Junkies don’t come clean after learning evolution


Last summer as my wife and I left Pike’s Peak, we met two men hitching a ride down the mountain after hiking up it. On the drive we learned that one of them had been addicted to drugs and alcohol, and had been in and out of jail. He was estranged from his family and trying to get back in touch with his son. He was finally clean and on a positive path. In his own telling, he was able to improve his life only because he found God through Jesus.

That story came to mind as I read Damon Linker’s recent essay ‘Why atheism doesn’t have the upper hand over religion.” Linker reflects on science’s inability to explain both selfless sacrifice and how we respond  to it. He relates the harrowing story of Thomas Vander Woude, who held his breath under the surface of a cesspool while holding his Down Syndrome son above the waste. The son survived. Vander Woude did not. Linker believes secular theories cannot explain this behavior:

Rational choice and other economically based accounts hold that people act to benefit themselves in everything they do. From that standpoint, Vander Woude — like the self-sacrificing soldier or firefighter — was a fool who incomprehensibly placed the good of another ahead of his own.

Other atheistic theories similarly deny the possibility of genuine altruism, reject the possibility of free will, or else, like some forms of evolutionary psychology, posit that when people sacrifice themselves for others (especially, as in the Vander Woude case, for their offspring) they do so in order to strengthen kinship ties, and in so doing maximize the spread of their genes throughout the gene pool.

But of course, as someone with Down syndrome, Vander Woude’s son is probably sterile and possesses defective genes that, judged from a purely evolutionary standpoint, deserve to die off anyway. So Vander Woude’s sacrifice of himself seems to make him, once again, a fool.

Things are no better in less extreme cases. If Josie were a genius, his father’s sacrifice might be partially explicable in evolutionary terms — as an act designed to ensure that his own and his son’s genes survive and live on beyond them both. But the egoistic explanation would drain the act of its nobility, which is precisely what needs to be explained.

Only believers, in Linker’s account, can make sense of Vander Woulde’s noble sacrifice.

Perhaps. But what if tomorrow some genius biologist explains altruism in purely naturalistic terms? What then happens to Linker’s thesis? Wouldn’t he have to accept that secular theories have the upper hand?

The problem is using explanation as the metric to adjudicate this alleged contest between science and religion. It’s a strange choice. Most people already admit science explains the natural world much better than religion. Even if radical sacrifice is the one counterexample, an honest accounting must concede that science does in fact have the “upper hand.” You can’t use a single data point as a trump card. Scoring one goal when your team is getting blown out doesn’t make your case.

A better approach would be to realize there is more to life than explanation. People also value hope, meaning, and community, none of which science provides. For almost everyone on Earth, science is simply a tool. When’s the last time someone exalted that evolution saved them? Who gathers every week to sing praise to Darwin? How many junkies come clean after learning natural selection? Has there even been one?

As I’ve gotten to know more Christians, I’ve realized that stories like I heard on Pike’s Peak are actually quite common. You can read countless testimonials about people whose faith gave them strength to conquer their demons. Whether or not God exists and whether or not Jesus was his son doesn’t change the brutal fact that believing so has changed lives for the better.

When Neil deGrasse Tyson meditates on science conquering fear, and Jerry Coyne describes evolution as one of the “great wonders of nature”, and Richard Dawkins goes on about unweaving rainbows, it’s partly the realization that science doesn’t always give people what they crave. It’s an attempt to help people find hope and meaning in science. Most never will.

As vague and meaningless it is to compare “science” and “religion”, I’m comfortable saying science is not like religion. The crazy thing is that in some very important ways, scientists like Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins want it to be.

Happy Easter everyone.


  1. Hi Praj, a couple of things:
    1. We do have purely biological explanations of altruism, including extreme altruism (even the most extreme case, eusociality). I don’t really see how they make altruism less noble — they just say that (some kinds of) noble feelings have been adaptive.
    2. I think science does provide hope for a lot of people, and it provides community for at least a few (and there’s no reason why it couldn’t try harder and do better in this way). It’s really just the meaning that’s intrinsically lacking.
    3. As for people who have been saved by science, and specifically the theory of evolution, I think some LGBTQ people have been. Some of them were raised very religious and saw themselves as inherently sinful, and then learned about evolution and how all their feelings were perfectly natural and fine. I think Dan Savage is a prominent example of someone who feels roughly this way. I don’t know how much of a special case this is though.

    1. Thanks for the comment D. I appreciate it. To respond to your points:
      1. Since I am not an expert in that field, I’ll withhold judgment. From what little I’ve seen, the experts themselves disagree. But in either case, I don’t think it undermines my main point.
      2. I guess your argument here hinges on what you mean by “a lot”, and how that hope is manifested. From what I’ve seen, many people care about science mainly because it is useful. So in the sense it offers hope, it’s to the extent it helps people with concrete, tangible worries. In my mind that’s different than the hope I’ve seen people draw from religion. Not necessarily better or worse kind of hope, but just different. I think Dawkins et al. realize that oftentimes the hope and meaning offered by religion is very powerful and want science to offer something similar.
      3. Great point re. LGBTQ and Dan Savage. I like it. However, I would also argue that science has often been used to undermine civil rights, including LGBTQ. The history of eugenics is just one example. Feminist critiques of science (e.g. Londa Schiebinger’s ‘Has Feminism Changed Science’ is just one case) are full of examples where science has undermine equality. But nevertheless, I see what you’re saying.

      Thanks again for your comment. I hope you continue to engage.

  2. I am missing the part where commitment to religion is altruistic. On the contrary, religious conversion is quite self-serving; the assumption that something better awaits the individual is what guides the decision. Absent the desirability of the favor offered by the deity, this person might make different decisions — it isn’t altruism if reward is the motivation, no matter how delayed that reward is. Also, it is false that knowledge of evolution has never empowered people to make positive life changes, since understanding the limits of gender construction and heteronormativity has been very much a positive influence for women and LGBT people.

    1. Good to hear from you Maliq. I wasn’t actually arguing whether commitment to religion is altruistic or not. That’s an entirely different discussion. Nevertheless, Agellius responded to your argument below. I think he’s spot on there. And I don’t believe I said evolution has *never* empowered people. I simply think that most people view science as simply a useful tool, not as something from which to draw inspiration. Heck, I think many scientists think of science that way! Thanks again for the comment.

  3. I’m trying really hard to not infer that you think that anyone who has gotten clean/sober without the use of a 12-step program or similarly religion-infused programs is kidding themselves. I’m also trying not to infer that you think those who find hope, meaning and community in something besides religion are similarly delusional.

    “it’s partly the realization that science doesn’t always give people what they crave. It’s an attempt to help people find hope and meaning in science. Most never will.”

    Substitute religion for science in these sentences. There is a non-trivial percentage of people, me among them, who have a similar skepticism about religion. I recognize and accept that it works for others. But I find it empty for me.

    1. Hi David. Thanks for the comment. I’m not sure where I implied only religion-infused program cure drug addiction or only religion offers community. I do, however, think that most people do not find hope and community in evolution. I’m even comfortable extending those claims to science in general. As I’ve written before, I think most people view science as primarily a useful tool. I don’t think it’s an accident that science lobbying agencies primarily sell science on those terms.

      Great point about subbing religion for science in that sentence. I want to expand more in a post. But for now I’ll simply point out that at least among my (and I suspect your) social circle, it’s perfectly okay to say what you did. But it’s not widely acknowledged that my sentence as written is also true. Even stronger, it’s not widely acknowledged that most people find science pretty useless and irrelevant to their daily lives. That’s what I was trying to get at.

      Thanks again.

  4. Commitment to religion per se is not altruistic, but it leads people to be altruistic in a way that science cannot.

    Nobody said that only religion provides meaning or community, or that only religious people are altruistic.

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