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Mathematics and faith explain altruism

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Mathematics and faith explain altruism
By Rich Barlow

The work of the Harvard mathematician and biologist Martin Nowak, who is a Catholic, proposes a partnership between science and religion. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

If evolution is all about survival of the fittest, then why have humans evolved a sense of altruism and cooperation? The seeming contradiction has engaged theologians, scientists, and even comic book writers (think the Incredible Hulk) who've probed human duality and how its good half sometimes empowers selflessness to override self-interest

The British biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins believes that altruism in modern humans is essentially an evolutionary oops, albeit a beneficial one. It paid off in prehistory, when people lived in clans and protecting others meant the survival of their own gene pools; now that we've expanded into large cities, our instinct to help others still kicks in, even though those we aid may have no relation to us.

On the other hand, Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and a Christian, sees in our willingness to work with others the handprint of God.

Then there is Harvard's Martin Nowak. A mathematician and biologist, he agrees with Dawkins's explanation of how we evolved to be good Samaritans. Yet as a Catholic, he rejects Dawkins's notion that believing in evolution precludes belief in a God who included altruism in evolution's bequest to us. Needless to say, he also rejects Dawkins's disdain for believers as scientifically illiterate yahoos. This Vienna-born mathematician says that if you do the math, you'll find that cooperation is more than just a nice leftover from humanity's infancy; it's a winning strategy for living, a way to thrive.

For the past three years, with Sarah Coakley, formerly of Harvard Divinity School and now at Cambridge University in England, Nowak pursued a study project, the title of which - "The Evolution and Theology of Cooperation" - gives a clue to its partnership between science and religion. Nowak said his work demonstrated the mathematical probability that being cooperative, generous, and forgiving produces better results for people than looking out for Number One.

As part of his demonstration, Nowak devised repeated rounds of an exercise from game theory called the prisoner's dilemma. The math is complex to laypeople, but the basic premise of the game is straightforward: Two prisoners held separately are given their options: If both stay silent, each gets six months in jail. If both implicate the other, they each get five years. If one turns traitor and the other stays mum, the gabby prisoner goes free, but the other gets 10 years. Neither knows what the other will do.

In isolation, each thinks: Finking on the other guy could bring me freedom, but it could also bring us both five years. Cooperating with each other, by both of us clamming up, guarantees a short, six-month sentence. Mathematically speaking, Nowak said, cooperation is the best bet.

Math aside, Nowak and Coakley say biology has enshrined cooperation as well. In their proposal seeking grants for their project, they wrote, "Genes cooperate in cells, cells cooperate in organisms, and individuals cooperate in societies."

Coakley said in an e-mail that Christians seeking rational defense for their faith might "draw strength from considerations about the nature of the universe [and] forms of evolutionary development. . . . These arguments might not persuade a rampant atheist (what would?); but for one at least 'considering' faith, they could have a significant impact."

Has Nowak unwittingly dispensed with the need for a God by demonstrating that morality and generosity are wise evolutionary adaptations imparted by nature? "I come to the opposite conclusion," he replied. He said he and other scientists try to describe the mechanisms by which creation works, without reference to a creator. "Science a priori excludes any possibility of the interaction between the creation and the creator. . . . You have never, ever actually proven in science that there is no God."

In his view - and he admits that not everyone agrees - the question of whether God exists is forever beyond science's ability to answer. You can never, Nowak believes, come up with deductive proof for God's existence.

Ask Nowak for a reason for his belief in God and he answers simply that he has had faith ever since he was a child.

"St. Augustine asked himself why is it given to some people to believe in God?" he said. "His conclusion was this by itself is the grace of God."

Coakley said the two partners have begun a new project to measure attitudes toward cooperation among both religious people and nonbelievers. Early results, she writes, suggest that the former have more faith, if you will, in the power of cooperation. Meanwhile, it's worth recalling that even St. Paul marveled at how self-sacrificing some people could be.

"Only with difficulty does one die for a just person," he wrote to the Christian community in Rome. And Paul was a man who, according to tradition, was martyred himself for the Christian cause.

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