Survival of the kindest?
Neuropsychology opens a window into the way God designed us to help others
A secular neuropsychologist set out to answer the question: Why some humans are willing to risk their lives for others. And she found interesting results hiding in the brains of altruists.
Abigail Marsh of Georgetown University describes her research and its implications in a new book out this week, The Fear Factor (Basic Books). She and a team of researchers looked at what they called “extreme altruism” by doing imaging and psychological studies on a group of people who donated kidneys to strangers.
“Such donations meet the most stringent definitions of altruism in that they represent an intentional behavior that incurs significant costs to the donor to benefit an anonymous, nonkin other,” the 2014 study’s abstract stated. Marsh found that, compared with a control group, the kidney donors had enlarged, faster-responding right amygdalas, the brain’s emotional control center.
I asked Marsh what could account for the beefed-up amygdalas of altruists, and she cited a combination of nature and nurture.
“While there does appear to be some genetic component to altruism … this is a long way from altruism being fixed or hardwired from birth,” she said, adding the amygdala can change over time, and altruistic behavior tends to be self-reinforcing.
Discoveries like this one from the field of neuropsychology present challenges and opportunities for Christian psychologists such as Jason Kanz of the Marshfield Clinic in Eau Claire, Wis. Some neuropsychologists take brain biology to secular extremes.
“Taken to the end point, the assertion could be made that all human behavior is predictable and biological,” Kanz wrote in 2015. “Certainly, vocal atheistic neuroscientists such as Sam Harris posit that all behavior is determined and that free will is a delusion.”
But Marsh and Kanz both assert the brain has flexible neurological wiring and responds to experiences. To paraphrase Kanz, neurological health can paint a picture of spiritual wholeness.
“So when Jesus tells us to love one another like He loves, or when Paul tells us to put on the new self, we are being called into a life not only of greater other-centeredness and greater love, but I would argue, deeper neurological integration,” Kanz told me.
Not only does neuropsychology offer greater understanding of how God designed our brains for empathy, caring, and love, it also contradicts Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Survival of the fittest requires each individual to put his or her own needs above the needs of others, but Marsh’s research shows some people’s brains are wired to do the opposite.
“Altruistic behaviors reduce the immediate fitness of the altruist to improve the fitness of another individual,” Marsh and her research colleagues wrote. “As such, altruism has long been seen to pose singular problems for evolutionary theory.”
Floating wind turbines could generate up to three times as much electricity as land turbines, according to a new study by the Carnegie Institution for Science in Palo Alto, Calif., reviewed by Science Magazine. Researchers examined whether wind turbines installed in the open ocean—where air current is 70 percent stronger than on land—could avoid a problem known as “wind shadow.” On land, turbines deplete the wind strength for downstream turbines, significantly dropping their watts of power per square meter. While researchers used to think wind turbines on land could produce up to 7 watts per square meter, recent modeling shows they only provide about 1 watt per square meter when installed at scale. The Carnegie Institution scientists conducted virtual experiments and found turbines placed in the North Atlantic could produce three times as much power as existing wind farms in Kansas, often avoiding “wind shadow.” Only a few companies now build floating wind farms due to high construction and operating costs. But the study’s authors urged more companies to try, writing that open-ocean wind farms in the North Atlantic alone “could meet the current annual global energy demand.” —Kiley Crossland
San Diego County is fighting a Hepatitis A epidemic that has killed at least 17 people and infected nearly 490 others so far. The outbreak of the contagious liver disease started in November 2016 and has predominantly hit San Diego’s homeless population. In the last two weeks, the city of San Diego has cleared homeless camps from downtown streets in an effort to control the spread of the disease, police Lt. Scott Wahl said Wednesday. “The problem is we’re not yet on top of this outbreak, and we cannot have people going back in and re-infecting areas we’ve just cleaned,” Wahl said, noting all efforts are “about saving lives.” The city has been power-washing streets as well as installing restrooms and hand-washing stations, and public health nurses are teaming up with police to offer Hepatitis A vaccinations to the homeless. The rates of the outbreak may be slowing, San Diego County Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten told the Chula Vista City Council on Tuesday night: “We have seen a leveling off of the number of cases. We need several more weeks. Maybe even another month before we can definitively say.” —K.C.
A new gene therapy for a rare inherited form of blindness improves vision, according to a review posted Tuesday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But the FDA said it is not clear whether the benefits of the new therapy, Luxturna, last in the long run. If approved, Luxturna would be the first gene therapy for an inherited disease—in which doctors insert a corrective gene into a patient—approved in the United States. The developer, Spark Therapeutics, studied the treatment in people with one of many rare inherited retinal diseases and found 93 percent experienced some improvement in vision function. On Thursday, a panel of outside advisers will meet to discuss the treatment and recommend a path forward. Observers say they expect the panel to vote for approval, according to Reuters. —K.C.
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