Monday, February 15, 2016

Altruism and Evolution (February 14, 2016)


This week the week of Darwin’s birthday, we join congregations around the world in talking about the Theory of Evolution, because it helps us understand how we, and every other species with which we share this earth, came to be. We take time to talk about evolution because, despite the fact that it is backed up with centuries of verifiable scientific research, evolution is under increasing attack in our schools and in our public discourse. We also celebrate evolution Sunday because the science of our physical reality is not just for “experts” with advanced degrees -- the story of your body, your eco-system is a story every one of us should know in order to understand ourselves and the world in which we live. That’s why we list as one of our sources: “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science.”

Today is also Valentine’s Day, so I wanted to tell you a love story. Not a story of romantic love, but the love of other living beings that binds us to one another. I know Vampire bats don’t seem that romantic on the surface, but the precious gift they give one another is eminently more practical, and more precious than a heart shaped box of chocolates. These creatures out of our nightmares, who suck the blood of large mammals, such as cattle, are actually one of the most selfless animals we know of. Researcher Jerry Wilkinson, chair of biology at the University of Maryland-College Park, discovered in 1977 that if a bat is not able to find food, say because of illness or lack of large mammals or because a researcher has put her in a cage, that other bats in her group will share their dinner with her by regurgitating into her mouth. [i] So, just like humans, bats can choose to give their own food to help another hungry being.

Bats are not alone in their altruism. The Vervet monkeys cry out to warn their neighbors of a predator, even though they increase their own personal risk by revealing their position with that cry. [ii] There are even stories of altruism in Bacteria, like our nemesis e coli. Scientists have found examples of special drug-resistant bacteria sharing something called “indole” (\ˈin-ˌdōl\ ) with its neighboring bacteria who aren’t drug resistant and so can’t produce Indole on their own. ( Indole is the compound that helps bacteria fight off antibiotics). These altruistic super-bacteria share even though it weakens their own reproductive capacity when they give away this precious resource. [iii]

The Vampire Bat, the Vervet Monkey, the e coli bacteria are all engaged in Altruism. When we talk about human altruism we use the term pretty loosely, to mean anything from pulling a fellow subway rider off the track in front of an oncoming train, to bring a put of soup to a neighbor who has the flu. But in evolutionary biology, there is a very precise definition. “An organism is said to behave altruistically when its behavior benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself. The costs and benefits are measured in terms of reproductive fitness, or expected number of offspring. So by behaving altruistically, an organism reduces the number of offspring it is likely to produce itself, but boosts the number that other organisms are likely to produce.”[iv]

Since the earliest days of our thinking about evolution, altruism has stumped scientists. If what propels evolution is the competition for limited resources, altruism seems to throw a monkey wrench into the theory. Even Darwin was troubled by this. About 13 years after he first published “ON the Origin of Species” Darwin wrote in his book The Descent of Man,: “he who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature” (p.163). Darwin began to wonder if sometimes a behavior that was risky for the individual could provide an advantage to the larger group of which he was a part: “a tribe including many members who...were always ready to give aid to each other and sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection” (p.166). [v]

Later scientists, dissatisfied with this explanation, began to realize that the individuals who were the beneficiaries of altruism tended to be the kin of the altruist. So even though I might end my own life before reproducing, if my close kin survived to reproduce, like sisters and brothers who share 50% of our genes, I would still have been genetically successful. A fellow called George Price even worked out an equation to show the mathematical relationship between genetic benefit and closeness of relationship (because cousins, for example, are not as beneficial to preserving your gene pool as your siblings)[vi]

Then in 1984 Wilkinson challenged the link between kinship and altruism with his research into the Vampire Bats. Over the course of the study he tracked which bats helped one another, and found that if you were a hungry bat, the neighbor bat who was most likely to help you was a bat you had helped in the past. It’s a remarkable, though relatively unique, example of altruism among unrelated neighbors. In a really wonderful “Radiolab” program on the topic, Wilkinson extrapolated that maybe 40,000 years or so ago something happened to all the large mammals in the area where the bats lived. There was a crisis in the bat food supply, and bats evolved this altruistic behavior so that they could survive as a species.



Scientists and philosophers argue that if there is any potential benefit to you, say the survival of your gene line, that results from your helping act- then this is not true altruism. They argue that perhaps true altruism does not really exist. But I disagree. The fact that altruism is a tool we have evolved help us survive is a hopeful thing. We have so often wondered if human nature isn’t, at its core, “red in tooth and claw.” We worry that the true nature of life is a fight to the death. But the fact that we are hard wired to help one another, and that in helping one another we help ourselves, shows that altruism, is part of our nature. Altruism is a piece of our survival story and built-in to who we really are.






Professor Abigail Marsh has spent her career studying altruism in humans. What makes people help another person at some cost or risk to themselves? In a recent study at Georgetown Marsh tested 19 altruistic people, the kind of person who would, for example, give a kidney to a stranger, and found everything she tested looked pretty normal except for the amygdala- the part of the brain that helps process emotional reactions. She found this part was “significantly larger” in the altruists she studied than in the regular population.[vii] She concluded that “The results of brain scans and behavioral testing suggest that these donors have some structural and functional brain differences that may make them more sensitive, on average, to other people's distress,”[viii] So Marsh’s research suggests that we help one another because we empathetically read their pain, their distress, and we act to alleviate that distress as we would our own.



In his Ted Talk Buddhist Monk Matthieu Ricard extends this idea further[ix]. He reminds us that empathy is a normal part of being a mammal, an extention of the instinctive mammalian drive to care for our young. ( Mammels are, by definition, those animals that nurse their young after birth instead of, say, laying eggs in the mud and leaving our young to fend for themselves once they hatch). Richard suggests that the problems facing us now- such as economic inequality and global climate change, will require altruism- will require people working for the good of future generations sometimes at the expense of our own present gain. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge some of these problems in our world that you think would altruism would be part of the solution. Go ahead and call our from your seat. ….. Richard wonders if our natural mammalian empathy could be expanded wider and wider to call forth such altruism.



I was amazed to learn recently that Lichen ( you know those crusty flowery plants that grow on the bark of trees or rocks?) are a mutualistic symbiosis. That means lichen are actually two totally different life forms, algae and fungus, living together as one organism. Both the algae and fungus can live alone, and in fact it stumped scientists for a long time what might make them come together as lichen. As Biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in her beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass:
“when researchers put the two together in the laboratory and provide them with ideal conditions for both alga and fungus, they gave each other the cold shoulder and proceeded to live separate lives, in the same culture dish, like the most platonic of roommates. The scientists were puzzled and began to tinker with the habitat, altering one factor and then another, but still no lichen. It was only when they severely curtailed the resources, when they created harsh and stressful conditions, that the two would turn toward each other and begin to cooperate… When times are easy and there's plenty to go around, individual species can go it alone. But when conditions are harsh and life is tenuous, it takes a team sworn to reciprocity to keep life going forward. In a world of scarcity, interconnection and mutual aid become critical for survival. So say the lichens.”
I thought back to those bats, 40,000 years ago, when some hypothetical catastrophe caused a crisis for their species, and in response they evolved the altruistic behavior that allowed them to survive. Life-saving changes are possible when we need them most. And I argue that this is one of those critical moments in the history of life on this planet. Richard notes that while it may take 50,000 years to make an evolutionary biological change, personal change and societal evolution can happen much faster. He reminds us that there is hard scientific data showing that structural changes[x] happen in our brains when we practice altruistic love, or loving kindness. Richard has thousands of hours of meditation practice in his life as a monk, but such structural changes are possible with as little as 4 weeks practicing loving kindness meditation just 20 minutes a day.

Mammals evolved empathy so that we would be hard-wired to care deeply about our offspring and others in our family group. And we know that for some extraordinary altruists that same empathy and compassion can extend all the way across the continent to a stranger who needs a kidney, or a refugee from a war far away. Could we extend that altruism to the next 7 generations of children yet to be born? Could we take Richard’s challenge to cultivate our own loving kindness as individuals and as a society? Could we extend our circle of loving kindness beyond our own kin, our own friends, to hold all of life itself?

When you are discouraged about human nature, remember that altruism is just as natural as competition. It is an important adaptation that is in our hard wiring. It is not only part of our nature, but part of the nature of Vampire bats, Vervet monkeys, and even e coli. Giving selflessly is not only the sappy stuff of Valentine’s Day stories; it is part of the scientific story of how we survive together.





[i] http://www.radiolab.org/story/105440-blood-buddies/
[ii] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism-biological/
[iii] http://www.usnews.com/science/articles/2010/09/02/hints-of-altruism-among-bacteria
[iv] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism-biological/
[v] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism-biological/#AltLevSel
[vi] http://www.radiolab.org/story/103983-equation-good/
[vii] http://www.npr.org/2014/11/23/366052779/why-people-take-risks-to-help-others-altruisms-roots-in-the-brain
[viii] http://www.georgetown.edu/news/abigail-marsh-brain-altruism-study.html
[ix] http://www.ted.com/talks/matthieu_ricard_how_to_let_altruism_be_your_guide#t-895224
[x] http://phys.org/news/2008-03-compassion-meditation-brain.html

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Restorationist Controvercy (February 7, 2016)


Reading 1: from "Of Future Retribution"
This reading references a murder that was quite famous at the time: When, in 1832, a pregnant mill worker was found hanged, the investigation implicated a prominent Methodist minister. Fearing adverse publicity, both the industrialists of Fall River and the New England Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church engaged in energetic campaigns to obtain a favorable verdict. [i]

As the subject we are now laboring is of the utmost consequence to the religious and moral interest of community, we feel justified in endeavoring to illustrate it to the understanding of the most feeble minds. For this purpose we will make use of a melancholy circumstance, which has greatly agitated the people of New England, and carried grief and deep sorrow into many thousands of hearts. We mean the murder which people generally believe was committed at Fall River. Perhaps few men, in their preaching of future punishment, have been more zealous than the man who the people believe committed that deed; ... Look now at the facts of the case. Of what benefit was the doctrine of future punishment to the man, who had so long preached it, and who committed the murder? Again; of what use was the fear of punishment, in this world, to him who flattered himself that he could commit the murder, and yet screen himself from the penalty of the law? It was not in the power of the fear of future punishment, nor of punishment from the laws of the land, to prevent the crime. But had that man been half as fearful of committing that crime as he was of being found out, and punished according to the law, the poor girl, whose sad fate we deplore, would not have lost her life by his hands.  … if he was guilty, neither the fear of future punishment, nor the fear of temporal punishment, was of any avail; while it is perfectly clear, that had the crime itself been the object of fear, he would not have committed it.

By the light in which we now stand, we see that the only fear which can be sure to prevent crime, is the fear of committing it ; and therefore, that sin itself ought to be considered as the greatest evil, and the evil most to be dreaded.

[It will ] be asked why I should fear sin? Answer; because it will make me miserable if I commit it. There is no priest that I can apply to, who can prevent my suffering, if I am a sinner. If I fear a prison or a gallows, or a punishment in the future world, I may flatter myself that some way may be provided, by which I may escape them; but if I fear sin itself, I know, if I am a sinner, I must endure that evil. [ p. 33]

Reading 2: Hudson LETTER IX. 289
You say, that virtue is rewarded in this world; we believe in ail the reward which is enjoyed in this world, and also in an additional reward hereafter. And will in-creasing the reward make people less virtuous? No; the reward will be greater, the motive more powerful, and consequently will be more likely to stimulate to virtue. Our system not only exhibits a greater incentive to virtue, than yours, but it lays a greater restraint upon vice. Your doctrine tells the villain who is plotting the assassination of his fellow creatures, that if he falls in his attempt, superlative glory will be his immediate portion; ours tells him, that if he loses his life in such a horrid attempt, he will experience a state of correction and chastisement. Armed with your system, might not the robber go forth with composure, and say to himself, I am sinning, it is true, but if I succeed I shall obtain a fortune; and if I lose my life in the attempt, I shall go in an instant to the enjoyment of heaven? In either case I shall be a gainer, he might very naturally say, therefore I will embark immediately in this bold adventure*[ii]

Sermon:
It’s easy to understand why Ballou would have used the case of Methodist Minister Ephraim Kingsbury Avery to illustrate his point about sin and punishment. Here was a Fire and Brimstone preacher accused but acquitted of the murder of a young woman who may have been pregnant with his child. Tempers were hot all over New England when he was released. Trying to make a point about whether or not the fear of future punishment in the fires of hell was an effective deterrent against crime, Ballou writes “… if he was guilty, neither the fear of future punishment, nor the fear of temporal punishment, was of any avail”

Way back in the early days of Universalism, Universalists had come together around the idea that an all loving and all powerful God would not create souls doomed to hell right from the start. Surely all people had a chance to be saved from the eternal torment that preachers of the day loved to fill their Sunday mornings. Ballou held that “to argue for endless punishment would be to argue for a permanent, eternal division in the fabric of the cosmos, a dualism so monstrous that it would rout any claims of the omnipotence of God.” [Robinson p. 65] Historian Thomas Whittemore, one of the earliest historians of Universalism[iii], described Universalists as those who believed in the eventual holiness and happiness of all the human race” [Robinson p. 71]

One of the most charismatic figures in early American Universalism, Hossa Ballou challenged not only the orthodoxy of the Calvinists, but the orthodoxy of the first generation of Universalists like John Murray asking: “Is God the unreconciled or dissatisfied party, or is man?” [Robinson p. 64] For Ballou, God’s love for us never wavered, but it was we who are dissatisfied, we who need to atone and be reconciled, to renew our love for God.

But among the Universalists the question arose, “what about people who do something genuinely harmful, something one might call evil?” Back when UUCAS was called The Universalist Society of Sheshequin, and we had not yet built our historic meeting house, this question caused a great debate almost tore Universalism apart.

On the one side were the Restorationists who believe that the soul would be disciplined or educated in a period following death, and eventually the soul would be ready for eternal holiness and happiness. For these Universalists, Hell did exist for the unrepentant and “It’s very purpose was to cause repentance” [Robinson p. 66] “Those who believed in free will reasoned that a soul could not be fully restored until it wanted to be saved and, as souls can be very stubborn, a change of heart could require a lot of time, perhaps a hundred thousand years.”[iv]

On the other side were the Ultra-Universalists or Death and Glory Universalists. Whereas early Universalists, and the more orthodox Universalists of Ballou’s time believed in a literal hell, Ballou believe “Hell is not merely a place of punishment but a state of rebellion against God and against the unity of humans and God. Heaven is the accomplishment of that unity.” [Robinson p. 65] So when Ballou claims that that the soul would experience immediate salvation upon death, he is not imagining the soul entering the orthodox heaven of pearly gates and streets paved with gold, but the reunification of the soul with God. Hosea Ballou believed that sin was its own punishment, so there was no need for punishment after death. “Since the dead can no longer sin, it would make no sense for a rational God to punish them in the afterlife”.[v]

The controversy started amiably enough. Ballou and his friend and fellow Universalist minister Edward Turner debated the issue in their correspondence. At first Ballou’s position was not that different from his friend’s but by 1817, when the debate was published in the Universalist magazine Gospel Visitant Ballou was a confirmed “Ultra-Universalist” – that is to say he believed there was no “future punishment” at all. He argued: “The only fear which can be sure to prevent crime, is the fear of committing it; and therefore…sin itself ought to be considered as the greatest evil, and the evil most to be dreaded.” [Robinson p. 68]. To Ballou, the punishment for sin was sin itself. “why I should fear sin? Answer; Because it will make me miserable if I commit it.”

The debate grew more heated. Letters of increasing sharpness on both sides of the issue appeared in the Universalist Magazine until late 1820s . Ballou’s great-nephew Hosea Ballou 2nd and Thomas Whittemore took the side of Ultra-Universalism. And on the responding side, Charles Hudson, a minster from Westminster MASS, wrote those this morning’s second reading, the full title of which is “A series of letters addressed to Rev. Hosea Ballou, of Boston : being a vindication of the doctrine of a future retribution against the principal arguments used by him, Mr. Balfour, and others” first published in 1827. Also on the side of the Restorations were Paul Dean (who succeeded John Murray at First Church) and Jacob Wood “an erratic young minister” took Turner’s side. Wood wanted to make future punishment an official part of the doctrine of Universalism and was willing to push the denomination to Schism over it.

And so Universalism split in two. A group of restorationists lead by Adin Ballou and Paul Dean split off from the main body of Universalism and in 1831-1841 this faction formed the Massachusetts Association of Universal Restorationists.

The rest of the Universalists stayed with the denomination even though most were restorationists. In 1834 Ballou wrote “An Examination of the Doctrine of Future Retribution” from which we had our readings this morning, by 1841 the break-off group had folded- even within the group there were too many different opinions, and energy soon faded to base identity on this one theological point, the cause of abolition had a much stronger pull.

In Universalism at large, the Restorationist position was dominant in 19th cen. coming out of this controversy. Ballou’s thinking on the subject of the nature of sin, however, continued to be very important. It is a precursor anticipates the Natural Theology of Channing and Emerson who said in 1841 “You cannot do wrong without suffering wrong”. The argument faded with time, and it’s most enduring legacy is that it gave so much opportunity for writing. Early Universalism was mostly an oral tradition, spread and developed form the pulpit, and so this debate provided one of the main wellsprings of theological writing by early Universalists.

Today there is very little talk among UUs about hell, or about salvation. But that Universalist impulse is still there in our first UU principles, “The inherent worth and dignity of all people” It takes the old Universalist idea that God loves each and every one of us, and reframes it as a humanist idea -- without exception every person has worth. Whether we are atheists or theists, we believe the world is not divided into 2 camps- worthy and unworthy, but that we are all one.

I was teaching a class on our UU principles many years ago and we began to discuss the question “which of our principles do you like the best, and which gives you the most trouble” this first principle was the top answer to both questions.

Affirming and promoting inherent worth and dignity of all people is an idea big enough to spend a lifetime working towards. It answers the fundamentalist question “are you saved” with the refrain “no one is left behind” but also gives us a starting place to work for justice and live lives of compassion. It suggests an alternative to the popular idea some of us deserve a live of comfort and others deserve their suffering, affirming that every single one of us has worth, and so we work for the dignity of all.

The spiritual work, the internal work, comes when we look deeply at what it means for all of us to have inherent worth. Think of someone you love to hate- it could be anyone form the neighbor who always parks you in, to the political figure that makes your blood boil every time you see them on TV. When you hear that UUs don’t believe in hell, this is the person for whom you would make an exception. Consider, even, the murderer of that young woman in Fall River almost 200 years ago. I’m not asking you to condone the act, but to ask yourself the difficult theological question “did that murderer start out his life somehow marked, somehow a different kind of being than you and I?” and then we have to ask ourselves “Is he still like you and me, or is he now less than human because he committed that act? Does he still have free will to choose good over evil in any given moment?” And if we believe he is still human, and still has free will to choose good, to choose life, then his life has worth. Indeed this is one of the most challenging parts of our Universalist faith.

Just as challenging for many of us, however, is to realize that if all people have inherent worth, then I myself must have inherent worth. Worth, not just because of what I achieve at my job, or the friends I make, but inherent worth, un-earned worth; just by virtue of being part of the web of life I have worth. Like the mother in our children’s story today, God loves us even when we are slimy and smelly, stinky and scary. And as Hossea Ballou wrote 200 years ago, our task is not to convince God to love us, because God’s love for us never ceases. We reconcile and atone by a renewing our own love.

Early Universalism reminds us the God’s love is unconditional- we are all one and will all be reunited in the end. And the Restorationist controversy shows us that there is room for theological diversity in our tradition- room for those wo believed that once we die we return immediately to our source, and room for those who believe that some folks have gotten so far away from goodness and from God that their journey home may be a long one. Of course today there is room for humanism and atheism as well as all of us try to live our lives I a way that affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every person, even those who fill us with rage. We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity even of our own self, when we feel the least worthy. The Spirit of Life holds us in love, and calls us always to atonement, reconciliation, and a renewal of love.

Resources:

http://bescofield.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Hosea-Ballou.pdf
http://uudb.org/articles/restorationist.html
http://www.pacificuu.org/publ/univ/liturgy/ballou-discourse.html
http://img.uua.org/mfc/Ballou_Treatise_Atone_Excerpt_F.pdf
https://archive.org/stream/anexaminationdo03ballgoog/anexaminationdo03ballgoog_djvu.txt
https://archive.org/stream/areplytomrbalfo01hudsgoog/areplytomrbalfo01hudsgoog_djvu.txt
http://www.britannica.com/topic/Massachusetts-Association-of-Universal-Restorationists
http://www.fullbooks.com/A-Series-of-Letters-In-Defence-of-Divine5.html
http://www.cimmay.com/photocopy/pc_ballou.pdf
http://biblicaluniversalism.org/PDF/ballou-future.retribution.1834.pdf

Endnotes
[i] http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/1005.html
[ii] https://archive.org/stream/aserieslettersa01hudsgoog/aserieslettersa01hudsgoog_djvu.txt
[iii] http://uudb.org/articles/thomaswhittemore.html
[iv] http://uudb.org/articles/restorationist.html
[v] http://uudb.org/articles/restorationist.html
[vi] An excellent introduction to Metta Meditation http://www.wildmind.org/metta/introduction/metta-prayer