Science in Christian Perspective


God's Design Plan in Nature:
A Fresh Look at Altruism

Michael C. Morris

Department of Architecture and Environmental Systems 
Shibaura Institute of Technology 
Fukasaku 307
Omiya, Saitama 330-8570, JAPAN

From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 52 (March 2000): 55-57. Response: Lathi

Altruism has been defined as any action that increases the fitness of the recipient at the expense of the giver.1 Fitness is defined in Darwinian terms as the potential for an organism to spread its genes to the next generation.2 Earlier generations of behavioral biologists, observing the way social animals helped each other, came to the conclusion that they were acting for the good of the group or species as a whole.3 This theory has been displaced by the view that altruism can be wholly accounted for by the Darwinian process of mutation and natural selection acting on an individual to increase its own fitness. One of the strongest advocates of the "selfish gene" theory is Dawkins, who pointed out that natural selection works on genes, not individuals and, certainly, not on groups.4

Belief in the "good of the species" view, therefore, is incompatible with the Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest. Altruism in humans and other species is thought to come about through Darwinian mechanisms in the following ways:

Computer simulations, however, show that "cheats" are rapidly displaced by individuals who remember who they have done favors for and keep account of old scores ("tit for tat" strategists). Individuals may also remember who has done favors to other group members, and only help those who are cooperative.7

The evolution of reciprocal altruism through Darwinian mechanisms alone could only apply in a species like ours which lives in groups, and is intelligent enough to remember the faces and characteristics of other individuals.

Another assumption is that there are repeated interactions among group members. Those who act altruistically, therefore, must live to learn from the experience.9

Weaknesses of Darwinian Mechanisms

Some people are quite obviously uncomfortable with the idea that all human morality can be reduced to the random action of selfish genes. Even Dawkins, a strong advocate of Darwinism, appears unable to accept the inevitable logical conclusion of his arguments, holding to the view that perhaps in the human species a real disinterested altruism can be nurtured.10

Quite apart from the gut feeling that mere Darwinism is not enough, if we examine cases of altruistic behavior in more detail, we can see that the assumptions of high intelligence, sociability, and repeated interactions needed for Darwinian evolution to take place are not always present. A classic example of reciprocal altruism is the case of cleaner shrimps or cleaner fish and their clients on coral reefs.11 The cleaners live on parasites that they pick from inside the mouths of predators such as barracudas. The predators welcome this attention, and allow the cleaners full access to the insides of their mouths without even attempting to molest them afterwards. Predators have even been observed to put their own lives at risk rather than harm the cleaners. Predators recognize the sites occupied by the cleaners and return to the same site again and again. Trivers argues that it is this site recognition that fostered the selection of behavior that prevents the predator from eating the cleaner.12 Predators will not damage their own property.

This presupposes that each predator is allocated only one cleaner, but there is no experimental evidence to support this view. Indeed, Trivers describes predators that have a number of alternative sites where they can attend, if their regular cleaner does not appear.13 Certainly, it would be inconvenient for a predator to lose its cleaner, but if it shares the cleaner with other predators, it would be in the predator's interest to eat the cleaner before one of its competitors does. "Cheat" predators would, therefore, be selected for. Such attitudes to communal property among humans have been well documented as the "tragedy of the commons."14

Another case of reciprocal altruism is the example of certain ant species that carry caterpillars into their nests, feed them, and look after them in order to get the sweet, nectar-like substance which the caterpillars excrete. The interesting thing about the relationship is that even when the caterpillar has outlived its usefulness and has pupated just outside the ants' nest, the ants will not harm the pupa, and will even continue to look after it.15 Again, such behavior would not be advantageous from a Darwinian point of view, since the caterpillars in the next generation are shared among all ant colonies in the area.

Altruism has even been seen in supposedly non-sentient plants. Recent research suggests that plants secrete substances when under attack by insects. These warn other plants nearby so they can prepare their defenses.16 Similarly, some plants produce estrogen mimics. These inhibit reproduction in herbivores, and therefore benefit all plants in an area, even though the donor still gets eaten.17

Altruism as a Design Plan

If we look around at the living world, we certainly see evidence of ruthless competition. However, we also see many instances of altruism and cooperation, from the heroic acts of humans, to the actions of cleaner fish and their clients, to the intricate relationships of all components of an ecosystem eloquently described by E. O. Wilson.18 The regulation of the biosphere has prompted the theory that the earth itself is an interacting system with all parts playing their role.19 At the cellular level, too, there is increasing evidence to suggest that the cells which make up our bodies are the results of cooperation between a eucaryote and bacterial cell.20

Many biochemical systems cannot be explained through the gradual selection process required by Darwinism, leading to the conclusion that organisms are intelligently designed, at least at the cellular level.21 However, evolutionists can also explain design by invoking mechanisms, such as complexity theory, to supplement the Darwinian process. Design is not denied, but is attributed to chance effects or to "Mother Nature."22

What is needed is a way to distinguish the identity of the designer through a study of the design. I suggest that the ubiquitous presence of altruism and cooperation provides one such test. If design is a product of random processes, then we should not expect it to show any evidence of cooperation or any altruistic interactions that cannot be explained by a Darwinian mechanism. If life was designed and created by a loving God, however, it would not be surprising to find that altruism and cooperation have been built into the design plan.

My conclusion, therefore, is that altruism provides proof of God's creation, as stated in Rom. 1:20. The Creator has designed all of us, human and nonhuman, so that we can "love one another as I have loved you."


This article was inspired by discussions at the 4th World Congress of Bioethics, Tokyo, 1998, particularly with Dr. A. Pollard (Macaquarie University, Australia) and Dr. Darryl Macer (Tsukuba University, Japan), who reviewed an early version of this manuscript.


1R. Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).


3D. S. Wilson, "The Group Selection Controversy: History and Current Status," Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 14 (1983): 159-87.

4R. Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

5M. A. Nowak and K. Sigmund, "Evolution of Indirect Reciprocity by Image Scoring," Nature 393 (1998): 573-7; and Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype.

6D. S. Wilson, "The Group Selection Controversy."

7G. Roberts and T. N. Sherratt, "Development of Cooperative Relationships Through Increasing Investment," Nature 394 (1998): 175-9; and Nowak and Sigmund, "Evolution of Indirect Reciprocity by Image Scoring."

8R. L. Trivers, "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism," The Quarterly Review of Biology 46 (1971): 35-57.

9P. Hamerstein and R. F. Hoekstra, "Mutualism on the Move," Nature 376 (1995): 121-2; Nowak and Sigmund, "Evolution of Indirect Reciprocity by Image Scoring;" and Roberts and Sherratt, "Development of Cooperative Relationships."

10Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype, Chapter 11 and endnote.

11A. Grutter, "Cleaner Fish Really Do Clean," Nature 398 (1999): 672-3; and Trivers, "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism."

12Trivers, "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism."


14G. Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science 162 (1968): 1243-8.

15S. Yamaguchi, "Butterflies which co-habit with Ants," Kontyu to Shizen 35, 2-7 (in Japanese).

16A. Coghlan, "Sensitive Flower," New Scientist 2153 (26 Sept. 1998): 24-8.

17T. Colborn, D. Dumanoski, and J. P. Myers, Our Stolen Future (London: Abacus, 1996).

18E. O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life (London: Penguin, 1978).

19J. Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

20S. G. E. Anderson, A. Zomorodipour, J. O. Andersson, Sicheritz-Ponten, U. C. M. Alsmarrk, R. M. Podowski, A. K. Naslund, A-S. Eriksson, H. H. Winkler, and C. G. Kurland, "The Genome Sequence of Ricketsia prowazekii and the Origin of Mitochondria," Nature 396 (1998): 133-40.

21M. J. Behe, Darwin's Black Box (New York: Touchstone, 1996).

22D. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea (New York: Touchstone, 1995); and N. Shanks and K. H. Joplin, "Redundant Complexity: A Critical Analysis of Intelligent Design in Biochemistry," Philosophy of Science 66 (1999): 268-82.

Top of Page