Mar
06
2008

Image of God in Man

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image. . .'” (Genesis 1:26a).

Theologians have debated the exact meaning of that phrase for millennia, but one thing is quite clear: Of all creation, mankind is the only one created “in the image of God.”

That idea brings with it a lot of implications, and I’ve been thinking about them for quite a while. Maybe I’ll post some more thoughts in the coming days or weeks, but for now I want to point out two recent articles that attracted my attention.
Both articles came from How Stuff Works, a site I subscribe to via Google Reader (thanks for the tip, Stephen!).
As the site name implies, it is all about, well, how stuff works. You can read how a refrigerator keeps food cold or how an internal combustion engine makes your car go or how a person can (sometimes) go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. I learn interesting things from this site almost every day.

Once in a while, though, they delve into other areas like psychology, religion, sociology, and so forth. I almost always disagree with them when they treat these subjects, but they do provide interesting perspective.

Recently I read an article about The Ultimatum Game. You can follow the link for details, but basically it is a psychological experiment that works like this: A researcher approaches two people on the sidewalk and offers one $20 in $1 bills. The only catch is that he has to share some of it with the other person. So long as the other person accepts, they both get to keep their money. But if the other person rejects the offer, the researcher gets his $20 back.

The creator of the game/experiment is Ariel Rubinstein, who predicted that the original recipient of the money would offer the lowest amount possible ($1). Afterall, the second person should be happy, because he or she gets a dollar for nothing, and the first person should be happy because he or she gets to keep the most money possible and ends up with $19 for doing nothing.

Rubinstein’s theory makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. The most rational thing to do is to maximize one’s personal benefit. If you can spend $1 and by it get to keep $19, that makes sense. Survival of the fittest and all that.

Except he was wrong. Researchers tried out his game, and the results directly contradicted his theory. Most people gave more than a $1. (In an interesting side note, when they did offer only a dollar, many “second people” rejected the offer, meaning they both lost and the researcher got his money back.)

Some would argue that that fear (of rejection) is what motivated people to offer more than a dollar, but that theory got disproved with a variation called the Dictator Game:

In this version, the giver gets to keep the money, regardless of whether the receiver rejects the offer. A 1986 experiment gave subjects two choices: The giver could either split the $20 evenly or offer the receiver $2 and keep $18. Either way, the giver got to keep the money, regardless of the receiver’s acceptance or refusal of the offer. Seventy-six percent of givers chose to split the money evenly, despite the beforehand knowledge that the receiver had to take whatever the giver gave him.

What would explain this?

It’s possible that we humans possess a sense of altruism, a desire to put others’ best interests before our own. Those who subscribe to evolutionary theory say such a mechanism shouldn’t exist; some psychologists believe it’s evidence of a higher mind that humans possess.

Hmm. Might altruism be part of the image of God, inexplainable by evolutionary theory?
Could we test this idea in any scientific way? Welll, not with any degree of certainty, but there is evidence that only humans possess such a trait. Believe it or not, scientists devised a similar experiment for chimpanzees. Instead of involving dollars, this one used raisins! Like the ultimatum game, the chimps had to give away some raisins in order to keep the others. It wasn’t a perfect analog, but researchers found that the chimps had so such altruistic characteristics. They kept all the raisins they could, giving up only those necessary to receive their own raisins. In other words, their motivation was entirely selfish. Makes sense, doesn’t it, since chimps were not created in the image of God?

Like I said, I don’t want to jump to conclusions. If this were a debate, I’d have a pretty shaky case. But I think it is an interesting idea just the same.
A second article considered this question: Is there such a thing as a truly unselfish act?
They argue for a while about that, and then more-or-less conclude that humans do possess some sort of altruism. Then watch how they wrestle with the implications:

According to evolutionary theory, behaviors develop when they help living things to survive. Animals feel discomfort when they’re hungry, signaling it’s time to eat. A plant might shed its leaves in the fall to create a protective mulch barrier for the winter. Flora and fauna survive by looking out for themselves. By this logic, altruism shouldn’t even exist.
“For any behavior to survive natural selection, it needs to help an animal or its genetic material,” writes author Sophie F. Dingfelder [source: APA]. So the idea that we have a natural imperative to help others at our own detriment flies in the face of evolutionary theory. Altruism must serve some unseen purpose that favors our survival. So what is it? (emphasis added)

On the basis of evolutionary theory, they conclude that “altruism must serve some unseen purpose that favors our survival.” In other words, despite the evidence to the contrary, they essentially answer the original question with a resounding “no.” No, there isn’t such a thing as true unselfishness, because that doesn’t fit with evolutionary theory.

Then they proceed to offer possible explanations. If the act is performed in the interest of your child, then it is “kin selection,” they say. You’re preserving your genetic line.

But what if it isn’t your kin? Well, maybe we can stretch the theory a bit and say that we are acting selfishly to preserve the genetic line. That is, not just ours, but we are trying to preserve the human race. Hmm. That seems to be bordering on altruism. If it doesn’t help you or your offspring, I’m not sure I see it as a selfish act, but ok. You can think that way if you want.

Other researchers have offered alternative explanations.  French sociologist Emile Durkheim suggest that all good acts are rooted in social behavior. Only he wouldn’t have used the word “good,” because he didn’t see it as good at all. Rather, he defined altruism as “the violent and voluntary act of self-destruction for no personal benefit,” and “the opposite of rational self-interest” (source). Basically, he said that society imposed altruistic necessity. Altruism is necessary for the preservation of society, and so we feel compelled to do altruistic acts for the common good.

Still seems a bit unsatisfying to you? Yeah, me too.

What if. . .

Altruism is part of the image of God in man? Now there’s a novel thought.

Written by in: Ministry & Religion |

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