1 Rubens Cain Slaying Abel

‘Cain Slaying Abel’ by Peter Paul Rubens

My Brother’s Keeper

By: Alexandra Bourdillon

On March 25, 1965, the headline of the New York Times read: 25,000 Go To Alabama’s Capitol. Montgomery, Alabama’s capitol, was the destination of a 50 mile march from Selma, Alabama in a major Civil Rights campaign for voting rights for blacks. The final march was a second attempt after a violent confrontation against state troopers left many injured on March 7th, which was named “Bloody Sunday.” On March 21st, 3200 people left Selma for Montgomery. The marchers walked 12 miles a day and slept in fields at night (“1965 Selma to Montgomery Mach Fast Facts”). At both Selma and Montgomery, courageous white citizens, who already possessed voting rights, joined the black protestors. The white citizens had everything to lose. For example, Reverend James Reeb was beaten to death after joining Selma marchers. Viola Gregg Liuzzo, from Detroit, who drove to Alabama to drive marchers back to Selma after Montgomery, was shot and killed (“Civil Rights Martyrs”). How can we explain the willingness of these two people – and so many others – to risk their comfortable lives without any tangible return?

Some scientists contend the mind is defined by the physical matter that constitutes the brain. According to contemporary biologist Jerry Coyne, “… decisions result from molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances transmitted from one brain cell to another” (Coyne). These molecular and physiological processes dictate our every decision. Our cells are shaped by genetics that have evolved over millennia through natural selection. Over time, successful traits overcome less favorable ones as well-adapted organisms have better survival rates and thereby pass on beneficial genes. The process of adaptation inherently requires a certain desire for self-preservation that enables an organism to sustain its existence. Without the selfish instinct, it would be easy to die. In essence, a selfish instinct is a prerequisite for vitality. Because the biological processes that define our thoughts are a product of natural selection, the driving factor must be something that is intrinsically selfish.

Joseph Wilson Lowry, “Tabular View of Characteristic British Fossils, Stratigraphically Arranged” (1853) from “Science Circa 1859: On the Eve of Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species.” The exhibit, which opens Monday, Nov. 23, in the Memorial Library’s Special Collections, explores the state of science before Darwin’s groundbreaking book “On the Origin of Species.”

Joseph Wilson Lowry, “Tabular View of Characteristic British Fossils, Stratigraphically Arranged” (1853) 

Scientists have developed theories to justify seemingly altruistic acts by claiming such acts are motivated by personal gain. Biologist George Williams bluntly says, “As a general rule… seeing an animal doing something to benefit another assumes either that it is being manipulated by the other individual or that it is being subtly selfish” (Ridley, 18). Generosity can be reduced to motives, including guilt, shame, conformity, approval seeking, pride or self-advancement. For example, one theory states, “the more you truly feel for people in distress, the more selfish you are being in alleviating that distress” (Ridley, 21).

Another theory uses math to rationalize the phenomenon of sacrifice. Biologist William Hamilton studied “kin selection” and “the unusually cooperative behavior” of certain insects by analyzing how genes are shared. If the goal of natural selection is to continue the line of genetics, one can quantify success through the survival of genetic material. An organism is more drawn to help or protect other organisms that share more DNA. For example, siblings typically share half of their DNA and one may be willing to sacrifice his life for siblings who can still pass on their DNA, thus securing the continuation of genes. “The specific outcome of such Hamiltonian scenarios depends on the relative costs and benefits…” (Sulloway) and the theory predicts that an act of cooperation occurs when benefits exceed the cost. “By the logic of inclusive fitness, an individual should be willing to lay down his life for more than two siblings, more than four nieces or nephews, or more than eight first cousins” (Sulloway). The mathematical approach can be applied on a larger scale as well; for example, one would sacrifice her life for a considerable number of people, so that they could continue the human genome. Scientists believe our decisions are dictated by this logic. “The math has been done by evolution on genes… Evolution has turned the math into an instinct” (“The Good Show”). The result is a notion that our decisions are reduced to genetic calculations. Evolutionary psychologist, Robert Wright says, “Understanding the often unconscious nature of genetic control is the first step toward understanding that… we’re all puppets” (Robert Wright on Darwinism and Free Will).

Scientific theory, however, does not fully explain the sacrifice of white citizens at the momentous Civil Rights Movement, even if only to help a few strangers return home. Evolutionary biologists would reduce us to the selfish instinct associated with natural selection, but if we have the capacity for selflessness, we have the capacity to choose independently of our biology. Are we determined entirely by natural processes or are we free to oppose these?

We begin to understand our capacity to choose altruistically through what Martin Luther King called the “solid rock of brotherhood” or what St. Paul considered “neighborly love.” Brotherhood and neighborly love can be equated with solidarity because both recognize the needs and existence of others who are at the same time our equals. The capacity for solidarity is proof of human freedom because, in its truest form, solidarity aims, far beyond our immediate families and the closed circle of our intimate friends, to unite us with perfect strangers. Solidarity is a miracle of sorts. Miracles, in Hannah Arendt’s terms, are “interruptions of some natural series of events, of some automatic process, in whose context they constitute the wholly unexpected” (Arendt, 166).

Genuine solidarity means not only recognizing our human likeness in others, but also expressing love for others, even those we do not know personally. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul used the metaphor of the body to discuss the interdependence among people. The Christian notion groups everyone into a single body, each person making up the whole. “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body” (1 Cor 12:12). One’s existence is contingent on others and theirs on the same individual. One cannot act without affecting others in the body. “If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it” (1 Cor 12:26). King extended Paul’s idea when he posed the question, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” and not “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?”[1] The ability to reconcile a stranger’s experience with your own is the foundation of brotherly love.

Solidarity not only requires us to suppress our biological instincts, but also forces an unsettling discovery upon us: reliance, or our dependence upon others. Just as we are responsible for random strangers, they are responsible for us. “This idea of such a dependence is frightening” (Beauvoir, 67). Reliance on others is inconsistent with our self-preserving instinct, or our biology. It is uncomfortable to acknowledge the uncertainty that lies when others influence us. Yet, experiencing the impact of others enables us to better cooperate with them and better understand our own role in this interconnected system. Acknowledging our dependence on others is frightening and acknowledging our responsibility toward strangers requires great effort.

In spite of these challenges, acts of brotherhood and neighborly love exist. In the civil rights march, Reverend James Reeb and Viola Gregg Liuzzo overcame any selfish instinct in their performance of solidarity, through their sacrifice for complete strangers. They recognized the significance of their own actions on others, as well as the realization that others’ situation directly affected their own. Our capacity for solidarity is proof of our essential human freedom. We can reconcile this capacity with science through the theory of emergence. Darwinian political theorist Larry Arnhart says there are “special capacities of the human soul… manifesting the emergent complexity of life, in which higher levels of organization produce mental abilities that cannot be found at lower levels” (West). While brain cells give rise to the mind, there is a degree of power that the mind holds over the biology. “This emergent power of the brain for mental attention is the natural ground for human freedom” (West). The capacity to love is a product of the emerging mind. So long as we can weigh selfless choices, our mind cannot be reduced to physical matter alone.

Furthermore, brotherly love not only exists, but it is the end-goal of most moral philosophies. Recognizing our capacity for solidarity leads to enlightenment. Such recognition is encumbering as well as empowering. “The vicarious responsibility for things we have not done… is the price we pay for the fact that we live our lives not by ourselves but among our fellow men….[2]” Our freedom lies in the ability to address this responsibility; we can ignore the call to action or we can embrace our interconnectedness and give purpose to our decisions. In his letter to the Galations, St. Paul says, “For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love” (Gal 5:13). St. Paul invites his audience to pursue a moral high ground through brotherly love. He even hints at the dangers of rejecting solidarity: “But if you go on biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal 5:15).

Matt Heron, Alabama, 1965

Matt Heron, Alabama, 1965

Works Cited:

1 CorinthiansNew American Bible, Revised Edition. Washington, D.C.: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 2001. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Web. <http://www.usccb.org/bible/&gt;.

“1965 Selma to Montgomery March Fast Facts.” CNN Library. 22 Aug 2014. Web <http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/15/us/1965-selma-to-montgomery-march-fast-facts/&gt;

Arendt, Hannah. Between past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York:Penguin, 1978. Print.Beauvoir, Simone De. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Kensington Pub., 1976. Print.

“Civil Rights Martyrs.” Southern Poverty Law Center: Civil Rights Memorial. Web <http://www.splcenter.org/civil-rights-memorial/civil-rights-martyrs&gt;

Coyne, Jerry A. “You Don’t Have Free Will.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. N.p., 18 Mar. Web. <http%3A%2F%2Fchronicle.com%2Farticle%2FJerry-ACoyne%2F131165%2F>.

GalatiansNew American Bible, Revised Edition. Washington, D.C.: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 2001. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Web. <http://www.usccb.org/bible/&gt;.

Ridley, Matt. The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Viking, 1997. Print.

“Robert Wright on Darwinism and Free Will.” Discovery Institute. Center for Science & Culture.1 May 2009. Web. <http%3A%2F%2Fwww.discovery.org%2Fa%2F9601>.

Sulloway, Frank J. “Darwinian Virtues.” The New York Review of Books. The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation by Matt Ridley, 0 Apr. 1998. Web. <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1998/apr/09/darwinian-virtues/?page=1&gt;.

“The Good Show.” by Lynn Levy. Season 9: Episode 1. WNYC. Radiolab. Web. 15 Dec. 2010. <http://www.radiolab.org/story/103951-the-good-show/#&gt;.

West, John G. “Is Darwinian Evolution Compatible with Free Will and Personal Responsibility?” Discovery Institute. Center for Science & Culture, 1 May 2009. Web. <http%3A%2F%2Fwww.discovery.org%2Fa%2F9581>.

[1] “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Martin Luther King, delivered 3 April 1968, Mason Temple, Memphis, Tennessee.

[2] Amor Mundi: Explorations in the Faith and Thought of Hannah Arendt, Hannah Arendt, edited by J.W. Bernauer, 28 Feb 1987, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.