Evolution and Holiness, Matthew Nelson Hill (Foreword by Darrel R. Falk). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.
Summary: Evolutionary sociobiology proposes a genetic basis both for selfishness and altruism yet does not provide a sufficient warrant for altruism. The author proposes ways that Wesleyan theology and practice of holiness both intersects with scientific theory and offers a capacity for human goodness that goes beyond genetic dispositions.
Recent research on genetics and sociobiology proposes that at a genetic level we have evolved with “selfish” or perhaps “altruistic” genes that play a role in our behavior. Some would go so far as to say that these genetic traits determine behavior. Most would propose that environmental, along with genetic factors contribute to our behavior, indeed explain our behavior. Often these explanations are made in ways that preclude theological explanations of altruistic behavior.
Matthew Nelson Hill makes the contention in this monograph that Christian, and particularly Wesleyan, understandings of human nature, and growth in holiness is neither unrelated or antithetical to sociobiology, but there are profitable points of intersection between science and theology. Theologians may profit from this work. At the same time, theology offers helpful correctives.
After an introductory chapter that outlines the aim and contours of his argument, in chapter two, he surveys sociobiological theories of altruism, and the mix of genetic propensities to preserving and passing along our own genes, and the inborn tendencies to altruistic behavior toward kin and social group. Then in chapter three, he explores the limitations of these theories to fully explain altruism. He explores the influence of culture, the problematic uses of language, and the reductionistic character of some sociobiologists (particularly E. O. Wilson) who make assertions beyond the scope of their discipline.
He then moves in chapter four to dealing with a fundamental issue in this discussion: is human behavior fully determined or do we have the capacity to overcome our inclinations or even move beyond the best of these? He argues for a compatibilist understanding of free will that recognizes an evolved capacity to consciously act in ways that contradict or transcend genetic or environmental influences. This sets up his exploration of Wesleyan holiness teaching that reckons with human nature and enables the embrace of Wesleyan “perfection.” Chapter five explores the sanctifying grace that is God’s initiative, with which we may cooperate, drawing ever closer to God in affection and life, with the aim of being perfected in love. Then chapter six explores how Wesleyan societies and “bands” provide an environment that supports this growth in holy affection and life. The concluding chapter recapitulates this study and makes brief observations of how other traditions might engage this discussion.
This work is valuable in several ways. Hill gives us a concise overview of sociobiological theories, a helpful assessment and critique of reductionist and totalizing assertions, and a compatibilist discussion of genetics, environment and free will that suggests ways theology and science may intersect. Finally, the discussion of a Wesleyan theology of sanctification, often an object of argument, in the framework of a discussion of altruism was a breath of fresh air. The appendices that introduce us to Wesley’s ideas of Christian perfection, and the ordering of his societies may be a first introduction for some to Wesley in his own words.
I did find myself wrestling with some questions concerning how I think some of this was framed. The language of “selfish” and “altruistic,” which is a vivid way to describe a genetic tendency to preserve and perpetuate either one’s own genotype (selfish) or that of related or unrelated others (altruistic) seems to slide easily from the behavior of our genes to human behavior. It also seemed to me that the writer tended to equate fallen human nature with genetic influences that undermine altruism. At the same time he argues for a free will that may be empowered by grace to overcome and go beyond natural tendencies. I wonder if it is right to suggest that our fallenness is written into our genes? I wonder if the defect is not in our genes but our will? Both preservation of our selves and our kin or wider social group seem inherently good. If we indeed have a will, is it not this that turns these instincts to selfish ends or ends of holy love under grace?
That said, and I hope I have accurately understood and represented the writer, I greatly appreciated this work as a model of the kinds of fruitful dialogue that I believe can occur between science and theology. I appreciate that he neither impugns the motives of scientists, nor denies scientific findings but rather brings them into a theological conversation. It is a frank conversation that challenges imprecise language and instances of overreach while listening to and representing the science fairly. This is the work Christians who do not believe science and faith are at war must do to make good that claim. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if in the process, more friendships between scientists and theologians were formed?