How do I answer the argument that everything can be explained in terms of evolution? By way of example: I told an atheist friend that evolutionary theory doesn't account for altruism or self-sacrifice. If survival is what it's all about, why would a soldier throw himself on a grenade to save his friend? He said that it's not about the survival of the individual but of the species. I didn't know how to answer him. Can you help?
From a certain perspective your friend has a point: the individual sacrifices himself in order that the species may survive. We can all see the truth in this. What's more, if we accept his evolutionary presuppositions, we'll probably have to concede that his argument is unanswerable. In a purely material universe, everything has to be explained in purely materialistic terms. That's just the way it is.
However, we can raise a question that he won't so easily be able to dismiss if we simply take the discussion back a step. Why does it matter that the species should survive? Is it really important that the group outlast the individual? Who says so? Who cares? He will likely respond that questions like this are meaningless. The only thing that counts, he will say, is that the species has in fact survived, and that altruism is part of the mechanism that has made its survival possible. If he is faithful to his own assumptions, he will add that there is no reason to think that anything really matters in the final analysis. Science doesn't concern itself with the "why," he will explain – only the "what."
The problem with this is that such explanations are profoundly unsatisfactory. We all know this intuitively. The human heart craves meaning. We desperately want to know where we came from and why we are here. This in itself is a piece of evidence that shouldn't be ignored, and evolution can't account for it. The desire to understand is not part of the mechanism for survival in a materialistic world. Horses, cows, ducks, lizards, and paramecia have all persisted through the ages without it. All of them eat, sleep, mate, raise their young, live, fight, and die without ever asking what it's all about.
That's not enough for mankind, of course, and this begs a gigantic question – a question that can only be answered in terms of something supernatural and non-material. As C. S. Lewis puts it, "Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world" (Mere Christianity, 121).
If you'd like to discuss this question at greater length with a member of our staff, call and speak with one of our pastoral counselors.
Focus on the Family's The Truth Project