November 26, 2007

The Problem of Heroism

While you wait for me to shake off my post-Thanksgiving lethargy and complete the next MIT biology commentary, I submit this article for your consideration.

It is on the "problem" of heroism, and these excerpts get to the point of the article (which is longish):

Twenty minutes after the crash, the sun was going down, and no one had been able to reach the six survivors. They were doomed...until suddenly, miraculously, a rescue chopper came whisking across the darkening sky. It dropped a life ring right into the hands of one of the survivors and plucked him from the water. Then things turned really strange.

The next person to receive the ring handed it over to someone else. The chopper lofted her to safety, then wheeled back.

The man gave away the ring again.

And again.

He even gave it away when he knew it was his last chance to live. He must have known, because when the chopper thundered back seconds later, he was gone. The man in the water had vanished beneath the ice.

Who was he? But far more perplexing: Why was he? Why would anyone put the lives of strangers ahead of his own? He couldn't even see the faces of the people he was saving, because they were on the opposite side of the wreckage, yet he made a sacrifice for them that their best friends might have refused.

. . .

Even Charles Darwin, that human decoder ring of bizarre behavior, found the idea of saving a stranger's life to be a total head-scratcher.

"He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature," observed Darwin, who consequently couldn't figure out how to crowbar heroism into his survival-of-the-fittest theory.

Die for your own kids? Perfectly logical. According to Darwin, your only reason to exist is to pass your genes along to the next generation. But to die for a rival's kids? It seems totally counterproductive. No matter how many virile, healthy heroes you bore, it would take just one selfish bastard with a hearty sex drive to spoil the whole species. Selfish Bastard's kids would thrive and multiply, while SuperDad's kids would eventually follow their father's example and sacrifice themselves into extinction.

Even if evolutionists can propose a story to explain how such an altruistic streak could have survived in the gene pool, despite its most dominant carriers' untimely demise, they are still left to explain why we also seem to have an equally strong selfish streak. I do not think I am overplaying my hand here to say that such behavior is a problem for naturalism, which entails that all instincts must be part of the biological programming, whereas seemingly conflicting noble and fallen natures is perfectly consistent with biblical Christianity.



At 11/28/2007 6:34 AM, Anonymous Duane said...

About one year before the Scopes case, Darrow had saved two young murderers from the death sentence claiming 'this terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor.'

If you're going to hold to this philosophy consistently, then any crime no matter how heinous is simply the in the genes. The person can never be faulted.

Darrow also claimed:
‘Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietsche’s [evolutionary] philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it? … it is hardly fair to hang a 19–year–old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university.’

[I noticed the link is the sidebar too. Thanks]

At 11/28/2007 1:18 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Funny, I was just listening to a podcast that quoted many such things from Darrow. It seems as though he wanted to do away with prisons and considered the police to be the real "criminals" (wonder if he held the judicial system to be morally accountable, though).

I think if you are a materialist, then it would have to be true that we are simply slaves to our biology and conditioning. However, this wouldn't necessarily mean that it would be prudent to let the dysfunctional humans run around loose (if anything could be said to be objectively functional vs. dysfunctional). But I suppose we would really have no free choice as to what to do with our "criminals," since even that decision will have been made for us by nature.

Thanks to you also for the link. (For others, that would be the "Duane's Mind" link in my sidebar. Certainly worth a look.)

-Paul (a fellow STR fan)

At 11/28/2007 6:12 PM, Blogger Aaron Snell said...

The best evolutionist argument I've heard goes something like this:

Humans are social animals, and as such their social interactions are the context in which morality evolved. When practiced in such a social context, altruism has certain social benefits that ensure a better chance of offspring survival. This then translates into an evolved moral impulse.

As for your objection about the converse "selfish streak", I have seen two counter-arguments offered: 1) this is an evolutionary hold-over from our pre-social past; and 2) individuals sometimes benefit from selfishness in certain social situations, which means both can be present in the behavior of a biologically-programmed human animal.

Just for the benefit of those reading, I'm with you on this one Paul, and don't adopt the position I described above, but I am curious as to your response to this line of reasoning.

At 11/29/2007 2:28 AM, Anonymous Duane said...

The idea that "morality evolved" is such a meaningless concept; it's an oxymoron. It's as meaningless as talking about square circles.

If you want to talk about morality within a purely materialistic world view and be consistent, Greg Koukl tells of a caller to his show that I think did this quite succinctly.

Greg: “Jim, are you saying that there’s no moral difference between feeding a starving child and murdering him?”
Jim: “I’m saying the question doesn’t even make sense. It’s as meaningless as talking about a snake with legs. It’s nonsense, you can’t even get started.”

So even things such as selfishness can neither be a virtue or a vice. It's just stuff. If it helps you survive good. If it doesn't, whatever!

At 11/29/2007 7:49 PM, Blogger Paul said...


Nice pushback, and from a friendly no less. Good to show we do hear and understand the arguments from the other side.

I want to answer, but I'm in a time crunch just now (presently I'm still at work after 12 hours). I'll try to get to this in the next couple of days if all goes well.

At 11/30/2007 12:50 AM, Blogger Aaron Snell said...

(presently I'm still at work after 12 hours)

Ouch! I know those days...

At 11/30/2007 11:12 AM, Blogger Paul said...

With a sinus infection too!

At 12/02/2007 4:48 PM, Blogger Paul said...


In case you haven't discovered it already, I've responded to your comment in a new post, here.


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