Genes, Social Evolution and God

Genes, Social Evolution and God
By Reverend Dr. Thomas D. Lynch
Talk given to the UU Church in Hildago County, Texas
And UU Church in San Miguel de Allende, Gto.,Mexico

November 4, 2007 and December 16, 2007


For me, saying that God uses evolution as a key biological and social tool seems extremely reasonable because I do have a Ph.D. My education of 12 plus 10 years has ingrained in me a cautious acceptance of theories such as evolution, a strong doubt for anything based entirely or almost entirely on “trust me” assertions, and an acceptance of the scientific method in defining what a community of rational thinkers call knowledge. Therefore, I find that the fundamentalists’ argument for using literal interpretations of the Bible to be absurd. I just cannot make any sense of their argument.

To me, the Bible is extremely metaphorical and my challenge is trying to understand exactly what it is teaching others and me. In particular, I find the story of creation, which Jewish tradition tells us was written down by Moses, can only make sense if it is metaphorical. Even if God told Moses the creation story as contemporary science explains it, I cannot imagine that Moses would have had the conceptual background needed to understand that explanation. God had to dumb it down for him and I should add God must dumb it down for me.

I do not see how God could have done anything else but give Moses a metaphorical explanation of creation. Anyone who has taught knows that learning is a building or evolutionary process. You cannot teach advanced physics to a child in grade 1. I like to think of God as the ultimate teacher. He would have to use a metaphorical explanation to explain what was really important about creation for not only Moses but also for us in our time. If you believe the Bible is for all people through time and take a literal interpretation of it, then we would have to give up some remarkable advances in our accumulated knowledge we call science. On the other hand, if you believe the Bible is essentially a metaphorical communication by God to teach us through time significant lessons for each of us in our era and circumstance, then the Bible becomes a useful tool.

Frankly, our scientific theory of creation would not have made much sense to a person born with the background of Moses. He would not be comfortable with the Egyptian creation story and he would not have understood our current scientific explanation. He needed an alternative story. The human characteristic called curiosity would naturally fill in the blanks with his imaginations or he would rely upon Jewish oral stories of his day to explain creation. I suspect that it might have been a combination, but I am also comfortable with a divine explanation that God told the story to him. I am also comfortable with scholars that say the Torah was written and rewritten over the centuries.

For those not familiar with the term Torah, it refers to the first five books of what Christians call the Old Testament and Jews call the Jewish Bible. Devote Jews believe that those books were given to Moses on Sinai along with the tablets. For me, who wrote it and when it was written is not so important as its usefulness to my life and its usefulness comes from its metaphorical content and not its literalism.

In my talk today, my major thesis is that evolutionary theory including social evolution is really quite consistent with those who like to believe in God. In that theory, evolution over a great amount of time built certain social characteristics into our human genes and those genes in turn influence our behavior today. Specifically, I am saying that human have what I can a Social Oneness virtue naturally built into them through the process of social evolution. However, in our lives, we need to cultivate the use of wisdom, especially spiritual wisdom, in deciding how to apply the Social Oneness virtue in the various situations we face.

In this talk, I am going to start with discussing the notion of the self and place that concept into the context of human social evolution. My second topic will explain what I believe the Torah brought to humankind in its social evolutionary path. My third topic explains that Jesus built on the message of the Torah as he tried to help the Jews and the rest of us socially understand the complexity of the Torah message. In my final topic, I shall try to offer some additional thoughts that I believe can extend us even further on our social evolutionary path that challenges us in the twenty-first century.

The Concept of Self

Anyone, who has taken a philosophy class, probably was introduced to the phrase “Cogito ergo sum,” which translated from the Latin means roughly “I think therefore I am.” For each of us, we know that we exist and that is all we can be absolutely sure about. Thus, each of us knows there is a self or what some call an ego. Harvard Professor Lawrence Kohlberg noted, as we grow as an individual from childhood to adolescence and eventually to adulthood, we go through stages of moral development. In his theory, the first stage is the ego. Of course, some of us do not grow morally and we get stuck in stage one or some of the other early stages.

In stage one, we identify our self with our very being or ego. An extreme case of stage one development is the narcissist, who can only think of himself. He is completely in love with himself to the exclusion of everyone else. In the teachings of Jesus, he spoke a great deal about the contrast between Kingdom of Man and the Kingdom of God. As I mentioned in other talks here, those two terms represented mindsets and not physical places. The Kingdom of Man mindset is a stage one or near a stage one thinker who places value on having material wealth, power, and satisfying other ego wants.

Please do not misunderstand me. I think that love of the self, as defined as ego, is important. Some of us do not even get past that first stage and we should. When Jesus advocated against the Kingdom of Mind mindset, he was saying that we need to achieve the first stage and significantly we need to go far beyond it. We do that by loving our neighbor in the broadest sense of the word and we also do that by loving a universal God of Oneness.

When Jesus advocated for the Kingdom of God mindset, he was giving us a goal and an ideal that we individually and collectively can move toward if we but only adopt that mindset of caring for others and our environment. Realistically, not many of us will reach stage six and Jesus understood that fact. To him, that was just fine. What is important is that each of us needs to advance up through the stages as much as we can. Even some shifting of the population toward stage six thinking will make a radical positive difference to our world. That is what he meant by creating a Kingdom of God on earth in the near future.

To Kohlberg there were six stages of moral development starting with the ego and moving continually outward from the ego toward the infinite universe. In stage two, he stated that we identify self with those with whom we can reach agreement and only think of self within the context of those agreements. In stage three, the self extends to the family and friends. In stage four, self becomes our group that can be a tribe, profession or nation. In stage five, we see self as the whole and we are concerned with doing the greatest good for the greatest number. In stage six, self becomes some abstract principle that supercedes all other considerations.

Jesus argues to us that we need to expand our love to others while including love of the ego-self. In the Hindu tradition, the larger loved self is Self with a capital S. A reasonable interpretation of Jesus and the Hindu tradition tells us that Self is God but that Self resides outside and inside the person. In this view, we all have the divine spark within us and our challenge is to grow that spark into a metaphorical glowing light. We grow that light first with our expanding love and then with our quest for increasing our spiritual wisdom.

The Buddhist approaches the notion of self differently. To them, Self, written in a small or large letter S, is an illusion that gets us into trouble when we believe in it. Buddhists are pragmatists. Their goal is to end or minimize suffering caused by the human endless quest of wanting. Stop wanting and you will stop your suffering. What you wish flows directly out of your illusion of Self. You identify with objects, wealth, and power. They argue to stop that identification we must stop using the illusion of Self.

Let me summarize to this point in the talk. We can identify ourselves in various ways from being ego centered while excluding others to being principle thinkers to the extent of denying that any form of Self exists. Our great religious traditions tell us that the extreme left of this continuum is what we must avoid and we need to aspire to the extreme right of this continuum. I argue in the next two sections that such an argument has evolved us socially. However, I argue for a refinement of that position in the conclusion of this talk; but before I can make such an argument, I shall next explain the notion of self in the context of social evolution.

Evolution and the Torah

The scientific world is unclear when our species evolved to what we are today. Essentially, we are told that our lineage split off from the lineage that became chimpanzees around six million years ago. The numbers of humans in the world grew slowly until about 3,000 years ago when we figured out that we could plant crops, tend them, and have enough food to start what we now call civilization. The agricultural technological innovation of crops rooted us to particular places and encouraged us to specialize and trade over distances. Thus, for almost all of our existence, we lived in nomadic groups that found food by searching and gathering. Changing weather had a profound impact on us and caring for our children was a remarkable challenge as our very young developed so much more slowly than other animals.

About 15 or 20 million years ago, small forest monkeys in Africa evolved and were able to digest unripe fruit. This put the pre-homo sapiens at big disadvantage as their primary food supply was no longer available. To adapt and find food, they had to move to the forest edge where there was more food but also more danger from big cats, canines, and other savanna predators. Evolution adapted them by making our ancestors larger and able to associate in larger social groups. The latter evolutionary change gave the individuals more eyes to detect enemies and a better ability to fight back as there is strength in numbers.

This need to be in larger working groups created the classic human problem that exists to this day. The members of the group needed to be smart enough to balance their individual needs with those of the pack. For us as humans working in groups, we need to cooperate and exercise some individual restraint. We must understand behavior of other group members and how to comprehend and manage one’s place in an ever-shifting array of alliances that members formed in order to function in bigger groups.

The first tool to help create this bonding within groups was grooming one another. For example, monkeys, great apes, and some teenage girls and boys spend up to a fifth of their time grooming. Although this social bonding tool still exists today, it proved insufficient and another tool was necessary: talking.

The need to understand social dynamics rather than the need for food or how to navigate terrain spurred and rewarded evolution that resulted in bigger and bigger primate brains. There is a correlation between brain size and the size of social groups used by a specie. Our cognitive abilities that permit social group interaction are in the outer neocortex of the brain. In most mammals, the neocortex accounts for 30 to 40 percent of brain volume. In higher social primates, it is 50 to 65 percent. In humans, it is 82 percent.

No strong correlation exists between the neocortex size and tasks like hunting, navigating, or creating shelter. However, understanding one another, especially in the context of groups, does require great cognitive abilities. The only way that humans can handle being in groups of over 50 in size is with learning how to talk and using that skill in connection with understanding group behavior cognitively.

For humans, group living became essential for survival. Some in the group had to hunt and gather and others had to literally keep the “home” fires burning as they specialized in having and taking care of children. One of the consequences of such social living is that individual behavior in terms of social interaction became highly flexible and tailored to changing circumstances. For example, a woman at some point in her short years might have to rear one or more children but also might have to hunt and gather food, especially if food was hard to find.

The first book of the Torah tells us that one of the very first brothers of our specie committed murder. Murder and warfare were very common in the six million-year history of humankind. Scientist, such as Sam Bowles, tell us that possibly 15 percent of those born in a given year died due to war or murder. Thus, fighting among social groups and within social groups was not unusual but common. The Torah provides us with the same lesson as extensive warring and murder are duly reported in its pages.

Jews and Christians know the covenant between God and the Jewish people. Essentially, God made a deal with a people, who were descendants of Abraham. It was simple and direct: Believe in me and follow my rules. If you do that, I will take care of you. If you do not, I will punish you. A closer reading of the Torah points out that God had Moses form the 12 Hebrew tribes, who descended from grandson Jacob (Israel) of Abraham, into a large social group. God gave them a leader in the person of Moses. God defined for them identifiable group characteristics such as circumcision and how to wear their clothing in a manner different from others, a set of ethical rules that made group living possible, and a mission or goal for them to follow. The Torah is about Jews becoming a definable people that God required to be righteous and just. It is also about a people who could not and did not always abide by the covenant.

In his research, Bowles makes the point that super cooperative, selfless humans could wipe out less-united groups. This happens when the cooperative group practices monogamy and the sharing of food with other group members. Such practices reduced the ability of the selfish members to out reproduce their more generous members. Monogamy or near monogamy helped the spread of selflessness because it reduced the differences in the number of children that different people have. Alternatively, if one or two males monopolized all the females in the group, any genes involved in selflessness would quickly disappear and overtime the social group would be less stable.

A perfect example of this better type of group is the Jewish nation and people. When they followed God’s direction, they were able to wipe out their enemies; and when they did not, their enemies won. Clearly, God’s actions, that are described in the Torah, made the Jewish people much more cooperative and selfless toward each other and even other peoples. When the Jews failed to follow God’s directions, they became less united and lost battles and eventually their nation twice.

The Torah is a story with a divine social lesson. Social Oneness is important if you are interesting in surviving as a group or even surviving as an individual. In more scientific language, Bowles argues that a genetic predisposition for selflessness is likely to grow where there are fewer examples of group disparities and discord. The Jewish Bible affirms that theory.

The Torah cites many examples of a Jewish group stoning and killing their own people when the non-conforming Jews violated the norms of the group. Thus, more selfless Jews purged the more selfish from the group. To the modern person, such actions seems remarkable harsh and flatly wrong. However if Bowles is correct, non-conforming individuals weaken the whole group. The Torah is about the whole group. If the group did not drive out or kill such people, the Jewish nation would not have won its battles and would not have become a nation.

In contrast, people, who followed the group’s formal and informal rules, made the group much more collectively strong. Thus, theoretically they had an evolutionary social advantage that helped their group to survival as a group. The fact that the Jews are still a social group after more than 3,500 years speaks to the correctness of Bowles’s theory.

Evolution and Jesus

As I have mentioned in an earlier talk here, I strongly disagree with the prevailing dominant interpretation of the New Testament. Instead, I argue the Jesus was a reform Jew that was trying to get the Jewish people to understand and apply the concept of Social Oneness. His ministry was about the Kingdom of God, which was not a place but rather a selfless mindset. He understood the larger message in the Torah that I have described here and he felt that then Jewish religious leadership was not bringing that message to his people. He knew that almost every individual was flexible enough to be ego or selfless centered or some combination of both. His ministry was to move his people away from the ego-centered mindset and toward a selfless centered mindset.

Generally, we are more selfless than we give ourselves credit, as the so-called punishment games developed by economists have demonstrated. They are two very simple games. In the first, we are told to assume one person is a dictator that has $1,000 and the second person has no money. On average over many games with different people playing the two persons, how much would the dictator give to the second person?

In the second game, we still have two people playing but a rule is added. If the second person does not like the offer made by the first person, he or she can refuse the offer. If the second person refuses, then both persons get nothing. On average over many games, how much would the first person give to the second person?

The dismal science of economics is predicated on the pessimistic thinking of John Hobbes. Most economists would guess that in the first games that the dictator would maximize his potential wealth and thus would keep the $1,000. In the second game, they believe that the second person would reason that something is better than nothing so that the average figure would be much larger for the first person and smaller for the second person.

Empirical observation of the game actually being played tells us the economists are wrong, as some people seem to have a selfless gene in them that might have developed because of social evolution. In the first game, many people are nice enough to share with someone they don’t know. In the second game, many people forgo getting anything themselves in order to punish someone who made an ungenerous offer. Humans seems to have evolved to being good at conforming to the prevailing cultural norms and to enjoy making sure that those norms are enforced. Thus, there are apparently genes that foster friendly behavior toward others.

Conclusions and Recommendations

There is scientific evidence that such friendly genes do exist. The proof is called Williams syndrome. If you have Williams syndrome, you tend to have poor cardiovascular functions, a small, pointed “elfin” face, and you are weirdly, incautiously friendly and nice to all other people. You can learn the phrase “Don’t talk to strangers” but you can’t translate it into action.

You are missing a small segment of Number 7 Chromosome and that means you are missing 20 genes. Almost all people have 46 chromosomes in 23 pairs from your mother and father. Thus, for a person with the Williams syndrome, he or she has one set of Number 7 Chromosome that is normal and the other is missing 20 genes. Somehow, this insufficiency results in very nice people, who are not capable of learning how not to be nice. The Williams syndrome shows that friendliness has a genetic underpinning.

What apparently happened to humans over centuries is that we developed both the selfish and selfless sets of genes. Centuries of social situations taught us that working cooperatively was helpful but not in all situations. Selfless genes dominate some and selfish genes dominate others within humankind. Therefore, in any population, some people tend to think only of themselves, others tend be selfless, and most of us are a mix of both. In other words, Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is affirmed.

The practical implications of this scientific finding are important. Almost all of us are born with built in selfish / selfless social tendencies, but we are also born with the mental capacity to turn on or off either set of genes. Freewill does exist, but each of us has a default setting. If you are naturally selfish, you can train yourself to become less selfish and more selfless. Conversely, if you are naturally selfless, you can train yourself to become less selfless and more selfish.

Essentially, we are born with what I call a Social Oneness virtue. Thus, almost all of us are genetically hardwired with both selfish / selfless social tendencies but some of us are more selfish and others more selfless within the population called humans. In other words, some of us think greed is good, others consider such thoughts as demonic, and most of us have mix of such thoughts that vary by circumstance.

We can think of the Social Oneness virtue as being on a continuum. The inadequacy vice of ego centeredness selfishness is at one end of the continuum and the excess vice of no caution selfless is at the other end. People fall naturally somewhere along this continuum as they deal with social situations but they can also override their genetic programming because they have both sets of selfish and selfless genes and they have a mind that can reprogram their behavior.

Thus, Jesus was correct. People as a whole and certainly some people in particular can be moved along this continuum away from selfishness toward selflessness. Nevertheless, genetic programming is powerful and only a few will significantly lose all of their selfish or selfless characteristics. However, even shifting the range somewhat toward selflessness makes significant advancement in civilization possible as the Bible helps us understand. People are capable of social learning as the American progress in Civil Rights demonstrates. Certainly, racism continues to exist in the twenty-first century among some Americans, but the range of such attitudes clearly has shifted significantly toward selflessness in spite of the fact that some people still define their group by definition as being “better” or “superior” than other racial groups.

For each of us, our life is a series of situations that we approach with our enhanced genetic social programming but those life situations are contextual to time and place. What is the “correct” or Golden Mean Social Oneness decision for an individual or group depends to a greater or lesser extent on the context of the life situation. Often, we should be more selfless; but sometimes, we need to be more selfish. We must use wisdom including critical thinking when we make those life decisions on a case-by-case basis. From a public policy perspective, we must narrow the chances of having negative situations that bring on selfish behavior and teach wisdom as much as possible so that individual and collective correct choices are more likely to occur.

In teaching us to love our neighbor, Jesus was not telling geneticist to cut off those 20 genes. Our Free Choice is one of God’s important gifts to us but choices are best if they are wise ones within the context of our behavioral tendencies and our circumstances. Many of us may think loving behavior is always best, but there are situations where we need to apply the brakes to friendly behavior. For example, we are always wiser to pick and chose our friends so that those around us re-enforce our positive behavior and do not bring out our bad behavior.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Mary asked Jesus, “What do your disciples resemble?” His answer was not very flattering for his disciples but his answer does tell us something about those that tend to be selfless. Jesus said, “What they resemble is children living in a plot of land that is not theirs. When the owners of the land comes they will say, ‘Surrender our land to us.’” In other words, they cannot understand why others are not also selfless. Thus, they naively approach social confrontational situations much like people with William syndrome. They must learn to be better prepared for life’s situations and learn to rely on people who can better use their Social Oneness virtue by employing wisdom.

Jesus was trying to encourage the general public to be much more friendly toward others as that is the larger and more serious problem in choosing the correct Golden Mean for the Social Oneness virtue in his or our society. Many of us act in an unfriendly manner toward others, especially if they fall outside of what we identify as our social group. Almost all of us need to expand our self-identity to include everyone and everything. However, we must also not forget that the persons most likely to hurt us are usually those that are closest to us.

As an educator, I am a firm believer that each person needs to develop their intelligence and skills as much as possible so that they can bring out their greater abilities and enhance not only their lives but also our lives. For people living in social or economic poverty, this can be very difficult and possibly impossible. To some societies, developing the intellectual, physical, or spiritual self, especially for minorities and women, seems like an extreme self-centered act that is done at the expense of the family’s welfare.

Thus, the selfless gene tells a woman at the micro level that she must sacrifice her education for the family, as she has “no real choice.” Maybe, she is correct but I suspect that I would think otherwise in at least some situations. Clearly, what is wrong at the macro level is having public policies that force women and men to make such choices. For society to advance as much as possible, we need all of the creative talent possible and we do not need public policies that make that impossible.

The story of Martha and Mary in the Gospel of Luke is appropriate here. Jesus was visiting a house that contained Martha, Mary, and others. Mary listen to the words of Jesus and Martha was busy serving the group. Eventually, Martha complained about Mary not helping with the serving. Jesus answered: “Martha, Martha, you are careful and troubled about many things: but one this is needful: and Mary has chosen the correct path, which shall not be taken away from her.” The social selfless gene is important and serving others is important. However, learning, especially from the master, is radically more important. We must keep our decisions in perspective if we are to make the wise choice.

I am saying that one approach to Social Oneness does not make sense for all people. We need to adapt ourselves not only to our conditions but also to correct dysfunctional tendencies in our social behavior. We need to apply wisdom to sort out the correct course of action for a particular situation and a particular person. We need to realize that Social Oneness is a virtue that we need to cultivate and grow within ourselves. We also need to realize that the correct course of action or Golden Mean is somewhere between the two vices of ego centeredness and no caution.

So where do we find such wisdom? It takes effort to find but it is found in the spiritual wisdom literature of every faith tradition. It is also found in the halls of the academy, our libraries, our bookstores, and on the Internet that you can access. In all cases when you look for wisdom, you must seek to find it and you will find it as it is always there. The challenges are recognizing it, separating it from the non-wisdom material, valuing it, and applying it to your every day life.

As this is the end of my talk, some summary comments are needed. I pointed out that evolution and especially social evolution is really quite consistent with those like myself who like to believe in God. I believe I showed how one defines self and that the scope of the meaning of self varies among us. The use of the concept of self is central to religious and moral thought. I placed that varying understanding of self into the context of human social evolution, and I believe that I demonstrated that the Torah helped moved humankind along its social evolutionary path. In addition, I showed that Jesus tried to build on the message of the Torah in terms of the social evolution of humankind.

Finally, I tried to make the point that we need to think of none cautionary selflessness and ego centeredness as extreme deficiency and excess vices of a Social Oneness virtue. This is a virtue that can and should be taught by schools and churches. Thinking that there is one approach to Social Oneness for all people in all circumstances does not make sense. We need to teach people to adapt themselves not only to their conditions but also to compensate for dysfunctional tendencies in their social behavior.

We need to teach people how to apply practical wisdom to sort out the correct course of action for them in the most common situations for their personality type. We need to stress that Social Oneness is a virtue that we can and should cultivate within ourselves. We also need to be sensitive to the conceptual reality that any correct course of action or Golden Mean is always somewhere between the two vices of “ego centeredness” and “no caution selflessness.”

I hoped you enjoyed and gained something important from this talk. Thank you for your attention and if time permits I am now open to your questions and comments.

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