Stop Playing the Game!

Questions of cooperation, morality, and altruism are active areas of scientific investigation. The origin of moral law is a serious scientific question that is investigated quite seriously. Some reduce the existence of a moral law to a means to enhance population survival, and altruism is a by-product of evolution. In a reductionist world there must be a practical reason why moral behavior and limited altruism (it certainly isn’t an all-encompassing instinct) are valuable traits for survival.

A couple of recent papers related to this topic have come to my attention recently.

An Animal Study. In a research paper published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), No Third-Party Punishment in Chimpanzees, investigators describe an experiment that looked for evidence of cooperation and punishment in Chimpanzees. Such studies provide a method of isolating or illuminating part of the structure that makes human behavior and society unique (if and where it is unique).  From the abstract:

Dominants retaliated when their own food was stolen, but they did not punish when the food of third-parties was stolen, even when the victim was related to them. Third-party punishment as a means of enforcing cooperation, as humans do, might therefore be a derived trait in the human lineage.

The paper is Open Access, anyone can read it through the link above. This paper has also received a lot of press since it was published. The LA Times, Huffington Post, and more normal science venues such as Discover Magazine have articles on the paper. There are great chimp photos with some of these reports as well.

A Theoretical Study. The questions of morality and cooperation are also investigated mathematically. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a common scenario for investigating the stability of moral behavior and the pressure for cooperation. Game theory (a branch of mathematics) is used to evaluate the outcomes in increasingly complex variations. Iterated versions where past events play a role in future choices are used to model some forms of evolutionary pressure. Robert Axelrod is one of the leaders in this field – his book The Evolution of Cooperation is a classic. A wikipedia article summarizing the main points is available. The general conclusion is that some variation of tit for tat (TFT) is a successful survival strategy. This builds cooperation and morality in a population.

An article published earlier this year returned once again to explore the benefits of altruism and selfishness in the survival of a population whose growth is governed by selective pressures in The Prisoner’s Dilemma. The article by two physicists, William Press and Freeman Dyson, suggests that selfishness can prevail as the game is iterated – cooperation is not a guaranteed result with rational players. The paper is a little dense (it uses equations), but it is also Open Access, so anyone can read it online: Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma contains strategies that dominate any evolutionary opponent. The bottom line here, according to some, is that “smart” selfishness can pay. Tit for tat is not the most successful strategy. An interesting conversation concerning the paper (complete with replies by Press and Dyson) can be found on The Edge.

Of course this is not the end of the matter. Nature has recently brought to attention a preprint of an article by researchers at Michigan State that revisits the question and suggests that strategic selfish populations are evolutionarily unstable.

These kinds of studies are interesting. The questions posed and the results obtained, whether from observing chimpanzees or from game theory lend insight into important questions. But the results are often taken to eliminate the need to invoke religion as a requirement for moral behavior, either in contemporary society or as an addition to the science of  evolution. Morality and cooperation, at some level, are requirements for a stable society. There is no need to invoke divine revelation to establish morality.  Belief in an all-seeing, all knowing policeman in the sky is merely an artifact of evolutionary pressure for stability.

There are three important points here worth some comment.

First, it is important to remember, as always, that so-called “natural” mechanisms and divine action are not mutually exclusive options. Moral law alone cannot provide a proof for the existence of God. The best it can be is a signpost.

Second, the purpose of religion, at least the Christian religion, is not to establish common moral behavior. The argument that without God we will have moral anarchy simply doesn’t hold.

Third, when Christians point to the moral law as a signpost pointing toward God the discussion doesn’t center on cooperation and “common” morality but on altruism. Francis Collins in his book The Language of God describes the moral law as one of the factors he found persuasive as he contemplated the Christian faith.

First, let’s be clear what we’re talking about. By altruism I do not mean the “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” kind of behavior that practices benevolence to others in direct expectation of reciprocal benefits. Altruism is more interesting: the truly selfless giving of oneself to others with absolutely no secondary motives.  When we see that kind of love and generosity, we are overcome with awe and reverence. (p. 25)

Following the lead of CS Lewis in Mere Christianity and The Four Loves, Collins suggests that selfless love is unexplained and perhaps inexplicable in an naturalist evolutionary framework. As such the value we place on selfless love provides a signpost to God. Deep inside ourselves we think that altruistic actions are intrinsically good. There seems to be no “natural” reason for valuing selfless love.

The strength or weakness of the argument from moral law is worth some discussion. But it is not the point that struck me as I was reading about these two studies.

Stop playing the game! All of the studies above operate on the principle that the purpose of moral behavior is to create a stable society conducive to survival and reproduction of the selfish gene. Biblical morality dethrones this idea and tosses it on the trash heap of history. The essence of Christian morality is summed up in two commandments.

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

Christian morality is not defined by tit for tat or by reward and punishment, third person or otherwise. Nor is it a search for a way to get ahead or to prevent being played for a sucker. It isn’t about hanging on to whats yours, or worrying about someone else getting more than their due. It isn’t about creating a stable society – it is about the Kingdom of God.

Some look at Old Testament Law as a kind of tit-for-tat. But this seems an over simplification. I think the Old Testament reads rather differently when viewed through the lens of the commandments above. The Sermon on the Mount elaborates (Mt. 5, I’d quote the whole thing, but that gets a little too long):

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. …

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. …

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. …

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. …

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

And then we have Matthew 20:1-16 …”For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.” … followed by a rather perplexing story. I’ve heard it said that this parable is an illustration of how everyone who is saved receives the same inheritance, whether they are saved as a child or on their deathbed at 95. God is generous.  But perhaps the parable is deeper than this, a true indication of the Kingdom of God where the people of God are called to stop placing the emphasis on money, wealth, hanging on to one’s own, and so forth, but rather to make decisions based on the radical basis of Love. We are not called to radical poverty, we are not all called to follow Mother Teresa, but we are all called to a radical shift in attitude and priorities.

Perhaps the value we place, deep in our gut, on selfless love and altruism is a signpost of the existence of God. But whether it is or not, as Christians we are called quite clearly to stop playing the game. Allowing oneself to be played for a sucker is not an evolutionarily stable strategy. But it is a Christian strategy.

What do you think?

What is the essence of Christian morality?

Do scientific studies of morality and evolutionary psychology call into question Christian faith? Why or why not.

If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]

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