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Darwin pointed the way to an unselfish evolution

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It is ironic that Darwin’s disciples tend to be antireligious, because Darwin himself gave us one of the great arguments for religion. It’s a story worth telling because it is so little understood.

It began with a paradox that Darwin noticed at the heart of his system. If evolution is the struggle to survive, if life is a competition for scarce resources, if the strong win and the weak go to the wall, then ruthlessness should prevail. But it doesn’t. All societies value altruism. People esteem those who make sacrifices for others. This, in Darwinian terms, does not seem to make sense at all, and he knew it.

The bravest, most sacrificial people, he wrote in The Descent of Man, “would on average perish in larger number than other men”. A noble man “would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature”. It seems scarcely possible, he wrote, that virtue “could be increased through natural selection, that is, by survival of the fittest”.

It was Darwin’s greatness that he saw the answer, even though it contradicted his general thesis. Natural selection operates at the level of the individual. It is as individual men and women that we pass on our genes to the next generation. But civilisation works at the level of the group.

As he put it, “a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection”. How to get from the individual to the group was, he said, “at present much too difficult to be solved.”

But that of course is precisely the function of religion. God is the voice of the other within the self. It is God who taught us to love our neighbours as ourselves, to welcome the stranger, care for the poor, the widow and the orphan, heed the unheeded, feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, and temper justice with compassion. Nietzsche, Darwin’s younger contemporary, saw most clearly how unnatural these things are. Nature is the will to power. Faith, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, is care for the powerless.

Without fully realising what he had done, Darwin was pointing us to the central drama of civilisation. Biological evolution favours individuals, but cultural evolution favours groups. So, as Judaism and Christianity both knew, there is a war within each of us as to which will prevail: self-regard or concern for others, egoism or altruism. Selfishness is advantageous to individuals, but disastrous to groups, and it is only as members of a group that we can survive at all. As Darwin himself put it, “Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected.”

There are three ways of getting individuals to act in a way that is beneficial to the group. One is power: we force them to. The second is wealth: we pay them to. The disadvantage of both is that they leave selfishness untouched. They use external incentives. The danger is that strong individuals will outwit the system, using power or wealth for their advantage.

The third alternative is to educate them to see that the welfare of others matters as much as their own. No system does this more effectively than religion, for an obvious reason. Religion teaches us that we are part of the whole, a thread in the fabric of God’s creation, a note in the symphony of life. Faith is the ability to see ourselves as joined to others by God’s love. Not only does it teach us this. Through story and ritual, celebration and prayer, it weaves it into our personalities, affecting all parts of the almost infinitely complex labyrinth of the human brain. No wonder then that religion has survived, and that we need it if we are to survive. And it was Darwin who pointed the way.

Religion binds people into groups. It creates altruism, the only force strong enough to defeat egoism. Selfishness is good for me and my genes but bad for us and therefore bad for my descendants in the long run. In Homo sapiens a miracle of nature meets a miracle of culture: religion, which turns selfish genes into selfless people.

(First published in The Times)