Science in Christian Perspective



Genes and Grace: A Christian Looks at Sociobiology
Duane Kauffmann 

Goshcn College
Goshen, Indiana 46526

From: JASA 32 (June1980): 118-120.

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." So begins the first chapter of Genesis which Christians believe to be the revealed Word of God. The biblical record continues with an account of the creation of the inanimate and animate components of the universe, concluding with the creation of human beings "in God's image". Infused by the divine "breath of life", man became a living soul, Adam, the first man, named the animals, and thus completed his unique relation to the Creator and the remainder of creation.

While interpretations of the origin and meaning of the biblical account differ greatly, the Genesis story is in sharp contrast to the primal mass of incredible density which is the source of the currently popular "big bang" theory of the origin of the universe. According to this view, the entire "material" of the universe was compacted into a single mass of energy and matter that erupted with a bang of prodigious proportions. This "bang", occurring some 15-20 billion years ago, set in motion forces that are believed to remain at work in the expanding universe of today.

From the dust clouds of the exploding cosmos orderly systems evolved at stars, planets, moons, and asteroids took the places appointed them by the laws of physics and chemistry. On at least one small planet, the primeval soup developed in a manner that made life possible. It was into this inorganic aggregation of chemicals that a stimulating force produced new organization and an essential "spark" forged living matter. And once begun, life followed life into ever more complex forms, until some millions of years ago a new genus emerged Homo.

Of all the details of these accounts of origins which have provoked controversy, the emergence of Homo has provided the most emotional debate. Ever since Charles Darwin published his research on the probable relationships between species, many believers in the Christian religion have followed their interpretation of creation and rejected the "Godless" evolution of Darwin. Christians recoil as the thought of finding their heritage in monkeys, apes, and even "lower" species of animal life. (Is must be recognized that creation and evolution are no longer perceived as mutually exclusive by many Christians who acknowledge that evolutionary processes operate in nature, and may be incorporated in various ways into a creationist position. The focus in this paper is not the origin and interpretation of Genesis but on the character and predispositions which produce human behavior.)

Recently, the tensions between science and religion have been reformulated and intensified with the emergence of a self-defined "new synthesis" which calls itself sociobiology. Starting with evolutionary assumptions, sociobiology seeks to account for mankind's biology, sociology and psychology through analysis of animal and human behavior (Wilson, 1975).
In the remainder of this paper, focus is on the human portion of the debate generated by recent findings in the social and natural sciences, particularly as interpreted by contemporary sociobiology. While it is clearly impossible to resolve the complex philosophical and scientific issues separating sociobiology and Christian faith, an attempt is made to detail she path a Christian might take in facing the claims of the "new synthesis". It is further hoped that perceptive Christian thinkers will find creative ways to resolve these issues, both from the perspective of reasoned debate and from the workbench of the scientist. It is only as Christians accept this task that the challenge of theories contrary to faith can be confronted.

Perhaps it is the Christian scientist who should provide the "instance" called for by Gregory (1978). He writes:
"One of the problems sociobiology encounters in seeking genetic determinants of behavior is that it must explain everything or else it explains nothing. If there exists in a single species a single behavior that is intrinsically incapable of explanation on genetic ground, sociobiology drops from a universal to a limited hypothesis." (p. 286)

The Human Character

Let us examine first the type of human being expected by the sociobiologists. Several writers, in books oriented to a popular audience, have made strong statements concerning this topic. Ardrey (1961) suggests that human beings bear the violent legacy of "killer apes" who are our immediate predecessors. Dawkins (1976) suggests we are opportunistic "survival machines" designed to perpetuate our "selfish genes". And most recently, in a widely acclaimed book, Edward Wilson (1978) writes:

"the essence of the arguments, then, is that the brain exists because it promotes the survival and multiplication of the genes that direct its assembly. The human mind is a device for survival and reproduction, and reason is just one of its various techniques." (p. 2)


no species, ours included, possesses a purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history. Species may have vast potential for material and mental progress but they lack any immanent purpose or guidance from agents beyond their immediate environment or even an evolutionary goal toward which their molecular architecture automatically steers them." (p. 2)

Thus, while they may differ in emphasis and detail, sociobiologists clearly believe that humans are genetically programmed to "selfishness" in the interests of their own (genes') survival. Genetic success requires adaptability, competitive advantage, deceit, aggression, territorial control, and reproductive success, if these characteristics are not countermanded by the situational superiority of kin, dynamics and/or reciprocity. Perhaps even more significant for the Christian is the assumption that the unfolding of the genetic drama occurs without any "immanent purpose" or "agents beyond their immediate environment." This self-reliant and survival-oriented individual perceived by the sociobiologists exhibits remarkable similarity to the scriptural description of unredeemed humanity.

In the Old Testament, human character is shaped by the sin of Adam and Eve, an event motivated by their selfish desire to be "like God". The history of God's people following that event is one of constant yielding to the sins of pride, greed, and self-interest. The Ten Commandments are directed against these human propensities and the Old Testament Scriptures promise a saviour who will provide a way of redeeming fallen humanity.

In the New Testament, consider Paul's scriptural concept of the "old nature." In Colossians 3, Paul notes deceit, anger, wrath, and covetousness as aspects of the "old man", and in Ephesians 4 he lists vice, indecency, anger, bitterness, evil speakings, and theft. He then admonishes his readers to "put on the new man" (v. 24 KJV) which will "put away" these traits which destroy kindness and forgiveness.

"Putting away" the old nature is a key element of the "immanent purpose" that Christians call the Gospel. Human beings who respond to this message are to bring the old nature of pride, selfinterest, deceit, and anger to the cross and thereby experience conversion. The "new creature" created by this experience is to demonstrate characteristics substantially opposed to the genetic predispositions of the "old nature". This "new creature" will exhibit attributes making possible a community of human beings which exhibit the fruits God's Spirit makes possible.


In order to explain helping behavior between organisms, the sociobiologists suggest that self-interest may he risked in the pursuit of reciprocity, with the "faith" that such behavior will result in "cost effective" benefits at some future time. Reciprocity defined in this behavioral manner reminds the Christian of the "eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth" doctrine upon which Christ commented in the Sermon on the Mount. In response to this formulation of the reciprocity ethic, Christ's words were "But I say onto you, that you resist not evil; but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." (Matthew 5:39) In further examples Christ requires going the extra mile, and providing for persons in need regardless of their ability to reciprocate. Finally, even enemies are not to be feared or hated. "But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you." (Matthew 5:44ab)

The call to behavior which contrasts with self-concerned reciprocity is elaborated in a passage recorded in Luke,
"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners' expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back." (6: 32-35a NIV)

The unavoidable conclusion is that the follower of Christ is to extend love and assistance to others, without requiring the sociobiological assumption that such help may ultimately benefit one's own genes. The result of this behavior is the spreading of Christ's love, and reward in heaven, whatever may be the cost to one's biological survival.

Clearly, if genetic forces are programmed to "equivalent" reciprocity, the Christian is called to violate his "genes" in the pursuit of a higher goal. Similar implications may be derived from analysis of equally important sociobiological constructs.

Kinship Altruism

The theory of kinship altruism has been developed to account for the assistance animals, and humans, provide for members of the same species. Honeybees demonstrate this principle well, since the workers, in caring for the young, are in fact caring for offspring with whom they share 1/2 of the tame genes. Parents who care for their children are providing for individuals who carry i/r of their genes. Through similar argument, if providing for cousins, eight persons must benefit according to this theory, since cousins carry only Vs of the genes of the helper.

It need not he denied that humans concern themselves with their relatives, although the concern may not be as carefully calculated as kin altrutim would lead us to believe. Family breakdown patterns, the rising abortion rate, and shrinking family size are facts which cause difficulty for the sociobiologists' concept of kin altruism.

The life of the Christian is based on different ties. While the welfare of every human individual is a concern of the Christian, the "family" for the Christian transcends genetic ties. The "family" is the church, where "kin" are based not on chemical DNA, but on common faith. The Christian is called to support, suffer, and even die, not necessarily for biological kin, but for his or her faith or fellow believers.

The best example of this redefined kinship pattern is Christ, whose death was for humanity, even though many reject his costly sacrifice (a violation of reciprocity!). Christ's death, which Christians reciprocate with a response of acceptance and belief, was in the interest of creating a community of faith which transcends the soeiobiologists' genetic conception of altruism.

The family created by Christ's death breaks down the barriers, both genetic and cultural, which separate people in cubicles of self-interested preservation. The New Testament stresses that for human beings biological and sociological subspecies have been transcended. Paul expresses this truth in these words: "For as many of you have been baptized into Christ have part of Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.." (Galations 3: 27, 28)

The implications which accompany the formation of this universal body of believers are also of considerable interest. For if the Christian life requires conversion from the old biological/cultural nature to a new life, it most be possible to transcend the genetic and social forces which sociobiologists feel are determinants of behavior. Indeed if humans are to be held personally responsible for their behavior at the time of judgment, provision needs to be made for achieving acceptance before God. Christians believe that Christ's power makes this possible. His power, exercised by His Spirit, makes achievable the redefined kinship and the revised reciprocity principles.

Selfish Gene or Jubilee

Sociobiologists and evolutionary biologists have devoted extensive attention to concepts of competitive advantage through acquisition of status and! or territory. Data from animal genera demonstrate the numerous ways in which territory affects the struggle for food, furnishes safety from predators, and provides access to mates. Strength and strategy accumulate these necessities to the genetically most "fit".

The Old Testament proposes a model at variance with competitive striving and the accumulation of property. This program is called the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25). During this time (every 50 years) debts are to be forgiven, lands are to be returned to their rightful heirs, and slaves are to be given their freedom. Although  doctrine is little taught or followed by contemporary Christians,  it serves as a benchmark against which New Testament teachings on wealth and property might be understood.

In the New Testament, money and possessions are repeatedly named as temptations so the believer and the Christian is instructed to use them in God's service, not for power, ease, self-interest, or exploitation, in place of the human propensity to seek territory and wealth the Scriptures outline the necessity for Christians to choose a servant role. In this role Christians are to serve the needs of others and avoid the temptation to "lord" it over their fellowman.

The year of Jubilee and the servant stance are in stark contrast to the notions of dominance and acquisition common in animal data. A successful return to a biblical view of wealth, position, and justice might lead to human behavior quite discontinuous with sociobiological predictions. 

In Whose Defense 

Discussion of the year of Jubilee suggests another doctrine followed by few contemporary Christians (a fact which the sociobiologists may help us understand). While the New Testament teaches quite plainly the need to love one's enemies, and appears to teach nonviolence, few Christians find this interpretation. Thus Christians have frequently, even eagerly, been participants in warfare, particularly wars to protect freedom of religion and democracy.

This paper is not the place to reargue the voluminous literature on war and nonresistance. It will be sufficient to note that conflict leading to aggression is readily predicted from animal data. For Christians to choose the way of peace, and seek their security in a God who guarantees eternal life, would provide a rebuttal of the proponents of war's "natural" causation. Furthermore the renunciation of war implies the rejection of tribalism (read nationalism), the repudiation of wealth, power and territory as purposes of human life, and the discarding of"fitness" as an inviolable motive of human being. In renouncing these sociobiological drives, the Christian affirms the servant stance and the non-biological character of the believing community. 

Unfortunately, the fractured and fractious characteristics of the church, and the self-interested behavior of individual Christians, serve to support the position of the sociobiologists. Examples abound. Agape love is denied by personal competitiveness, gossip, and conditional relationships (a form of sociobiological reciprocity). Materialism and economic gain contradict professions of the servant role. Denominational territorialism belies a common faith in the power of love and the unity of the Spirit. Indeed, one might suggest that the church family is split into tribes seeking their own "genetic" preservation, in denial of the biblical instructions that it is necessary to lose life in order to find it. In short, if the church is to transcend sociobiologieai determinism, therapeutic efforts are urgently needed. I have sometimes speculated that if Christians were really being Christian, much less of their behavior could be understood psychologically, sociologically, or sociobiologically. Until Christians demonstrate the power of love and the servant stance, the "selfish gene" (and theories of like emphasis) will not have been displaced by the power of the divine Spirit.


1Ardrey, Robert. African Genesis. New York: Dell Publishing, 1961. 
2Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. 
3Gregory, Michael. "Epilogue". In Gregory, Michael; Silvers, Anita; and Satch, Diane (eds) Sociobiology and Human Nature. San Francisco: Jostey-Bass, 1978.
4Wiison, Edward. Sociobiology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975.
5Wilson, Edward. On Human Nature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.