, without any regard for the harm they cause, to deliberate cruelty in order to feel superior to others. Not many are born like this because, in the past, the family line of such individuals tended to die out. Being born with these “bad” traits doesn’t excuse anyone for immoral behavior, but we should be aware that some people find it harder than others to be “good.”

       Whatever characteristics we are born with, we can change for the better. Those with bad traits can overcome them, and those who naturally do beneficial things can become even better. This is the process of sanctification for a Christian.

       Theologically speaking, all types of people are sinners, whether they are naturally cooperative or naturally selfish, because no one is perfect. The Bible presents the apparently harsh conclusion that everyone is destined for hell, whether they are good or bad, unless they repent and turn to follow God. This seems unfair until we take on board the conclusion from social anthropology that we have inherited a lot of our morality. If God judged us by how much good or evil we did, some of us would be disadvantaged because we were born with a stronger inclination to be selfish, violent, or sexually promiscuous. The Bible implies that God is not interested in our natural goodness or badness, but is only interested in our repentance and willingness to let his Holy Spirit transform us.

       This process of sanctification can transform us into someone more Christlike, but it won’t have the same end result for everyone in this lifetime because we don’t all start from the same point. Someone with a psychopathic personality who takes up charity work has clearly had his life totally transformed. If that same level of change were applied to the respectable people he works with who were born naturally empathic and “nice,” they would be transformed into absolute saints. In other words, you can’t tell from the outside who has allowed themselves to be transformed the most.

       None of us are born “good” in God’s eyes, but as a society we regard some people as better than others. God sees the potential in us all and gives us a target to aim for. The direction and distance that we travel in God’s strength is much more important than what we actually achieve in this life because in the end, when Christ appears, all those who follow Jesus will become like him (1 John 3:2). In the meantime, we each need to strive to let the Holy Spirit transform us into better people than when we first started. And, importantly, we need to do that without judging those who have had a greater handicap in that goal.


• Atheists also volunteer to help when disaster strikes, so goodness in humans isn’t always divinely empowered.
• Anthropological studies suggest morality and selflessness are traits that would naturally arise due to the survival value of cooperative behavior.
• We can inherit a propensity to these good characteristics and also to bad character traits such as violence and selfishness.
• Proposal: Sanctification of a believer involves the Holy Spirit making us more Christlike, but some have a head start, so we should not look down on those who have traveled along a harder and steeper road.

1^ E.g., Brad Harrub, “Altruism and Evolution,” Apologetics Press: Reason & Revelation (April 2005) (
2^ See Brian Murphy, “Red Squirrels: Altruists or Self-Serving Survivalists?,” EurekAlert, June 2, 2010 (
3^ A good review of the following ideas is in Jonathan Birch, “Book Review: Michael Tomasello // A Natural History of Human Morality,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (2017) (
4^ See Wikipedia, “Aurochs” (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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