Concluding Remarks

Kevin J. Sharpe

Altruismus: aus der Sicht von Evolutionsbiologie, Philosophie und Theologie, Loccum Protocols 30/92, ed. Hans May (Rehburg-Loccum, Germany: Evangelische Akademie, Loccum, 1996), pp.257-260

Sociobiology makes claims on theology because human genes condition all aspects of culture, including religion and morality. Thus, sociobiology's undermining of the belief in, the power behind, and the content of altruism is unavoidable. Unfortunately, it also undermines biological altruism. There is a way to rebuild altruism and biological altruism, and harness power for their support.

First, I want to thank Philip Hefner, the Chicago Center, and the Academy here in Loccum for their invitation and for the hospitality of these last few days. I also want to thank those of you who are German speaking for the patience you have shown to us who are addicted to English; I really appreciate that.

I brought along a paper for this conference that you have probably all received. I am not going to read the paper, but I want to point out several matters from it that I think are useful as concluding remarks.

The paper addresses several rejections by theologians of sociobiology. Their usual tactic involves setting up a dualism between theological and scientific statements, a move I cannot accept. I prefer to agree with many sociobiologists and say that genes tether and partly steer all that humans do. Culture adds to what the genes bring and helps to enforce what biology requires. I also think that to insist, as do many theologians, on there being no connection from genes to culture or religion reflects a basic disagreement on world views. My choice is one informed by science rather dominated by traditional religion. Given this choice, I think theology can seek to build on and embrace sociobiology rather than be afraid of it and dismiss it. There is, therefore, a constructive way to face the challenges sociobiology raises for theology.

There are two points at the end of the paper I want to highlight, having to do with subjects raised yesterday. They concern the future. If we do acknowledge a connection between culture and sociobiology, what does it mean for our cultures? The implication I wish to pursue has to do with morality.

Sociobiology suggests that morality's roots are in biology. People think what is right and what is wrong and they also feel obliged to do what is right. When they do so and act altruistically, they are also being biologically altruistic. So altruism promotes biological altruism, and biological altruism has to do with the passing on of one's genes.

Several sources are undermining this feeling of altruism, this feeling of obligation to do what is right. One is the relativism of recognizing there are different claims over what is right and what is wrong. That eats away at the strength of these feelings. Another mechanism undermining our feelings is sociobiology - at least this is what the philosopher Michael Ruse, who has spoken here the last couple of meetings, suggests. He says that recognizing morality as only a biological adaptation undermines its traditional base. According to him, the Christian believes in an independent and objective moral code rooted in God. Believing in the objective truth of this code forces humans to behave according to it. If they discover the code and its power do not come from outside themselves, morality would lose its hold on them and would not work. Sociobiology's undermining the objectivity of morality, therefore, undermines altruism.

I think the issue goes further than Ruse takes it. Biological altruism depends on regular altruism; for instance, sometimes biological altruism needs a push from powerful altruistic feelings to counter selfishness. So undermining the feelings of altruism also undermines biological altruism. This puts us moderns in a difficult situation.

My concern then is to replace the support for altruism and biological altruism. What can again generate that immediate feeling that encourages altruism? I think there are two parts to this question. First, what might be the modern content of altruism so it promotes biological altruism? Second, what could give altruism the power of objective truth so people would want to follow it and thus also follow biological altruism? They are both large questions and I do not pretend to have full answers, but I think there are directions for exploration.

To find the modern content of morality, I think, first requires using the results of sociobiology. Yet sociobiology does not provide a morality broad enough to apply in most circumstances and does not make the choice between competing biological inclinations. Therefore, while a culture could build a morality from the findings of sociobiology, it will need other sources as well. E. O. Wilson lists values he thinks are essential for ethics, two from biology and the third is more religious. His first value is maintaining and preserving the human gene pool, and his second is maintaining the diversity of this gene pool. Third, he believes an essential ethic is universal human rights, which to me looks suspiciously Christian. This is an example of combining science and religion to find a content for modern morality, and altruism in particular.

The second part of my question about the redevelopment of altruism and biological altruism asks where the feeling might come from to make people want to be altruistic. Suppose western culture can use science and religion to start creating the content of morality. From where will this morality obtain its power? After the debate and dialogue necessary for shaping the morality, from where does it gain its strength of conviction? I think the power will have to come from within the human mind. It needs a subconscious base. There are, I suggest, two possible sources for its strength: the power of science and the power of religious traditions. Science has the power of explanation and religion has the moral wisdom of western society. Together, science and religion have the power the objective God used to have. The joining of science and religion at their deepest levels may supply altruism and biological altruism, plus the power behind them to make biological altruism work.

Wilson also suggests a way in which this might happen. He believes that liberal religion can fill the spiritual needs of people and he wants to promote it as an intermediate step toward a new religion. It can only do this, I would add, if it develops a much closer tie with science than what it has currently.

Using sociobiology and religion to develop morality also may help answer the plea Sol Katz made at the previous Loccum gathering. He presented a moving case for a global morality: our species may soon be extinct if we do not act urgently on our problems. How might the people of the world agree on a global morality, he asks. Even if they were, I ask, from where does the morality gain its power so people want to follow it? Fear of extinction is not enough; a global morality backed by both science and the world's religious and cultural traditions may be.

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

The theological response to this challenge of sociobiology, I hope, will not continue to defend tradition to the end. Tradition 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.


Katz, Solomon H. 1989. "Toward a new concept of global morality." Presented to the conference, Menschliche Natur und Moralische Paradoxa: Aus der Sicht von Biologie, Sozialwissenschaften und Theologie. Evangelische Akademie Loccum, Rehburg-Loccum, Germany.

Ruse, Michael. 1989a. The Darwinian paradigm: essays on its history, philosophy, and religious implications. London: Routledge.

_________. 1989b. "What can evolution tell us about ethics?" Pp. 203-225 in Kooperation und Wettbewerb: zu Ethik und Biologie menschlichen Sozialverhaltens, ed. May, Hans; Striegnitz, Meinfried; Hefner, Philip. Loccumer Protokolle, vol. 75/1988. Rehburg-Loccum, Germany: Evangelische Akademie Loccum.

Sharpe, Kevin J. 1992. "Religion and morality intersect biology: sociobiology and altruism." Preprint.

Wilson, Edward O. 1978. On human nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

_________. 1980. "The relation of science to theology." Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 15(4)(December): 425-434.

Copyright 1996 by Kevin Sharpe.