Genesis 2:7, Altruism and the Moral Law

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

//I’ve speculated before about the existence of a God-given moral law. Why is it that we humans in general agree upon right and wrong, and why do our “rights” generally coincide with whether or not an action helps or hurts another? Is altruism a gift from God?

Let’s compare humans to other animals for a moment. Believers in God tend to place humans in a separate category altogether, sort of like a human kingdom above the animal kingdom, often with the explanation that “humans have been given a soul.” Nonbelievers, in contrast, tend toward reductionism and point to the evidence of evolution, claiming that humans are nothing more than primates with the organ in the top of our head gone wild.

Both positions have merit. This oversized brain DOES make humans different from animals, and one area of difference is in the study of altruistic behavior. Here is what evolutionary psychologist Frans de Waal has to say:

“Animals at times do exhibit what appears to be moral behavior, but this behavior does not necessarily rest on deliberations of the kind we engage in. It is hard to believe that animals weigh their own interests against the rights of others, that they develop a vision of the greater good of society, or that they feel lifelong guilt about something they should not have done. To communicate intentions and feelings is one thing; to clarify what is right, and why, and what is wrong, and why, is quite something else. Animals are no moral philosophers.”

Are you able to disagree? I doubt it. Humans are different, in that our brains have evolved to the point of comprehending morals. I wonder: is it fair to say that that moment in evolution was the moment, in today’s verse, where “man became a living soul?”

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2 Comments

  1. There are alternatives other than a gift from God, and indeed were God to give an individual a gift it seems strange to make that gift an unwillingness to advance ones self at the expense of others.

    Man is a social animal, though, and much of what he does and how he acts is a result of that. The forces of evolution work not only on the survival of the individual but the survival of the species: is the survival of the species improved by the concept of not harming other members of the species? Probably, and you can see that throughout the animal kingdom as well; mating or territorial fights are fierce, for instance, but seldom to the death. Males will destroy infant males in many species; evolution has taught Mama to keep Dad away.

    That “organ gone wild” gives an extra tool for evolution to use. No longer limited to big muscles or horns to promote that “Do no harm”, evolution has been able to introduce the concept into our daily lives and to an extent other animals cannot understand.

    Man, being that social animal, also likes being around other members of his species and it is to his benefit to do so. Again, that pile of neurons has figured out (at least in most of us) that harming others results in being shunned – an undesirable result. Better not to do harm and have what we want.

    So, whether for the sake of the individual or the species, evolution has built in the golden rule. It has used the tools the species provides (notably that big brain) to reinforce the concept that that happens with all traits, not just a big brain. No need for a gift from God.

  2. Lee Harmon

    Point taken, Wilderness, in that evolution may provide an explanation for the development of a moral law, and that as best we can tell evolution does not require the correcting finger of God. There are lots of question marks, though, plenty of room for a creator.

    So assume for a moment that we have a creator, who wishes to give to us a “living soul” … that is, a personal moral law governed by our own compassion. To this end, evolution was set in motion as an elegant solution, building man “from the dust of the earth.” Pity it took 4 billion years to reach the point where we were ready for this soul, but a slow learner is better than no learner.

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