You Are Not What You Eat!

Evolution and HolinessMany of the most interesting topics at the interface science and the Christian faith fall in the realm of neuroscience, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. These are fields, it should be noted, that are in flux and undergoing rapid development. Much of the literature, especially the literature written for a popular audience reflects the inconsistencies of this rapid change. Chapter 3 of Matthew Nelson Hill’s new book Evolution and Holiness: Sociobiology, Altruism, and the Quest for Weslyan Perfection digs into the relationship between sociobiology and altruism.

The title to this post plays off of a popular one-line summary of human nature. Of course, we all know there must be more to being human that simply what we consume. Likewise, there is more to being human than a string of nucleotide bases transcribed at the appropriate time and place into proteins. We are more than what we eat and more than the information content of our genome. We don’t exist to eat and we don’t exist as bags of replicating genes. Sometimes this gets lost in the rhetoric of evolutionary biology.

Hill shapes chapter 3 around three critiques of sociobiological explanations of altruism (p. 63):

  1. Sociobiological explanations of altruism alone do not completely explain the phenomenon of human altruism. Rather the role of culture and its obvious influence on learned human behavior point to the reality that we are not merely the products of our genes.
  2. Sociobiologists often invoke problematic language when explaining altruism. This type of rhetoric exposes inconsistencies.
  3. There is an inability of sociobiologists to explain altruistic behavior without resorting to reductionism. The main problem with such oversimplification is that sociobiologists do not see the whole human person.

Hill suggests that the questions concerning nature and nurture are inherently reductionistic and therein lies a problem. I found the discussion in this chapter a little hard to follow at times, and Hill didn’t entirely convince me of this points, but in large part this reflects the muddle of sociobiology in popular presentation. There is no doubt that we are bombarded with oversimplifications, often reductionist oversimplifications. And problematic language abounds. But a true critique of sociobiological explanations of altruistic behavior needs to dig beneath these surface trappings and attack the core of the problem. The only real issue is metaphysical (ontological) naturalism.

But first Hill’s points.

Biological explanations. If sociobiology is limited to genetic explanations, the merely “biological” without considering culture and accumulated knowledge, the discipline will of necessity miss important aspects of what it means to be human, and consequently of the origins of altruistic behavior and self-sacrificing love. Some sociobiologists have so limited the discipline, either implicitly or explicitly. Hill quotes Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson among others. Humans (and other plants and animals) are more than sophisticated gene replication mechanisms. Denis Noble in The Music of Life gives a good overview of the biological problems with this view. Culture and environment bring additional complexity to the picture. We are shaped, down to the very structure of our brains, by social connections with other humans (and animals).

Of course, both “nature” (i.e. genetic factors) and nurture are natural forces. Sociobiology can (and will) be broadened to include these influences. A broader scientific approach still doesn’t answer all Christian concerns with sociobiology.

Problematic language is found in many places. Genes cannot be “selfish.” Selfishness is a moral attribute not properly attributed to a collection of DNA. Genes have no mind or morals or purposes. Such attributes are characteristic of higher level organisms, not of genes. The personified gene is pure fantasy. Moral language is used at other levels as well. Humans cannot be both constrained by genes and uniquely capable of overcoming genetics. Nor is there any reason to think that it is “good” to overcome the “selfish gene” although such is often expressed writings about sociobiology.

Reductionism is an interesting topic for consideration – and it fits well with Hill’s first point. Reductionist reasoning, in Hill’s view, does not acknowledge the whole human person when it considers the question of altruistic behavior. He considers three forms of reductionism: epistemological reductionism, ontological reductionism, and methodological reductionism.

Epistemological reductionism is the unprovable assumption that there is a unified set of physical laws capable of explaining all phenomena (life, society and human cognition). “With epistemological reductionism, the traits found in higher levels of complexity are explained entirely in terms of what is discovered on lower levels of complexity.” (p. 77) In a footnote to this statement Hill he gives the example of biology explained by biochemistry and chemistry including biochemistry in turn by physics.

Ontological reductionism is the assumption that the higher level organizations are nothing more than composites of the lower orders. “In this reduction, one posits that the integrity of the whole is determined completely by the traits of its constituent parts.” (p. 77)

Methodological reductionism is akin to methodological naturalism. This is the assumption that “natural sciences can explain the workings of physical, chemical, and biological processes without recourse to nonscientific or suprascientific ways of thinking.” (p. 78)

Scientific reductionism is a much misunderstood topic by scientists, students, and others. Chemistry is explained by physics, biochemistry by chemistry, and biology by chemistry, but only when the principles of physics, chemistry, and biochemistry are applied to the entire biological system. To take a simple example, a water molecule is not simply two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom – the properties of water are only explained by considering these three atoms as a unified whole. The properties of liquid water are only explained by considering the composite properties of many water molecules. The whole is more than the sum of its parts even if the same laws apply. Water in a cell is only explained by considering the crowded environment of the cell and the electrolytes that are present in the cell. Confined water has important properties distinct from those of bulk water.

Biology may be explained from chemistry and physics, but a complete explanation of life must include more than the individual cells, organs, or organisms. The more complete system must include the complex environment of social interactions with fellow organisms. With humans we add corporate memory, culture and tradition.

A better overall approach to thinking about science is to start with the whole system and break apart and simplify as necessary to understand the workings of the whole rather than to build up from the bottom. This keeps us aware of the simplifications that have been made. Reductions are essential, but should always be noted.

The sociobiological literature (and indeed much other literature in science and social science) is replete with unjustified reductionism. These reductions can help to analyze problems, but often the importance of the whole system is lost in the process. In sociobiology and evolutionary psychology the reductions tend to remove the person from the problem.

Human altruism. Hill suggests that the selfish gene and the selfish individual are unjustified reductions in sociobiological explanations of altruism. There is a ground assumption that altruistic behavior will only exist if it benefits the fitness of the population. Altruism cannot be “pure” but only an adaptive survival mechanism. These explanations of altruism, especially human altruistic behavior, fail to take into account the social cultural environment in which human behavior takes place. Conscious thought and give-and-take relationships are integral to who and what we are. Hill emphasizes that “the whole person, including free will, motivation, and intention, need to be accounted for without reductionism.”

Human altruism is a social trait that cannot be divorced from our biology, environment, tradition, and culture. In fact, humans can behave altruistically without thinking much about it, analyzing motive or consequences.

Free Will. But the key point buried in Hill’s analysis of the question of sociobiology and altruism is that of free will. The human mind, consciousness and will, is at the frontier of science. There is no scientific explanation for human freedom – a freedom some will deny on metaphysical grounds (either religious or naturalistic) but which we all intuitively experience. There are constraints on human freedom for sure, but they are not complete. We make real decisions all the time. “The genetic makeup of humans seems not to completely push human action into selfishness or complete altruism – instead, the human person lies somewhere in between. A more helpful explanation of altruism instead of reductionist accounts has to include the ability of an agent to utilize free will to overcome biological and environmental constraints on altruistic behavior.” (p. 104)

When do scientific explanations of human behavior, including altruistic behavior, venture into unjustified reductionism?

How much of human nature can be understood through science?

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