Did the Golden Rule Result from the Evolutionary Process?


The truest expression of the Golden Rule is the expression in which there is no self-interest at all


illiI have a friend who likes to assert 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 much thinking on the Golden Rule as the “second greatest commandment”, as Jesus called it. 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? We 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 that my friend has given of the Golden Rule in nature. He cites 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 the universe? 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. (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 was likely 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, commented to Adam Rutherford in a discussion that was aired on the Unbelievable? podcast (Peter Hitchens vs Adam Rutherford: The Rage Against God), 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), that 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 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 respond to 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.

The truest expression of the Golden Rule is the expression in which there is no self-interest at all

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 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.

6 thoughts on “Did the Golden Rule Result from the Evolutionary Process?

  1. “Ok, does anyone really think that the world expresses God’s love as summarized in the Golden Rule?”

    God’s love? define that. We have a god presented in the bible that kills children for the actions of their parents, that commands genocide, and that supports slavery. We have a god that, per this bible, will kill all non-christians because they don’t worship it.

    The golden rule is do to others what you would want have done to you. I don’t want someone killed for me in a torture ritual that came to be because this god either was too stupid to keep the serpent out of the garden or left it in inentionally.

    Love is caring for someone and doing one’s best to protect them and make them happy. What in the bible shows this is what this god wants? In Romans 9, this god is said to have intentionally created some humans to be unable to accept it, and will damn them though no fault of their own as an example to the believers. Please explain how that is love.

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    1. I wish I had the time, space and energy to respond as you requested. If this isn’t just a rhetorical question, there are many very good sources that synthesize these things and provide explanation. The Bible inspired Christians to lead the charge against slavery. Why? They saw something different there than what you are picking up on. (I don’t know of a place where it instructs Christians to kill non-Christians for not worshiping God. You might be confusing the Qu’ran.) If you really want to understand why so many people over the centuries have understood the God of the Bible as a loving God, the resources are out there. You could also just pick up the Bible and read it with the intention of trying to understand how people could come to that conclusion, rather than reading it to debunk it. I do appreciate you taking the time to comment.

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      1. I don’t ask rhetorical questions.

        The bible inspired people to keep slaves. It says for slaves to remain with abusive masters. In one part does it say people are equal, but again, Christians ignore what they want, making their religion in their own images.

        Your ignorance of the bible is always interesting. Revelation has that all non-chrisitans should be killed. Revelation 19-21, if you want to look. It also has JC saying that anyone who won’t take him as king is to be brought before him and killed (Luke 19), Yep, it’s a parable, so tell me what that last sentence “really” means then.

        This god repeatedly tells people in the OT to kill those who don’t worship it, including family members, the OT that your supposed messiah says is to be followed.

        There are many apologetics books and many Christians who make up their god in their image. I’ve read the bible, as a believer and has not. This is why I am pointing out your false claims about what this god supposed is, if the bible is your source. I know why Christians would come to the conclusion of what they want to believe in: it’s called cherry picking and declaring the parts that they don’t like to be metaphor, or just ignoring them all together.

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        1. People can be inspired by all sorts of things, and that doesn’t necessarily make the things that inspire them bad. I first studied the Bible as an unbeliever in a college world religion class, along with the other main texts of the major world religions. I was only a curious student then, and I approached each religious text on its own merits without prejudice or preconceived notions. (I was initially drawn to Buddhism.) That doesn’t mean anything more than I gave them all a fair shake, and I tried to understand them on their own terms. I was looking for truth and meaning wherever I could find it, including philosophy, literature, art and other sources at the time. Science can tell us what is, but it can’t tell us what ought to be. I accept science for what it is, but I have always been interested in the bigger questions.
          As for your statement that the Bible says “non-Christians should be killed”, I took you to mean that they should be killed by Christians (like a kind of Christian jihad or something). I understand now what you meant. I don’t find the eventual judgment to be a pleasant thought, any more than you apparently do. If there is a supreme being (God) who created the universe and populated it with people, He certainly has the power and authority to take life just as He created it. I don’t find that odd, or even off-putting (as unpleasant as it seems to me), because I am not God. I am not in control. I don’t have the standing to assert moral judgment over God, and it would be foolish for me to do so.
          God did not tell people “repeatedly in the OT to kill those people who don’t worship it” as a general proposition. With that said, I acknowledge that God instructed the killing of people (or people believed God instructed them to do so) in the OT record. It wasn’t a standing or general instruction. One major time when the killing of others was instructed was after the Exodus from Egypt when the people finally ended up at the land that was promised to Abraham and his descendants centuries before.
          There are, at least, a few things to note about that instruction. The text documents the savagery and cruelty of the people that were living in that land, and modern archaeology confirms it. Among other things, they practiced child sacrifice to their gods by placing them on burning metal idols where the fried to death. They lived in that land for many centuries during which they could have changed their ways, but did not. So, the first observation is that God was patient, if anything, to give the people in that land opportunity to change. The allies in WWII didn’t give Hitler as much time. If anything, the “judgment” was much overdue from a human perspective.
          There are many other things to say about that instruction that have filled volumes of books. The only thing I will mention is that God had a plan for this particular people which was to culminate in his own appearance among them. If the story is to be believed, that coming is the pivotal event in history, and everything that came before it was in preparation. It was a unique situation – not one to be duplicated ever again. If anyone claimed today that God told them to wipe out a group of people like that, I think we would be justified in condemning them.
          I will add that the Bronze Age existence was much different than the life we experience in the 21st century in western civilization – civilization that has been influenced by Judeo-Christian values for many centuries. People brutalized each other and nation brutalized nation 3000-4000 years ago. This was the atmosphere in which God found a group of people willing to listen and follow instruction (sometimes).
          I personally endeavor to take the whole Bible on its own terms, without cherry picking or ignoring texts I don’t like. I don’t claim to have “the” right interpretation of it, but that is my aim. Many of my views about the Bible and various aspects of it have changed over the years, and they continue to change as I try to grow in understanding.
          Going back to that world religion class, I saw then that the Bible is unlike any other religious text. It was written by about 40 different people over about 1500 years. Pretty remarkable. As an English Literature major, I was struck by the intricacy of the writing – like a big tapestry – though written by so many people over so long a period of time. I came to believe that it was a record of God’s revelation to the people who wrote the text. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is infallible or “inerrant” (as some modern Christians might urge). I believe, nevertheless, that it is an actual record from people to whom God revealed Himself. Since I first read it in a college class, I have had my own religious experiences that confirm (to me) the authenticity of it, and I have come to trust and rely on it to guide me in my life. I am a better person for it.
          CS Lewis describes Aslan, the Christ-like figure in his children’s stories, as “not a tame Lion”. In the same way, God is not a tame Lion. We don’t control Him. We don’t exert moral authority over Him. If God exists (and I believe He does), He determines what is right and good and the way things are. It’s just the reality, like the reality of gravity. Nothing we can do or think changes it. But He gave us choice. We can acquiesce to Him, but we don’t have to. He doesn’t make us do anything. But there are real consequences to our choices. CS Lewis is also the one who said, “The door to hell is locked on the inside.”

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          1. So, Kev, did you grow up Christian or in a Christian household? I have read these holy books on their own terms, aka what is written is what the author meant. As for “what ought to be”, humans, including Christians, make up their own versions, no god need.

            Your bible says non-christians should be killed. It shouldn’t matter to you if it is by humans or by your god if there are objective morals e.g. killing who don’t agree with you is always wrong or always right. If you say it okay only done by your god, then we have you with a might equals right morality. Are you good with that? And your bible does say that humans believers should kill human nonbelievers. This is all through the OT, which per your bible, Jesus Christ agreed with. I know you don’t find that off putting; people who obey a tyrant don’t. Many Germans didn’t have a problem with Hitler killing Jews, Gypsies, the disabled, etc because they thought it was his right. Your answer is “I’m only following orders.”

            You claim that the OT doesn’t have this god repeatedly telling the Israelites to kill peole who don’t worship it. Let’s see:

            “20 Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the LORD alone, shall be devoted to destruction.” – Exodus 22
            “When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you— 2 and when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them.” Deuteronomy 7

            “6 If anyone secretly entices you—even if it is your brother, your father’s son or[b] your mother’s son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend—saying, “Let us go worship other gods,” whom neither you nor your ancestors have known, 7 any of the gods of the peoples that are around you, whether near you or far away from you, from one end of the earth to the other, 8 you must not yield to or heed any such persons. Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. 9 But you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people. 10 Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 11 Then all Israel shall hear and be afraid, and never again do any such wickedness.” – Deuteronomy 13
            “2 If there is found among you, in one of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, and transgresses his covenant 3 by going to serve other gods and worshiping them—whether the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden— 4 and if it is reported to you or you hear of it, and you make a thorough inquiry, and the charge is proved true that such an abhorrent thing has occurred in Israel, 5 then you shall bring out to your gates that man or that woman who has committed this crime and you shall stone the man or woman to death.” – Deuteronomy 17
            “While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab. 2 These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 Thus Israel yoked itself to the Baal of Peor, and the LORD’s anger was kindled against Israel. 4 The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and impale them in the sun before the LORD, in order that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.” 5 And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you shall kill any of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.” 6 Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman into his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the Israelites, while they were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he got up and left the congregation. Taking a spear in his hand, 8 he went after the Israelite man into the tent, and pierced the two of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. So the plague was stopped among the people of Israel. 9 Nevertheless those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.
            10 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 11 “Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by manifesting such zeal among them on my behalf that in my jealousy I did not consume the Israelites. 12 Therefore say, ‘I hereby grant him my covenant of peace. 13 It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites.’”- Numbers 25
            “ These women here, on Balaam’s advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the LORD in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the LORD. 17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. 18 But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.” – Numbers 31

            “12 They entered into a covenant to seek the LORD, the God of their ancestors, with all their heart and with all their soul. 13 Whoever would not seek the LORD, the God of Israel, should be put to death, whether young or old, man or woman.” 2 Chronicles 15

            “10 Accursed is the one who is slack in doing the work of the LORD; and accursed is the one who keeps back the sword from bloodshed.” – Jeremiah 48
            So, with these, it was a general proposition. Every time there were someone who didn’t worship this god, they were to be killed. The general proposition started after Exodus, one book into the story, where the first book had this god doing the killing itself.

            Unsurprisingly, the bible paints anyone but the Israelites as savage. There is no evidence for this at all, nothing in the archaeology nor in the reports from other people’s. You see, Kev, I know archaeology and I know you are not telling the truth. But please do present what you think supports your claims. Where is the evidence for these “burning idols” or children burned to death? Since your claims aren’t true, then there wasn’t any judgment. Indeed, the stories in the bible don’t show these genocides at all, it’s just vicious stories trying to make the Israelites impressive.

            Yep, you are right, there are plenty of apologetics from Christians who say that their god can do anything it wants to anyone. Indeed, “if the story is to be believed”. It isn’t to be. As for it never to happen again, again you are wrong since Revelation has it again. And why would we be justified in condemning people who claimed this god wanted this now? Just because you don’t like it? It’s the same with anyone claiming to be doing this god’s will. How do you tell? Is the mother who kills her children wrong if she says god said to do it? Abraham was told that too, and Jephtha had no problem in killing his child for this god. Why doesn’t this apply now “ If there is a supreme being (God) who created the universe and populated it with people, He certainly has the power and authority to take life just as He created it. I don’t find that odd, or even off-putting (as unpleasant as it seems to me), because I am not God. I am not in control. I don’t have the standing to assert moral judgment over God, and it would be foolish for me to do so.”

            If there are objective morals, then your argument of the Bronze Age existence fails too.

            I also take the bible on its own terms without cherry picking or ignoring text I don’t like or declaring that I and I alone have the “right” interpretation. You do claim you have the right interpretation of it as soon as you say someone else is wrong.

            The bible does have the qualities you claim. What you don’t mention is that those 40 people over 1500 years contradict each other; you must have the presupposition that the books *must* agree, and they don’t. They aren’t one tapestry but many which Jews and Chrisitans have spent a couple thousand years in making excuses for and interpreting again and again and again. IF it is a revelation, why the contraidctions and why the disagreement between Jews and Christians and among Christians? Other Christians who disagree with you also claim experiences, so who to believe?

            Aslan was Christ as Lewis would invent in his own image, as every Christian does. Unlike gravity, you have yet to show your version exists or any version exists. That every Christian makes up a new God and Christ, what you do and think changes it.
            Per Romans 9, no, this god didn’t give a choice. Why would you contradict your bible? This god made pharaoh harden his heart, and the Egyptians give up their wealth. This god, by supposed miracles, stops the choices and actions of humans. So much for your claim that this god doesn’t make people do anything.
            Lewis may have written that about hell, but that’s not what your bible says. Lewis didn’t like a god that was as vicious as the one Christians invented before him.

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            1. I grew up going to church, but I never felt comfortable in church. I walked away from it when I was old enough to make my own decisions. Like I said, if God creates life, He can take it. Like it or not. It goes with the territory of being God. The Bible does not say that Christians should kill non-Christians. You read it as if it were an instruction manual. It isn’t. It’s a story. It includes detail, good and bad. Those instructions in Exodus and Deuteronomy were part of the story. It was a unique time. Were they actually God’s instructions? Or were they their interpretation of what God was saying to them? They thought it was God telling them. We are left to try to determine what was going on. Jesus interprets the gist of the OT in a two-sentence summary: love God and love your neighbor. If we are getting something else out of it, we are putting our own spin on it. That is people reading it the way they want to read it. Many people don’t want to believe that God exists because they don’t want to be beholden to God. They want to live free of any responsibility or accountability to God. As for the child sacrifices, it is documented by Judeo and Greco-Roman sources. The practice of child sacrifice is covered in Wikipedia. Not a Christian source. The biblical record reflects that these were the practices of the people that the Israelites failed to dispossess, as they were instructed, and that the Israelites were influenced by their practices of child sacrifice (as they were warned they would be). See http://www.asor.org/anetoday/2017/12/child-sacrifice-ancient-israel Some archaeological evidence is discussed in this piece https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/daily-life-and-practice/first-person-human-sacrifice-to-an-ammonite-god/; and this one https://www.archaeology.wiki/blog/2018/06/29/new-evidence-of-ancient-child-sacrifice-found-from-bronze-age-mesopotamia/. Here is a book on the subject: https://www.amazon.com/Sacrifice-Ancient-Explorations-Eastern-Civilizations/dp/1575064944. There are scholars who question the extent of the practice of child sacrifice, but recent archaeological finds confirm it and that it was widespread, though they aren’t sure how typical it was. https://www.ancientworldreview.com/2015/07/child-sacrifice-in-the-ancient-near-east-northern-africa.html and https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends-asia/identity-moloch-0011457. That the archaeological evidence is not as robust as we might want isn’t reason to doubt it. Decades ago, scholars doubted that the Hittites mentioned in the OT were real. Now we have uncovered whole Hittite cities. Scholars doubted that King David Existed, and now we have proof. A very large percentage of the Ancient Near East is yet to be explored archaeologically. Modern discoveries continue to affirm people, places and things described in the OT. I don’t write these things to convince you. You have challenged me to dig into them. Thank you for that. I note that you have a whole blog devoted to something you don’t believe in. Seems odd to me.

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