Sociobiology and Altruism

Sociobiology is the application of evolutionary theory to social behavior (Holcomb). “Sociobiologists claim that many social behaviors have been shaped by natural selection for reproductive success, and they attempt to reconstruct the evolutionary histories of particular behaviors or behavioral strategies” (Holcomb).

The discipline was introduced by E. O. Wilson, who believes that the human mind is a biological instrument that has evolved by way of natural selection (Wilson, 2). As a result, our ability to make “esthetic judgments” and our religious beliefs evolve by the same process (Wilson, 2).

Critics of sociobiology contend that it explains the nature of animal behavior better than human nature. They say that sociobiology ignores the influence of art and culture on the mind and that there is little control over human behavior because human nature is genetically determined (Holcomb). There is merit in their complaints. From a Christian perspective, sociobiology falls short because it diminishes religion or humanity’s attempt to know God, as an “enabling mechanism for survival,” (Wilson, 3) and altruism, a cornerstone of the Christian faith, as nothing better than mixed motives (Wilson, 149). Wilson’s theory falls short in relation to altruistic acts as influenced by religious belief or otherwise.

“In evolutionary biology, an organism is said to behave altruistically when its behavior benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself” (Okasha). Altruistic behavior presents a problem for Social Darwinism and for sociobiology because both are founded on the principle that organisms (from this point instead of using the word “organism,” I will use the terms “human” or “people”) will act in ways that benefit themselves and their own chances of survival and reproduction (Okasha).

Wilson wrote that acts of altruism in nature are common. For example, birds who call out a warning to other birds of a nearby hawk are putting themselves in mortal danger for the benefit of the group (Wilson, 150 – 151). However, this act of what might be called “instinctual” altruism cannot be compared to an act of altruism on the human level.

Altruism from a human perspective involves moral choice. An example of this is when soldiers sacrifice themselves to save others. In the movie Flags of Our Fathers, which depicts the battle of Iwo Jima from the American perspective, a young medic leaps on top of a live grenade in order to save his patients. Wilson says that this behavior can be explained away by the response to the “excitement of battle” or giving into the “ultimate luxury of not giving a damn anymore” (150). But how could the “ultimate sacrifice” benefit the giver? In the case of the soldier, who is healthy, the giver is blown to bits while the injured stay alive. He or she must be considering something larger, something outside the self. Certainly, no one would choose to leave families and loved ones behind voluntarily; however, love for one’s country, one’s neighbor or a desire to protect one’s family could negate compulsion and therefore make the act truly altruistic.

In New York City a man left his two young children on the platform and dove onto the tracks to shield a man who, while having a seizure, had fallen onto the tracks. Both men survived, but what caused the father of two young children to do this? The New York Times article titled, "The Nation: Why Our Hero Leapt Onto the Tracks and We Might Not," gives several reasons. First, the author wrote that the man who dove onto the tracks, Mr. Autrey, “later chalked up his actions to a simple compulsion to help another in distress” (Buckley); second, Mr. Autrey was predisposed to quick thinking because of his military background; third, his spontaneous reaction was a result of either genetic disposition or childhood/cultural training; and fourth, because of his attachment to his own children, Mr. Autrey may already feel predisposed to act altruistically toward others. A sociology professor from Humboldt State University found from interviewing Holocaust rescuers and 911 responders that there is “no single factor that explains heroism” (Buckley).

People who have acted heroically often came from nurturing families and were “imbued with an ethic of caring, empathy and compassion” (Buckley). While this article recognizes biological factors behind altruism, most of the reasons cited are environmental in nature. Wilson recognizes this by saying that “human social evolution is obviously more cultural than genetic.” His point is, however, that “underlying emotion, powerfully manifested in virtually all human societies, is what is considered to evolve through genes” (Wilson, 153). In this case, Mr. Autrey’s acts were not moralistic, they were genetic. Where is the choice then? Why did not more people jump in front of the train?

Even though Wilson said that he feels optimistic about human altruism, I found that his response to Mother Teresa negative. He wrote: “Mother Theresa is an extraordinary person but it should not be forgotten that she is secure in the service of Christ and the knowledge of her Church’s immortality” (165). When he wrote that in 1978, Mother Theresa’s private writings had not yet been published as Come Be My Light. In that book, the saint of Calcutta writes about a longing for God that is “terribly painful” and about an ever-increasing darkness (Kolodiejchuk, 174). Her only desire was to “satiate the thirst of Jesus on the cross for love and souls (Kolodiejchuk, 41). Without regard for her comfort, Mother Theresa led a ministry that ministered to the downtrodden and oppressed. She entered places in which many Christians would not go. Her willingness to do this rather than follow the temptation to live behind the walls of a secure convent, show that her actions were altruistic. What Wilson is missing is the comfort and courage that belief in God and in eternal life can provide. If one is afraid of death, or anything else, one is unlikely to perform altruistic acts.

Because Wilson has an obvious disdain for religion, I cannot expect him to understand that when Christ truly comes into one’s life that person becomes a “new creation.” This newness does not happen all at once for most people, but happens over a period of time as the self is given over to God. As one gives his or her self to Christ, acts of altruism increase.

One of my favorite Christian books is The Hiding Place, by Corrie ten Boom. In the book, we watch Corrie mature as a Christian in occupied Holland and in the horrors of Nazi Concentration camps. Her crime was hiding Jewish people from the Nazis. In one part of the book, Corrie is in solitary confinement worrying about the Jewish people who were hidden in the secret room during the Nazi raid that resulted in her imprisonment. A short time later she received a package from a sister. While looking at the package, Corrie noticed that her sister’s writing, which was usually straight and precise, was slanted upward pointing toward the stamp. Corrie lifted the stamp and saw these words: “All of the watches in your closet are safe.” At this point she begans to cry from joy. I can’t help but think that her resolve to put human lives over her own comfort was renewed. That is altruism.


Buckley, Cara, The Nation; Why Our Hero Leapt Onto the Tracks and We Might Not, The New York Times, January 7, 2007 accessed September 27, 2008.

Flags of our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood, DreamWorks Home Entertainment, 2006, landing on Iwo Jima.

Holcomb, Harmon and Jason Byron, "Sociobiology", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Kolodiejchuk, Brian, M. C., editor, Mother Theresa: Come Be My Light, (New York: Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group), 2007.

Okasha, Samir, "Biological Altruism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Ten Boom, Corrie, The Hiding Place, (United States: Bantam Books) 1971.

Wilson, E. O., On Human Nature (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press) 1978.