I have a friend who tells me that the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) is not unique to Christianity or to religion. He believes that the Golden Rule is a result of the evolutionary process and can be seen in nature. His conclusion is that the Golden doesn’t come from God or religion, but from the evolutionary process.
I don’t subscribe to that (obviously), but I haven’t really set out to test the hypothesis. I have done some thinking on the Golden Rule found in religion. I have compared the Golden Rule that was invoked, encouraged and demonstrated by Jesus in his own life to the expressions of a golden-like rule in other religious traditions.
I am not shocked or surprised to find expressions of an ethic like the Golden Rule in all (or nearly all) world religions. Truth is truth, right? Shouldn’t we expect to find it or expressions of it wherever we look?
I wonder, why wouldn’t we expect to find some expression of the Golden Rule in nature too? If the world was created by God, shouldn’t the world exhibit the character of God that is expressed in the Golden Rule?
Ok, does anyone really think that the world expresses God’s love as summarized in the Golden Rule?
I have heard many atheists say they don’t believe in God precisely because the world doesn’t exhibit God’s love. Christians, of course, find reasons for this reality expressed in the Scripture. I don’t intend to address them here, but I think the point is a good one: that the demonstration of the Golden Rule is difficult to find in nature.
In the end, we can see something of the Golden Rule in nature, but the demonstration of it leaves something to be desired. It doesn’t explain why the Golden Rule exists. It doesn’t prove the evolutionary paradigm, and it doesn’t negate the existence of a creator God in whose nature and character the Golden Rule finds its source.
I spent a little time searching for examples of the Golden Rule in nature. I asked my friend about it, and he sent me one article out of Science Magazine, True altruism seen in chimpanzees, giving clues to evolution of human cooperation, as proof of his point.
The article alludes to a couple of studies. In one study, a chimpanzee was trained to give up her turn at a reward-receiving activity, allowing other chimps to do the activity and to receive the reward. About 44% of the time, the chimps who were the benefactors of the sacrifice shared their reward with the self-sacrificial chimp. “This suggests that the chimps frequently felt compelled to reward [the self-sacrificing chimp] for her unselfishness.”
Another study looked at the activity of male chimpanzees in Uganda who patrolled the perimeter of their group’s territory at their own risk to protect the group from potential intruders. About 25% of these male chimps didn’t even have a close relative in the group.
I love animals and have always found the study of animals fascinating. These studies and observations are certainly intriguing, but do they support the position that the Golden Rule derives from the evolutionary process? Or, more to the point, do they negate the position that the Golden Rule derives from the nature and character of God?
It’s pretty weak evidence at best.
Again, shouldn’t we expect to find some expression of God’s character in nature if God created nature? The better (and more difficult) question is: why doesn’t the world express more of God’s love if God created the world?
As for the expression of the Golden Rule in the studies cited above, I find the conclusions a bit dubious. (For one things, the article doesn’t actually make that point.) In the one study, a chimp was trained to give up her turn at an activity that resulted in rewards. Of course, chimps (and other animals – and even humans) are trained by a series of rewards (or rewards and punishments) designed to elicit the action that is desired. While I don’t know the exact protocol that was used in this case, the reward sacrificing behavior may have been induced by a combination of rewards and punishments.
Thus, the chimp was trained to give up an activity that produced rewards by giving her rewards and/or punishments (not being punished is a kind of reward). The behavior of giving up the rewards was learned by a system of rewards, and that behavior was further rewarded by the other chimps sharing the reward with the “self-sacrificing” chimp.
Peter Hitchens, the brother of the late Christopher Hitchens, one of the “New Atheists” who was known for his sardonic wit and merciless criticism of all things religious, made an interesting comment to Adam Rutherford in a discussion that was aired on the Unbelievable? podcast (Peter Hitchens vs Adam Rutherford: The Rage Against God). He said that the secular notion of the Golden Rule as an evolutionary “achievement” is nothing more than “enlightened self-interest”.
While I think most secular evolutionists would probably agree with that assessment (being not antithetical to the evolutionary theory), the idea of the Golden Rule as a species of enlightened self-interest is not the Christian conception of the Rule at all. As I explained in a blog post comparing the Christian concept of the Golden Rule to similar expressions in other religions, Jesus took it much further in the expression of the standard and the demonstration of it in his life.
The behavior of the other chimps to share the reward with the “self-sacrificing” chimp is the more interesting aspect of the study than the initial “sacrifice”, which was trained behavior. Even 44% of the time is significant. We see a similar acknowledgment of self-sacrificial behavior in people who are moved by it to be similarly self-sacrificial (even if only as a form of enlightened self-interest).
But again, this isn’t proof of the evolutionary paradigm, and it isn’t a negation of the position that the Golden Rule stems from God and His character. The fact that it is “universally” recognized as good suggests that an absolute standard of good exists that is independent of nature and independent of humans.
If such a universal good exists, what is it’s source?
I don’t buy into the proposition that the source of the Golden Rule is a progressive stream of random mutations acted upon by natural selection (a term that admits some kind of agency, even in its very meaning, but ascribes it to an impersonal, unintentional and unguided force). I think it is better explained by a God who designed the universe to reflect, at least in part, the Golden Rule that emanates out of his very nature without requiring it to do so – a world in which some of its creatures (humans at least) have the capacity, but are not programmed like robots, to reflect God’s love back to Him.
The Golden Rule is universally recognizable and honored as good in such a world created by a God who made humans in His own image, but gave them the capacity to choose relationship with Him or to go it alone. The fact that people (and maybe even animals) are capable of conceptualizing and demonstrating a form of the Golden Rule suggests that the Golden Rule is built into the fabric of the universe.
Even then, most people recognize that the truest expression of the Golden Rule is the expression in which there is no self-interest at all. It doesn’t take a scientist or ethical scholar to know that this is true. Most of the expressions of the Golden Rule, and most self-sacrifice in the world, stops short of that highest expression of the Golden Rule – self-sacrifice for which no self-interest at all is involved. (How many times have we heard someone say they got “more out of” serving in some capacity (at a homeless shelter, in a short-term mission, etc.) than they gave?)
The truest expression of the Golden Rule is the expression in which there is no self-interest at all
The ultimate conception of the Golden Rule (self-sacrifice with no self-interest) is the Christian expression of the Golden Rule. This is the expression of the Golden Rule that was demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus.