What Does Animal Altruism Tell Us about God?
I was at a science conference a few weeks ago where one of the scientists claimed in her lecture that the altruistic behavior we observe in certain mammal species proves that we humans share a common ancestor with these animals through common descent alone. Specifically, she tried to demonstrate in her talk that the altruistic behavior of humans compared to that of these animals differs only by degree and not fundamentally in kind, and that no supernatural intervention was needed to explain the origin of altruism in either humans or in these animals. She insisted that the altruism manifested in both humans and other mammals could be explained by the drive in these animals to preserve the species—that is, the “survival of the fittest” doctrine of Darwinian evolution. In other words, she set out to prove that while we humans certainly are superior in many respects to other mammals and mammals superior in many respects to other life-forms, neither humans nor mammals are exceptional in any supernatural way.
The Bible on Altruism in Animals
The Bible begs to differ. Genesis 1 singles out the nephesh animals for their distinction from previously existing creatures. The Hebrew word nephesh is best translated as “soulish animal.” It refers to those animals that God has endowed with mind, will, and emotions. These are the animals that emotionally bond with one another. This bonding is especially evident between parents and their young offspring. One obvious way that these animals are altruistic is that the parents in each nephesh species willingly sacrifice to care for and protect their offspring. The nephesh include all bird and mammal species and just a few reptilian species.
The Hebrew word bara, translated as “create,” is used only three times in Genesis 1. It first appears when God brings the universe into existence. The second time it appears is when God creates the nephesh. The third time is when God creates humans. In the context of Genesis 1, bara is reserved for God bringing something brand-new into existence. That is, in Genesis 1 the Bible asserts that there is something truly new and exceptional about the nephesh compared to previous life on Earth and something truly new and exceptional about humans compared to all other life on Earth.
The book of Job expands on the unique relational capacities of the nephesh. It points out that these animals are uniquely and optimally capable of interacting and emotionally bonding not only with members of their own species, but also with a species that did not yet exist when they appeared—namely, the human species. A common descent model would not predict that nephesh animals would possess the capacities for social interaction with humans in advance of our arrival—features of intelligence and emotion that facilitate bonding with humans and serving and pleasing humans.1 Without the existence of humans, such endowments would be wasteful, burdensome, and thus limiting to the fitness of these animals. However, a special creation model would indeed predict that the nephesh would be endowed in advance with these capabilities.
Overlooked by the scientist speaking at the conference is the point that nephesh animals not only demonstrate altruistic behavior toward members of their own species, but when bonded to a human or humans, they also demonstrate even greater altruistic behavior toward the human(s) with whom they have a strong emotional bond. For example, there are many accounts of a horse or a dog laying down its life to save the life of its human owner. Furthermore, when a nephesh animal is bonded to a human being, it will demonstrate much more enhanced altruistic behavior toward nephesh animals that are not members of its own species. Such behavior is particularly evident when nephesh animals of different species are emotionally bonded to the same human being. Anyone who has had pets of different species at the same time likely has observed this behavior.
One might be able to argue that altruism expressed toward members of the same species gives that species a survival advantage over other species and, thus, could be interpreted as evidence for a naturalistic common descent model. However, altruism expressed toward members of different species contradicts naturalistic common descent models.
Spiritual Lessons from Animal Altruism
Job 12:7, 9–10 exhorts us:
But ask the animals [land mammals], and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you. . . . Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.
As the rest of the book of Job makes clear, the teaching we receive from beasts and birds is not just biological—it is also spiritual. These animals teach us important lessons about ourselves, God, and how we can enter into an emotionally rewarding relationship with our Creator.
I describe and explain these lessons in my book Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job.2 In the context of altruism, one lesson is that as the nephesh animals were given the motivation and design features that enable them to express enhanced altruistic behavior to members of a higher species, so also were we humans given the motivation and design features that enable us to express enhanced altruistic behavior to a higher Being.
A second lesson is that human sin and abuse severely limit the altruistic behavior of nephesh animals bonded to humans toward 1) humans, 2) members of other nephesh species, and 3) members of the same nephesh species. Likewise, human sin and abuse severely limit the altruistic behavior of those humans toward 1) God, 2) other humans, 3) nephesh animals bonded to them, and 4) nephesh animals not bonded to them.
A third lesson is that just as it takes a higher being (a human) to tame a nephesh animal, it similarly takes a higher being (God) to tame a human.
A fourth lesson is that when a nephesh animal submits to a human and allows that human to tame them, their capacity for altruistic behavior becomes much enhanced. In the same manner, when humans submit to God and allow God to tame them, their capacity to express altruism toward God and others becomes greatly magnified.
A fifth lesson is that if it were not for God creating nephesh animals and endowing them with the motivation and the capacity to express altruism toward humans, we humans never would have launched or been able to sustain civilization.3 This fifth lesson is a humility lesson. If it were not for God specifically creating the nephesh species described in Job 38–39, we would have been permanently stuck in the Stone Age.
These lessons (and there are many more) explain why there is a correlation between the lack of contact with the altruistic behavior of the nephesh and atheistic and agnostic beliefs. In the twenty-first century, more and more humans are becoming isolated from the lessons Job speaks of in Job 12:7–10. Part of our strategy in reaching people for Christ needs to be exposing them to the great spiritual lessons being taught by the beasts and the birds.
- Hugh Ross, Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job: How the Oldest Book in the Bible Answers Today’s Scientific Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 105–85.
- Hugh Ross, Navigating Genesis: A Scientist’s Journey through Genesis 1–11 (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2014), 75–77.