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Darwin knew this and therefore according to Darwin’s theory altruists should have become extinct over time, because they are the ones who get eaten by the lion. Yet Darwin realised that in every single human society ever known, it is the altruists, not the survivalists, who are admired. This threatened to explode his whole theory. However, in the end, he came up with the answer and he wrote it in his much later book, The Descent of Man. I’m going to summarise what he said in today’s language. The world did not yet know about genes, but in effect he said we hand on our genes as individuals, but we only survive as members of groups. For a group to survive, it has to have altruism among its members. It has to have people who put the interest of the group above their private interest.

That is how Darwin solved the problem. We need altruism to create groups and without groups we don’t survive. This is a really interesting subject and it has become huge in research since the 1980s, in all sorts of disciplines — evolutionary psychology, economics and sociology. It involves game theory and a wonderful thing, the conversation killer of all time, called the iterated prisoner’s dilemma. One way or another, people call it different things. Biologists call it reciprocal altruism. Sociologists call it trust. Economists call it social capital, when a society is full of altruists helping one another. That society is rich in social capital. When you’ve got a society of individualists who think mainly of themselves, it is poor in social capital. The classic work on social capital was written in our time by a great sociologist at Harvard called Robert Putnam. He is famous for his observation that more people are going 10-pin bowling in America than ever before, but fewer are joining teams and leagues. He called his book Bowling Alone. That, for him, became the symbol of an individualistic society which is rich in individual life but poor in social capital. Poor in altruism, in other words. However, Putnam, like Darwin, is a very honest and thoughtful scholar, willing to challenge his own ideas.

So he published Bowling Alone as a book in 2000, but in 2010 he published another fascinating book, American Grace. In this book, he says, “Social capital does exist in America. But where will you find it? In churches, in synagogues, in temples, in houses of worship.” People who go regularly to synagogue or to church enjoy health benefits as well. One big survey in the US found that if you go regularly to a house of worship your life expectancy increases by seven years.

However, the truth is that if you are a regular goer to church, synagogue or other place of worship, you are more likely to help a stranger in need, give a meal to the hungry, shelter someone who’s homeless, find somebody a job, give to charity (whether the cause is religious or secular), get involved in voluntary work. The best predictor is not class, ethnicity, or education. The best indicator is: do you or don’t you go regularly to a house of worship. Robert Putnam refined the thesis and said that it doesn’t matter what you believe: do you go? An atheist who went regularly to church is more likely to be an altruist than a deeply-believing believer who keeps to himself. So if you’re an atheist in synagogue, you’re probably a decent kind of guy. We have lots of atheists in synagogue. Actually, one of them, the great, late, much-lamented philosopher at Columbia University, Sidney Morgenbesser, actually said when he was ill, “I don’t know why God is so angry with me just because I don’t believe in Him.”

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September 12th, 2017
5:09 AM
What starts as an interesting article descends into the classic 'it doesn't matter if you believe it or not, but it's better to believe' acts of proselytization.

Jose Carp
September 9th, 2017
9:09 AM
Rav Sir Jonathan Sachs who I admire immensely, omits the fact that the world population has quadrupled in the last 40 years. This has certainly contributed to more ignorance and the dispersion of religions into various sects (some more redical than others).

J Dale Debber
September 8th, 2017
2:09 PM
Rabbi Sacks has put words and meaning to the identification of precisely what is happening In the 21st century world. Moreover he outlines the choice of paths that both societies and individuals have.

North West Johnny
September 1st, 2017
1:09 PM
Rabbi Jonathan Sachs is seriously one of the greatest thinkers of our time. He needs to come home to the UK and speak from every corner of our island to give the silent majority a voice and some direction. The decades to come are going to be dark if we do not break the growing threats to our society.

ron hurtAnonymous
September 1st, 2017
4:09 AM
Quite brilliant analysis. Reminds me of the late Francis Schseffer

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