Religion and Morality Intersect Biology: Sociobiology and Altruism




Kevin J. Sharpe

ABSTRACT. Theologians often react to sociobiology by rejecting it. I examine several such responses and respond to them. Many set up an unacceptable dualism between theological and scientific statements. I also conclude that theology needs to accept sociobiology and then constructively face the challenges it raises, such as that involving altruism. According to sociobiology, altruism is a moral feeling people have to promote biological “altruism.” Michael Ruse suggests that people’s seeing altruism playing this role will undermine its power over them. This argument also suggests that God may be a biologically-induced illusion, as God’s function is to promote altruism and thus “altruism.” The weakening of altruism also affects “altruism” because it depends on altruism. I suggest developing the wisdom and power of religion and science to re-establish altruism and “altruism.”

KEY WORDS. Atruism, epigenetic rules, naturalistic fallacy, science and religion, sociobiology, theology.

Human sociobiology is a new field that takes evolutionary theory beyond the biological into the social. While continuing research tends to affirm it, it is not yet a well-confirmed and full science. It is controversial because it seeks to explain religion and ethics, and claims there is a biological basis for morality. Sociobiology challenges theology.[1]

In this paper I accept the science of sociobiology as expressed by Edward Wilson and Charles Lumsden, and look at several of its implications for religion and morality.

The discussion centers on altruism and biological “altruism,” a key idea joining theology and sociobiology. Michael Ruse has developed these uses of the word to where they conflict.[2] That is one problem to address. The explanations of sociobiology also raise problems for the functioning of both altruism and “altruism.” I have two concerns: one is the power behind each to motivate human behavior, and the second is how they can help promote each other to the betterment of humanity.

After introducing sociobiology and before embarking on these topics, however, I show that sociobiology does challenge theology. Because it appears to, my task is to point out flaws in the opposing position.


Built into the human mind are various patterns or rules by which it works. Lumsden and Wilson call them epigenetic rules. They process information that comes into the mind from the outside, as well as from internal emotions. There are two types of these patterns. Primary epigenetic rules process raw emotional and sense data. Secondary epigenetic rules assemble inner mental processes, including conscious and deliberate decision making and the placing of values. Epigenetic rules guide people into thoughts and actions that insure human survival, and genes encode them because they have proved so worthwhile in the struggles of our human and prehuman ancestors.[3]

Sociobiologists can only assume the existence of epigenetic rules, despite their importance to the theory. While more evidence for their reality and functioning appears necessary,[4] for the sake of this discussion I too assume their existence.

A second aspect of sociobiology has to do with reproductive success. For evolution, people are successful when they pass their genes to the next generation. One way to achieve this is through cooperative behavior called biological “altruism.” “Altruistic” behavior enhances genetic success at risk or cost to oneself. For example, parents can promote their children’s success by providing an expensive education rather than having a large family and more money for themselves. They are behaving “altruistically.” People also practice “reciprocal altruism” when they do something for others. Their reward is that someone sometime may help them more.

Further, humans have altruistic feelings that pressure them to behave “altruistically.” These feelings come through epigenetic rules and oppose selfish inclinations which also exist for biological reasons. To make humans behave “altruistically,” genes guide not only feelings but also moral reasoning. The rules give morality the feeling of objective truth and can thus enforce “altruism.” While humans feel pressure to behave as biology desires, it does not lock them into blindly following the rules.

Sociobiology makes biology the key player in explaining human moral behavior, but does not dismiss the role culture has to play. A society’s moral system is a cultural construct, based on biological requirements. The culture determines good and bad by comparing various epigenetic rules. It builds, sorts, and develops the genetic impulses or epigenetic rules into a morality.[5]

The above understanding of “altruism” and sociobiology touches the religious view of altruism. This, however, assumes the ideas of sociobiology can and should interact at face value with those of theology. Several theologians think otherwise.


I will outline several theological reactions against sociobiology and try to diffuse their impact. I do this because the current inability of many theologians to hear sociobiology hampers a constructive dialogue between the two sides. Defensive walls go up and communication stalls. Ruse feels theologians want to say yes to science, but only until it makes them uncomfortable.[6] Then they back off and apologize by elaborating their theology. In doing so, they miss what sociobiology has to offer.

An often-heard criticism of sociobiology accuses it of justifying existing injustices. For instance, opponents say it supports the belief that Blacks are intellectually inferior to Whites. They suggest that following what sociobiology says is human nature only continues the injustices: “This is what evolution has produced,” they think sociobiology says.[7] Sociobiology really does not support this interpretation. Biological inclinations contain what many would consider both altruistic and evil. To discriminate between them and to emphasize the more appropriate (perhaps the altruistic, the anti-injustice behaviors) is the task of social reflection.

Several criticisms are technical. Arthur Peacocke raises a number in his book God and the New Biology.[8] He believes that, for genes to explain behavior, there must be a gene for each behavior. Yet, he continues, no one knows the actual connections between genes and behavior, nor do they know how genes tell a person what to do. A response could be that this is a question for future research.[9] Note also what Ruse and Wilson write: sociobiology does not say a single gene controls all of a trait. Neither does it say the cultural input from a gene is rigid.[10]

Peacocke also points to ethical codes not being uniform.[11] Sometimes they oppose what biology would require - loving everyone to the point of turning the other cheek is an example. Ruse says an ethical code is inadequate where it counters biology and that it needs replacing. Thus, he does not think of a morality as produced mechanically by biology. Cultures add to and change the basic biological norms, even making the resulting morals oppose their original function.

Most criticisms of sociobiology require more extensive stating and replies than those above. Many turn out to be variations on a few themes that constantly occur in the science and religion dialogue.


The “is”/“ought” question often rises in debates between sociobiology and theology. Many claim the two are separate. Scientific investigation (in this case, sociobiology) can only say how humans have behaved or can behave. That is the “is.” It cannot say how humans should behave (the “ought”). Ethicists, on the other hand, help in deciding this. Thus, Gerrit Manenschijn writes that the only way to justify going from “is” to “ought” is by moral reasoning; scientific reasoning has no part in it.[12] Peter Baelz writes of the reason behind this logical break between sociobiology’s “is” and ethics’ “ought.” Ethics assumes humans decide their own actions. By distancing themselves from their inclinations and instincts, they can work out their motives and reasons for what they do.[13] The naturalistic fallacy is to suppose otherwise.

A few theologians, for instance Philip Hefner and Ulf Görman, suggest why the naturalistic fallacy is wrong. Their arguments come from science, philosophy, and theology, and I will not repeat them.[14] There are several additional points against the naturalistic fallacy.

1. The usual objection to crossing from “is” to “ought” is that it says something natural must be good. This is not what sociobiology does. Evolution has given humans conflicting motivations,[15] and there are decisions left as to which of these are good. It is as natural to become angry and lash out as it is to feel compassion for the other. Not all biological motivations are good.

2. On the other hand, there are common elements to all human moralities. Sometimes an “is” can become an “ought” and probably should do so if a morality is to function as biologically intended.[16] In particular, “altruism” and reciprocal “altruism” are and should be the base for each society’s morality. Cultures may add to these norms, give them different importance, and say how they apply in particular circumstances. Nonetheless, “altruism” and reciprocal “altruism” are the good, the “ought,” for all peoples past and present. They should be the good for all future peoples as well.

3. A reason for questioning the fallacy comes from the way people use science. Employing sociobiology to develop a morality is similar to using science to discern what diets work for human beings. There is no fuss when other sciences cross the barrier.

4. A motivation for setting up the “is”/“ought” barrier is the belief that scientific knowledge is true, and that “oughts” are more sensitive and need protecting against the “is’s” of science. This belief about science is not born out by its history and philosophy. Thus, those who make an “is” into an “ought” must remember that scientific knowledge may change. Any morality suggested by contemporary sociobiology could be inaccurate.

5. Similarly, the barrier could say science is not subject to values. This is incorrect.[17] Science is not a positivist pursuit done for its own sake, and neither is it done without facing the results of possible applications.

There is no strict division between “is” and “ought” and a hard-and-fast naturalistic fallacy is wrong. The “is” informs the “ought,” but does not dictate it.

In the continuing defense of sociobiology, further points will arise. What I turn to now are general objections to applying the discipline to religion and morality.


To say the “is” has no role in determining the “ought” is to say genes have no control of culture and do not contribute to it. There is a fear of reducing culture (including religion and morality) to being the results of biological mechanisms.

Peacocke has this fear. He thinks Wilson and others believe genes determine most social behavior and that they acknowledge only a lesser role for non-biological social properties. While Peacocke admits research may confirm sociobiology, he cannot accept that genetics will explain all of culture. On the other hand, he thinks sociobiology is not reductionist if it accepts some cultural explanations of social behavior.[18] Sociobiology poses no problem for belief in God, he says, if it only partly explains the person. Such a theory could even describe a way in which God is creating.

Peacocke appears to support sociobiologists such as Wilson by agreeing that sociobiology produces culture. The difference is the extent to which culture builds from biology. The reductionism question becomes whether or not culture can break away from biology. Theologians such as Peacocke say it does and sociobiologists say it cannot. Wilson writes: “Can the cultural evolution of higher ethical values gain a direction and momentum of its own and completely replace genetic evolution? I think not. The genes hold culture on a leash.” While the leash is very long, it does constrain values.[19] Culture does go beyond biology but biology always tethers it.

The leash question also emerges from scholars - including Donald Campbell and Ralph Wendell Burhoe - who stress sociocultural evolution over biological evolution.[20]

Campbell accepts sociobiology, only he thinks it has a more limited role in the rise of human culture than people like Wilson suppose. This is because he believes nature less frequently selects “altruistic” tendencies that put an individual at risk than those from which the individual selfishly gains. This places limits on genetic evolution and the development of altruism from “altruism.” Instead, Campbell suggests sociocultural evolution produced the altruism essential for contemporary urban civilization. Only it could overcome the selfish tendencies coming from the genes. Religions, he adds, have a major role in this evolution.[21]

Burhoe’s approach to sociobiology similarly says “altruism” can only go so far. It may help explain altruism within a kin group, but it does not explain altruism to those of different kin. Continuing from where Campbell leaves off, Burhoe says religion is responsible for altruism. He sees societies as shaped by culturetypes, socially inherited packets of information (including religion and language), which one could think of as non-biological cultural genes. Richard Dawkins calls them memes. The environment selects them independent of biological genes, but in harmony with them. In particular, natural selection works on a religion to remove elements not to the society’s advantage, so that religious and genetic goals come to depend on each other. Religion’s function, Burhoe continues, is to remember and culturally pass on the society’s long-range values and goals. It promotes the altruism essential for the development and sustaining of society.[22]

The Campbell and Burhoe theories say biology does not explain culture. Yet they do not take away, in Wilson’s terms, the leash question. In what ways does culture break away from biology? What are its unique emergent questions and behaviors? The following objections to sociobiology say how theology and other aspects of culture are separate from it. They are ways of describing how there is no leash.

1. Peacocke responds to sociobiology by saying it has a restricted range and needs to be part of something else such as a theism. This larger framework will grow from questions like the following he lists. “Why is there anything at all? What kind of universe must it be if insentient matter can evolve naturally into self-conscious, thinking persons? What is the meaning of personal life in such a cosmos?”[23]

Peacocke points to several features of the larger framework. Biology may ground spiritual and mental aspirations, but it does not ground what they aspire to. That exists in the larger framework. Theology’s role is to add to the discussion on the aspirations. Peacocke also suggests that reason and reflection have to do with the larger framework and not the biological. Reason, for instance, provides nonbiological support for ethics, especially true in developed societies.[24]

Discussion on survival, Peacocke believes, also belongs to the larger framework.[25] While sociobiology says what needs doing if humans are to survive, Peacocke still asks: “Survival for what?”[26] Is survival the most urgent value? There are higher order questions that he thinks need answers before looking to sociobiology. A religious example is the belief that the chief end of humanity is to glorify God and God’s values for humans may not rule out our extinction.[27] Perhaps another question is, “Should we survive?” Similarly, Thomas King asks if survival is a value because the latter is something he thinks has no empirical proof. “Science has provided us with much, but it will give us an ethic on the same day that it gives us a square circle.”[28]

The difference in frameworks shows in the different words and meanings theologians and sociobiologists have. Hefner points to this. He thinks that using such ideas as ultimacy, God, and purpose in explanations would puzzle scientists; they would find them imprecise and unnecessary.[29] Their framework of terms and truth is quite different.

An example lies in Wilson and King’s discussion about survival as a value.[30] Disagreeing with King, Wilson thinks it is a value. “The desire to preserve our own lives or the lives of those to whom we are closely bonded by love - our families and tribes - is the deepest trait one can find in human beings and animals....If there is any single value that is fundamental to all life, it is the struggle to stay alive as a species.” Further, higher-order meaning questions are pointless if there is no survival. The questions of meaning are in the end secondary to survival and this should be clear to anyone who takes the natural world seriously.

This disagreement may depend on whether or not one takes an interpretation of theological tradition to be more important than scientific insight. The different frameworks make King’s and Wilson’s words pass over and under each other. They have different starting points in their understandings of value: King starts with a transcendent God, and Wilson with nature.[31]

Peacocke thinks social behavior has genuinely emergent properties: the unique features of the larger framework. Genes have their basic place, but built on them is culture with its own agenda, including the mental and spiritual life. Culture must satisfy basic requirements set up a long time ago by evolution. It also has more say in explaining how people behave than do genes, and it does not reduce to biology. On top of biology, people can interpret themselves to themselves at their own level of cultural development.[32]

2. Peacocke raises another issue by disagreeing with Ruse and Wilson’s belief that morality is “an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate....[It is] a shared illusion of the human race.”[33] That the content of religion (not only ethics) is an illusion is also difficult for other theologians to swallow. King writes: “Just because religion enables people to survive does not mean that its content is illusion.” The eyes, he suggests, are also “enabling mechanisms for survival.” This does not imply, however, that what the eyes see is not there. Similarly, religion can refer to what really exists. He thinks Wilson sees religion as only adding “emotional fuzz to values developed elsewhere.”[34]

Ruse’s writing style is defiant and to the point, and it is easy to think his position is extreme. The criticism of Ruse and Wilson is partly correct: they are using sociobiology to promote atheism. Their use of the word illusion implies ethics and religion’s claims to truth are wrong, but sociobiology does not go this far. It does say they are devices enabling genetic survival and it also says they are, in Ruse’s words, “fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.” However, it does not go so far as to call them illusions or judge whether they are true or not - whatever true means. In fact, Ruse and Wilson might apply their argument to sociobiology’s analysis of science as well for it too serves biological functions enabling survival.[35] I cannot imagine that they would conclude sociobiology destroys science’s claims to truth, that it too is an illusion.

If theologians respond to Ruse and Wilson’s illusion talk by discounting sociobiology, they are overreacting.

3. John Bowker’s criticisms of sociobiology center on what he calls its poverty, that it does not allow for the qualitative or aesthetic in religion. Culture, including religion and the arts, differs significantly from genetic effects. A religion like Christianity, he says, can agree that humans are “tunes sung by the genes,” but it differs by saying humans also can become “tunes sung by God.”[36] He even suggests God might act with the epigenetic rules to constrain human behavior and development.[37] The poverty of what the genes can produce shows they do hold culture on a leash.

4. Langdon Gilkey also criticizes sociobiology. He thinks sociobiologists do not see the source of their trust in science’s objectivity or of their moral position. These transcend selfishness that, according to Gilkey, sociobiology says comes from and directs conscience, consciousness, and reason. Further, sociobiology does not say why anyone should trust its reason and moral goals as objective and altruistic. Most of all, it does not say why it is not deceiving and manipulating. This problem is not unique to sociobiologists, however; everyone and all vocations and systems of thought share this moral ambiguity. All depend on God, “the power beyond all human powers.”[38]

Gilkey’s point is similar to saying morality has precedence over what sociobiology might say, and that morality’s foundation is the reality of God and revelation.[39] This is how Gilkey knows that studying sociobiology depends on the transcendent.

The details of Gilkey’s case appear wrong. First, selfishness in the usual moral sense is not that used in sociobiology where it refers to passing on one’s genes. Thus sociobiology does not have what Gilkey calls a “high moral stance.”[40] Further, scientific reasoning comes from biology and sociobiology does say why its thinking is trustworthy. His two points do not stand.

Before he starts his critique, Gilkey assumes God exists. Sociobiology is second to this, as are other human endeavors and what they say. The question then becomes why one should trust the scientific method as the judge of truth. Why should one not trust some other source, for instance Christian tradition? For Gilkey, genes do not tether what he knows from this tradition.

The naturalistic fallacy and the four general objections to sociobiology say genes do not hold culture on a leash. The tethering question underlies most theologians’ reactions to sociobiology and it is especially behind their strong negative responses. Their replies set up a dualism - theology deals with a world separate from science’s - a common belief when theologians try to defend their turf against science.


In what follows I respond to the belief that genes do not tether culture including religion and morality. A theology and science dualism is a weak defense.

1. There are several ways in which sociobiology’s conclusions already may have support in religion.

In approaching the “is”/“ought” fallacy, the theologian might start with the following. God has brought humanity along the evolutionary path and, therefore, the “is” must say something about God’s intentions for the human species. Filling out the “ought” from a theological point of view should thus draw extensively on the “is” because this is God’s way of working.[41]

Another example is that religion may support species survival as the most important value. Karl Peters describes survival as perhaps central to a religious outlook.[42] Hefner also takes survival as a primary theological value.[43]

2. Sociobiology says culture is an instrument of genetic survival and meaning is not separate from the biological. Biology starts and drives any cultural activity, partly directing it with epigenetic rules. To help human survival even more, biology tries to deceive people into thinking meaning comes first. So Peacocke, King, Gilkey, and Bowker’s genes may promote their belief in a dual world of meaning beyond biology’s. They may think and feel according to the channels of their epigenetic rules.

Thus there is no complete release from genetic survival pressures to decide freely. Ethicists follow the “is” when debating what the “is” means and they also follow it when discussing what the “ought” should be in different situations. The “is” requires deciding the “ought.” In part also the “is” directs the “ought” through its epigenetic rules. The rational bases chosen to justify an ethical code may result from epigenetic rules whose function is to lead to “altruistic” behavior.

Similarly, genes partly require theology and similar cultural activities to discern and promote what humans might aspire to. Biology working through epigenetic rules inclines humans to raise and answer the meaning questions, and it pressures them to do this so they will want to survive and reproduce. In trying to make sure his gene line continues, Peacocke’s biology may be making him ask “Survival for what?” It also may make him insist that the truth of religious ideas comes before what sociobiology says.

Human biology inclines us to ask larger framework questions. It also helps direct our answers.

3. The twin studies in process by Lyndon Eaves and his colleagues on the genetic base of social attitudes (including religiosity) offers considerable experimental support for the genetic basis of culture. Genes appear to influence beliefs and attitudes significantly.[44]

4. There is only one way for an “is”/“ought” separation to remain and for retaining the position that says theology has a strictly larger framework than sociobiology’s. They have to insist on their stand against all other explanations. They have to advocate separating science from religion and morality. Such positions put the two areas into separate worlds or compartments or levels with theology higher in the hierarchy. With this they believe they have sidestepped a challenge such as sociobiology’s.

I will not elaborate my objections to this strategy here for in other publications I have discussed in depth why I believe it is dangerous and inadequate.[45] Further, modern society accepts the scientific process for approaching truth more than it does traditional theology’s. In the end what else is the judge of truth and the assumptions people make?

The relation between theology and science lies under much of the theological debate over sociobiology. Few people specify the model they follow for the relation, or even appear to have thought about it.

5. There is, I believe, no sound theological case against sociobiology. Turning from raising and answering theologians’ objections to sociobiology, I look at a model for the culture/biology relation. It is time to become constructive.

The debate over reductionism of religion or culture by sociobiology is confusing. Sociobiology looks reductionist - even the epigenetic rules are biological. On the other hand, culture does have a role in mediating and shaping biological behavior.

A more significant problem in solving the reductionism question may be the image of a line drawn between biology and culture. Peacocke and others may think all below some level is biological, all above is cultural, but there is no clear-cut dividing line. For instance, the epigenetic rules that people feel as cultural are biological mechanisms.[46] It is not a matter of culture above a certain point; rather, the genetic and the cultural are inseparable.

Bowker says that being more precise over how much the genes determine and how much culture constrains is “a very distant goal.” Perhaps it is hopeless because the relation between cultural and genetic evolution is so complex.[47] I more than agree. It is not “a very distant goal;” it cannot exist.

Unknown to him, Peacocke already has a model on which to base a solution to the biology/culture problem. It is his epistemological stand over objectivism and subjectivism, what he calls critical, qualified realism. This says scientific theories do reflect the structure of reality, but, on the other hand, one cannot isolate all sociological and psychological factors from them. If Peacocke applies a similar approach to his problem with sociobiology, he could say genes do determine human behavior and that biology comes through culture, making the two inseparable. (In fact, Peacocke’s epistemological problem is a more general version of the biology/culture one. To translate, note objectivism is sociobiology, and subjectivism is culture.)

Gene-culture coevolution says much the same. Genes affect the direction of cultural change. Natural selection, in part working from culture, shifts the frequencies of these genes, and this then opens new channels for cultural evolution. The circle goes round again.[48] Biology and culture work together; they are inseparable.

Dualism does not stand. Genes tether and steer all that humans do. Culture adds to what the genes bring and helps choose the genes through natural selection. It also helps enforce what biology requires. To insist there is no leash from genes to culture or religion is to disagree on world views. I prefer one informed by science rather than dominated by a traditional religion. Then theology can seek to build on and with sociobiology rather than be afraid of it.[49]

The way is now clear to seek the implications of sociobiology and theology for each other. Below I discuss one such effort, to do with altruism.


Morality’s roots are in biology. People sense what is right and what is wrong, and they are aware of morality. They also feel obliged to do what is right. In doing so, in being altruistic, they are also being “altruistic;” altruism promotes “altruism.” Both senses exist because both have biological worth.

Ruse attacks the Christian understanding of altruism. First he turns to what he calls the love commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Real Christian practice,” he believes, centers on this command.[50] Here he thinks the evolutionist and the Christian differ.

He distinguishes two interpretations of the command, a weak and a strong form. The latter is “to love everyone: family, friend, nodding acquaintance, and enemy.”[51] Further, people must forgive their enemies “virtually without limit.”

Ruse criticizes the strong love command from a biological point of view. Biological theory and empirical research suggest altruism would exist toward other members of the same kin (we want our relatives to reproduce). It also could exist toward people with whom we could exchange help (reciprocal “altruism”). However, the more distant others are from our immediate circle, the less we feel morally responsible for them. This contradicts the strong love command, even as an ideal toward which to strive. Thus, while the love command and biology agree on some level of altruism, they disagree on extreme forms.

Even worse, the strong love command acts against survival. The biological urge to retaliate, for example, undermines turning the other cheek without limit. Rather, biology encourages frustration at abuse - humans by nature seek to counter mistreatment near its onset.

Ruse thinks there are good reasons for adopting the evolutionist’s position. For example, a moral dictate must by itself appeal or make sense to people if they are to accept it. Biological morality is also closer to the usual practices and intuitions than is the strong love command. In fact, Ruse says, “most people would think it quite irresponsible to let someone else sin against them 490 times.” He feels “uncomfortable with a god who demands” what human nature feels is “morally perverse.”[52]

“Altruism” is a more restricted term than Christian altruism. It is altruism as the strong love command that Ruse cannot accept.

Ruse then bypasses all love commands and moves to the heart of his objection to Christianity. He believes he can undercut all forms of Christian altruism.

His case concerns the grounds for making ethical claims. To recognize morality as only a biological adaptation, he maintains, undermines its traditional base.[53] The Christian “surely” believes in “an independent, objective, moral code” - a code that does not change and does not depend on humans. Unless people “think morality is objectively true - a function of something outside of and higher than [them] - it would not work.”[54] Christians feel this absolute, moral other as a force on them, and so follow its moral dictates. This belief, Ruse thinks, biology destroys. Then he adds: “Morality [altruism] is just an aid to survival and reproduction, and has no being beyond or without this.”

The issue goes further. “Altruism” depends on altruism; for instance, sometimes “altruism” needs a push from the powerful altruistic feelings to counter selfishness. Undermining these feelings, therefore, also undermines “altruism.”

Awareness of sociobiology, Ruse suggests, takes away the power that supports both altruism and “altruism.” This adds to the undermining that comes from recognizing the variety of moral claims. What can replace their support? How can altruism and “altruism” survive?


There are two parts to this question. First, what might be the modern content of altruism so it would promote “altruism?” Second, what might give altruism the power of objective truth so people would want to follow it and thus also “altruism?”

1. The results of sociobiology can help fashion the content of morality.[55] Yet they do not provide a morality broad enough to apply in most circumstances and they do not make the choice between competing biological inclinations. They need expanding by culture. Wilson would have the decisions on social control made by democratic consensus weighted toward behaviors that are natural biologically.[56] Bernard Davis says a scientific process cannot replace a political one, “with its reliance on trial and error and on compromise.”[57] Theoretically, therefore, a culture will build a morality from the findings of sociobiology.

Wilson lists values he thinks are essential for ethics: maintaining and preserving the human gene pool; second, maintaining the diversity of this pool; and third, universal human rights.[58] This last value begins to look suspiciously Christian, rather like the strong love command Ruse rejects. Some theologians build on it. Hefner, for instance, discusses ways in which altruism might apply beyond one’s closest relatives and he looks to Burhoe’s theory in which religion promotes altruism as a major contributor to cultural evolution.[59] With the discoveries of science, religion can help society build an adequate ethics.

Burhoe and Campbell support sociocultural evolution as opposed to sociobiology because “altruism” decreases away from one’s immediate family. It may therefore not support altruism let alone universal altruism.

Ruse draws another conclusion from this and rejects the strong love command because, he thinks, it goes against biology. On the other hand, he also writes the opposite. With modern technology, most people are part of each person’s social circle; the world is becoming smaller and smaller. “Here perhaps our technology has out-run our innate moral sentiments. Our animal nature is, in respects, inadequate to deal with today’s problems.” Programs devised by culture must supplement biological feelings, Ruse says, because they do not extend to a wide enough circle. This command comes from biology. To devise such programs is to “take our evolutionary evolved powers of reason and understanding, and to apply them to our ultimate biological self-interest.”[60] We are morally obliged to all people. This is much like the strong love command of Christianity.

Richard Alexander suggests morality evolved because it permitted early humans to limit conflicts within groups. They could then form larger groups, which was to their advantage because of intense competition between groups.[61] Thus, sociobiology extends the application of its theory of morality from blood relatives (“altruism”), to a circle a little beyond that (reciprocal “altruism”), to within a larger band and between groups. We do not yet know how the authors discussed above might adapt their ideas to Alexander’s theory.

2. The problem is the survival of altruism and “altruism” in the face of sociobiology. The previous section suggests the contents of a new morality could emerge from joining the results of sociobiology to the wisdom of religion. Part of the task remains. Suppose Western culture works out such a morality. How does it have power? If the morality comes from public debate, from where does it gain its strength of conviction? The power would have to come from within the human mind because it needs a subconscious base through epigenetic rules.

There are two possible sources for its strength: the power of science and the power of religious traditions. The perceived hold of religion and its objective God used to have the current force of science as explanation and of religion as the caretaker of the moral wisdom of Western society. Together, present-day science and religion have that power. [62] Thus, joining them at their deepest levels may provide both the altruism/“altruism” and the hold behind them to make them function. Wilson writes:

The best relation between religion and science toward which we might aim...[is] an uneasy but fruitful alliance. The role of religion is to codify and put into enduring poetic form the highest moral values of a society consistent with empirical knowledge and to lead in moral reasoning. The role of science is to test remorselessly every conclusion about human nature and to search for the bedrock of ethics - by which I mean the material basis of natural law.[63]

Wilson thinks liberal theology can help. “Dogmatic religions and religion-like political ideologies” draw in people because of the rigid nature and power of epigenetic rules. “Liberal theology can serve as a buffer” between science and the dogmatisms. By raising deep questions about the human mind, it challenges scientific materialism. On the other hand, it competes with fundamentalism by serving the spiritual needs of most people. Liberal theology also can learn: from science it can discover new truths and strengthen its goals.[64]

The development of a world view based on evolutionary naturalism might help.[65] Wilson calls this myth scientific materialism, centered on the evolutionary epic. He thinks it competes with traditional religion and will replace it.[66]

We need not fear this scientific world view. Science is synthetic as well as analytic, Wilson believes. They are linked. It is reductionist, but sensitive to such cultural expressions as art and religion. Science does pursue the spiritual to try to explain it. When it comes close, however, “both will evolve into something new, permitting the capture and the resolution.” Each will use the other.[67]

Here may be an answer to the plea Sol Katz makes for a global morality.[68] The human species may soon be extinct if we do not act urgently on our problems. How are the peoples of the world to agree on a global morality? Even if they were, from where does the morality gain its power so people will follow it? Fear of extinction is probably not enough, but a global morality backed by both science and the world’s religious and cultural traditions may be.


I have argued that sociobiology makes claims on theology because human genes condition all aspects of culture, including religion and morality. Thus sociobiology’s undermining of the power behind and content of altruism is unavoidable. Unfortunately, it also undermines biological “altruism.” I also suggest there is a way to rebuild altruism and “altruism,” and harness power for their support.

Sociobiology’s case against altruism is serious. Science again has a strong hand against traditional morality and Christianity. Again the religious tradition adjusts to keep in touch with and appropriate to this continuously changing world. The call is not to defend the tradition to the end; it will continue to dissolve with the inevitable growth of science. The call is for positive construction using the wisdom of science and the wisdom of religion.


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[1] I wish to thank Professor John Polkinghorne for comments on this essay.

[2] Ruse 1984; 1989; 1989b; Ruse and Wilson 1985; 1986.

[3] For details on human sociobiology, see Irons 1991; Lumsden 1988; Lumsden and Wilson 1981; 1983; Reiss 1984; the Ruse, and Ruse and Wilson references above; and Wilson 1975; 1978. I am not considering the disagreements within the sociobiological community - see Alexander 1987; and Irons 1991.

[4] See Irons 1991 for recent research; also Lumsden 1988; MacDonald 1988; and Maddox, et al., 1984.

[5] Sharpe In Press.

[6] Pers. comm.

[7] Singer 1984, 156; see also Rottschaefer and Martinsen 1984.

[8] Peacocke 1986, 66-71. See also ibid., Chap. 8; and Peacocke 1984.

[9] See Plomin 1990 as an example of this type of development.

[10] Ruse and Wilson 1986, 178. See also MacDonald 1988, 10; and Wilson 1980, 428.

[11] Peacocke 1986, 66-67.

[12] Manenschijn 1987, 86.

[13] Baelz 1984, 209-210. See also Davis 1980; and Wilson and King 1987, 93.

[14] Hefner 1980b; and Görman 1990.

[15] Irons 1991.

[16] This is the hub of my crossing from “is” to “ought.” If certain behaviors are biologically essential (decided on by their being genetically common to all peoples), they should be “oughts” for any society.

[17] See Sharpe 1984.

[18] See also Lumsden 1988, 234.

[19] Wilson 1978, 167.

[20] See also Boyd and Richerson 1985.

[21] Campbell 1976.

[22] Burhoe 1981, 17-21.

[23] Peacocke 1986, 111.

[24] Peacocke 1986, 66-67.

[25] Hefner 1980; 1980b, 378-381; and 1984, 202.

[26] Peacocke 1984, 181; following Hesse 1981, 284.

[27] Hesse 1981, 284.

[28] Wilson and King 1987, 93.

[29] Hefner 1980, 208.

[30] Wilson and King 1987, 100, 102.

[31] Is Wilson misunderstanding what King thinks is a value? Or does King have too theological an understanding of value? Another example involves theologians wanting to go beyond a materialistic explanation by saying human evolution follows a divine plan towards an undetected goal. Wilson boils it down to requiring a leap of faith. See Wilson and King 1987, 98.

[32] This argument is unchanged in the face of Peacocke’s levels theory. He sees theology and science forming a hierarchy of levels of which theology is higher (this is the larger framework idea made more explicit). Many concepts of the higher level (theology), Peacocke would say, are genuinely emergent and do not reduce to those of the lower level. On the other hand, the lower level must feel the higher-level concepts as singularities - inexplicable by its own concepts. Does sociobiology find there are singularities in its domain which theology explains? I do not think so.

[33] Peacocke 1986, 113. Ruse and Wilson 1985, 52; see also Manenschijn 1987, 93-94.

[34] Wilson and King 1987, 92.

[35] Lumsden and Wilson 1981.

[36] Bowker 1980, 329.

[37] Maddox, et al., 1984, 221.

[38] Gilkey 1989; see also 1989b.

[39] Braaten 1989.

[40] Gilkey 1989.

[41] Hefner 1984, 204; see also Katz 1980; and Singer 1984.

[42] Peters 1980.

[43] Hefner 1980. See also Hefner 1980b, 393. Hefner adds that there are theological ideas which a discussion on survival should consider.

[44] Eaves 1989a; 1989b; and Eaves, Eysenck and Martin 1989. Plomin 1990 reports that, while genetic inheritance plays a major role in behavior, at most fifty percent of the variation in behaviors is accounted for by genetic variance. See also Bouchard, Lykken, McGue, Segal, and Tellegen 1990.

[45] Sharpe 1984; 1992; In Press.

[46] Lumsden 1988, 241-243, 256-259.

[47] Bowker 1980, 318.

[48] Ruse and Wilson 1986, 184. See also Wilson 1980, 428.

[49] Hefner leads the way. See, for instance, his 1984; 1984b; 1989; and 1989b.

[50] Ruse 1989, 258.

[51] Ruse 1989, 265.

[52] Ruse 1989, 267.

[53] See also Wilson 1978, 3. Austin 1980 explores this claim and suggests that explaining religious beliefs as sociobiology attempts does not necessarily discredit their rational credibility.

[54] Ruse 1989, 268; see also Sharpe 1984.

[55] Hefner 1984, 203.

[56] Wilson 1980, 431.

[57] Davis 1980, 279.

[58] Wilson 1978, 195-209.

[59] Hefner 1984, 197-202.

[60] Ruse 1989b, 219. See also Ruse and Wilson 1985, 52.

[61] Alexander 1987; see also Irons 1991.

[62] See Sharpe 1984 for a further development of this theme.

[63] Wilson and King 1987, 89.

[64] Wilson 1980, 433.

[65] Peters 1980, for instance.

[66] Wilson 1978.

[67] Wilson 1980, 429.

[68] Katz 1989.

Published in Altruismus: aus der Sicht von Evolutionsbiologie, Philosophie und Theologie, Loccum Protocols 30/92, ed. Hans May (Rehburg-Loccum, Germany: Evangelische Akademie, Loccum, 1996), pp.262-300. Copyright © 1996 by Kevin Sharpe.