International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy and Religion in Dialogue

edited by Stephen G. Post , Lynn G. Underwood , Jeffrey P. Schloss , William B. Hurlbut

Introductory Essay by Malcolm Jeeves

This important volume deals with altruism and altruistic love. Biologists and other fellow scientist contributors prefer the term altruism. Non-scientist  contributors  prefer “altruistic love” which, they claim [4] is uniquely human. All are aware that so complex are the concepts and so diverse the disciplines contributing to our understanding of altruism ,that they make  “... no attempt ... to offer a false impression of unity” [9].

This book brings together, in an accessible way, the main lines of evidence to be considered when thinking through the big questions surrounding altruism and altruistic love. The editors have a clear agenda. "We have no interest in Platonic or Cartesian views of the self that bifurcate body and mind/soul thereby relegating the scientific study of the neurological, biological and evolutionary features of human altruism and altruistic love to irrelevancy."  "Our task” they say “is to better understand the emergence of the capacities of altruistic actions and for empathic love and how these contribute to a larger capacity for love” [9].

The editors aim for an inclusive approach. They want to correct a situation in which  "the extensive study of altruism and egoism in the sciences has yet to adequately inform reflection in the humanities which are generally tending to ignore scientific data in discussing such phenomena as compassion, kindness and love" [9]. 

There is no attempt to superimpose an artificial concordance on the authors’ diverse views. Thus, when addressing the question “what are the evolutionary origins and neurological substrates of altruistic behaviour?”  Kristen Monroe, a professor of politics, writes, "My own limited empirical work suggests that we simply don't know much about the evolutionary origins of altruism”. Other contributors, such as Frans de Waal, have no doubt that empathy is phylogenetic. De Waal  claims  that  he has repeatedly observed consolation in chimpanzees [285].

There are two outstanding chapters by the husband and wife team, neurologist Antonio and neuroanatomist Hanna Damasio, who make accessible to the nonspecialist reader the excitement of the rapid advances in neuroscience pointing to the genetic origins and neurological substrates of emotion and feeling. Antonio Damasio  writes: "From a neurobiological perspective, then, the term altruistic love means one of two things: a complex emotion, that is, a collection of specific behaviours some of which are publicly observable; or a feeling, that is, a set of  internal, entirely private and non-observable images of the organism transformations that occur in the emotional state” [265].

In  the final part, on Religion, Stephen Post makes a bold attempt to close the circle, commenting that it is perhaps surprising to scientists today to see the theologian taking concepts from evolutionary biology seriously and finding a connection between these concepts and other contemporary intellectual traditions including  the religious traditions.