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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sympathy, Fidelity and Courage

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert with Dayna Edwards, Director of Religious Exploration and Noel Monardes, Worship Associate

Sympathy, Fidelity, and Courage

A sermon by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

February 9, 2014


For my first three years as the minister here, the Sunday nearest Valentine’s Day was reserved for marriage equality. But, we won it in Maryland last year, once and for all, and this congregation can be proud, we did our part! 

So, now we can go back to celebrating Darwin Day, in honor of the birthday of Charles Darwin, the British scientist who laid the foundations of the theory of evolution and transformed the way humans think about the natural world.


Why celebrate Darwin’s birth 205 years ago? True, his mother was a Unitarian, but that’s not why.


We celebrate Darwin Day to remind us of the truth of evolution, when a national survey as recently as this past December shows that as many as one-third of our fellow Americans believe the Biblical version of creation to be factual, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And to celebrate the amazing wonders, and – yes, mysteries – of life; our habitat, the Earth; our solar system; and the Universe beyond.  


Let us sing of the mystery of life, #1003 in Singing the Journey. “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Mystery. Mystery. Life is a riddle and a mystery.”


As I listened to Worship Associate Noel Monardes’ Chalice Reflection this morning, I thought how perfect:  not only did he introduce our theme today, altruism, but – appropriate for the day we celebrate the birth of Charles Darwin on February 12 two hundred and five years ago -- he also raised the evolution-related question:  nature or nurture? Might he have inherited a gene for altruism from his grandfather through his father or did they nurture it? Or both? Or more than that?

Let me continue this exploration of altruism, usually defined as actions that benefit someone else that do not benefit us, begun by with a true story. It happened seven years ago and made national news, so you may remember it even though it took place in New York. It involved someone from the Boston area, where I was living at the time, so it may have especially resonated there, though its appeal was universal.

That January, a nineteen year old art student from Boston was waiting on a NYC subway platform, collapsed with convulsions, got up, stumbled, and fell off the platform to the tracks below. A stranger waiting nearby, Mr. Wesley Autrey, made a split-second decision, told someone nearby to watch his two young daughters, and jumped down to rescue the young man. But there wasn’t time to hoist him back to the platform, because a train was coming. (Can you imagine?!)

Autry pushed the man into the well between the tracks, and lay down on top of him. The train slowed down, but never the less came to a stop with them underneath. It took a while to be extricated, but they were both fine!

Those of us who ride the Metro probably have wondered, as I have:  what would happen if I, or somebody standing near me, fell or got pushed off the platform and down into the grime between the tracks, along with the gum wrappers and rats? 


Mr. Autrey said later that, as a construction worker, he had been in many tight spaces and so could tell there was room between the tracks for both of them. He also was a Navy veteran, trained to handle dangerous situations and to protect comrades. But, why was it his instinct to risk his own life to help a stranger? Would you or I?

''I don't feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help,'' Mr. Autrey said. ''I did what I felt was right.''

But, why did he not only FEEL it was the right thing to do, but also DO it? It came out later that Mr. Autrey was a shop steward for his union, a role in which the Laborers Local 79 Business Manager said he was “always helping others.” Maybe altruism can be reinforced through practice? http://www.lhsfna.org/index.cfm/lifelines/february-2007/e2809csubway-superheroe2809d-is-liuna-shop-steward/

So many questions! Life is a riddle and mystery. The existence of religious traditions and scriptures seems to be evidence that for a very, very long time, we humans have known life to be a mystery and have – and still are, through science – trying to answer our questions about it as best we can. Creating myths and engaging in scientific discovery are expressions of the quest for answers. The quest is an eternal one, involving careful observation and imagination, only the tools have changed. The ability to pay attention has always been required.

Charles Darwin was a master of paying attention. In the little I have read of his writings, his powers of observation impressed me. He not only saw minute details that others missed, he also saw the details in patterns, and the patterns in relation to each other, and over time, plus he also followed hunches and used his imagination to make meaning of what he saw. The tools at his disposal were simple by today’s standards. Subsequent research has confirmed many of his suppositions.

This same kind of imaginative observational process was described just this past week, I thought, by the physicist and string theorist Brian Greene in a fascinating interview on the radio show On Being. I won’t pretend to understand his field, but as he described how the elementary Higgs Particle was discovered in July 2012, 48 years after it was first theorized in 1964, the process seemed basically similar to Darwin’s.

Someone back then, Peter Higgs, thought of the idea that there must be a basic particle that gives mass to other particles – the idea required both observation and imagination. Tools were created:  A collider smashes lots of particles together extremely rapidly with great force trillions of times. One of these times causes one of these small particles to separate out.  A detector finds this particle, the appearance of which was a very small probability. The discovery is announced, meanings are made, and new questions arise. Mystery.

Similarly, by observation and imagination, Darwin reflected on the nature of altruism. He observed in the behavior of ape-like animals qualities such as sympathy, fidelity, and courage – all related to altruism. He reflected on how they may have become human qualities. He conjectured that if two tribes came into competition, the one with the greater number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members would be more often ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other. Therefore, they would overtake the other tribe, and go on to be victorious over more tribes, until it encountered some other and still more highly endowed tribe, which would become the dominant one and reproduce more. “Thus,” he explained, “The social and moral qualities would tend slowly to advance and be diffused throughout the world.”  (The Descent of Man, p. 870)

He wrote, “Of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important. [It] is summed up in that short but imperious word ought, so full of high significance.  It is the most noble of all the attributes of man, leading him without a moment’s hesitation to risk his life for that of a fellow-creature [like the NY subway hero]; or after due deliberation, impelled simply by the deep feeling of right or duty, to sacrifice it in some great cause [Nelson Mandela comes to mind].”  

Since the time of Darwin, scientists have developed new tools, like the Internet and brain imaging, for understanding how our evolved altruism and sense of right and wrong work. I heard about them on Radio Lab, a science program, Show #203, entitled “Morality.”

They told about a moral dilemma study based on another train track situation:  You stand beside a train track. You can see a train coming. You can see there are 5 workers on the track who do not know the train is coming and are sure to be hit. You could throw the switch near where you stand, sending the train onto a side track.  One man is working there, who will be sure to be hit. Should you throw the switch? Kill one to save five?  (Think about it: yes or no?)

Now imagine you are standing on a bridge overlooking the same tracks and see the train heading toward the five workers. A rather large man stands next to you on the bridge. If you push him off the bridge, he’ll land on the tracks, stopping the train and saving the five workers. Should you push the large man? Kill one to save five? (Think about it: yes or no?)

If you said YES to the first question, that you would throw the switch and kill one worker to save five, but said NO to the second question, would you push a man to his death in order to save five men, then you are like almost everyone else. Almost all of us believe that though the math in the two situations is the same, the morality is not.


Marc Hauser, Harvard professor and author of Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, posed these questions to hundreds of thousands of people on the Internet and got those results. He has shown that most people cannot fully articulate their reasons; they just know that yes they’d throw the switch but no they would not push the large man. 


Another researcher, Joshua Greene, a young philosopher and neuroscientist then at Princeton now at Harvard, posed the questions also, not to people via the Internet, but to people while they lay ensconced in his 180,000-pound brain scanner. He watched their brains light up and discovered that certain regions lit up when the people were answering YES they would pull the switch and other regions lit up when people were answering NO they would not push the large man. He theorizes that our brains don’t just hum along like one unified system making these ethical decisions. Rather, the regions of our brains are like warring sub-groups, duking it out in the struggle to know right and wrong, lights flashing here and there.

(So, when we say, “part of me wants to do X but another part of me wants to do Y,” it’s literally true sometimes!)


It’s thought that the region that lit up for YES to throwing the switch deals in calculations—one vs. five— and the part that lights up for NO DON”T KILL to pushing the man is an innate prohibition against murder which the folks on Radio Lab refer to as “our inner chimp.” It has been shown that, though they can be violent, chimpanzees don’t kill each other as a matter of course, they have to have some context-sensitive reason to do so. When we say that we have a gut feeling about something, Greene says maybe that’s “evolution calling.”


But, what if the question is one for which people don’t tend to give the same answer, where there isn’t a consensus, where there is more of a moral dilemma, and a less clear “gut feeling”? 


Such a question (on Radio Lab and also on Joshua Greene’s website) could be this: “It’s war time, and you are hiding in a basement with other people.  The enemy soldiers are outside.  Your baby starts to cry loudly, and if nothing is done the soldiers will find you and kill you, your baby, and everyone else in the basement.  The only way to prevent this from happening is to cover your baby’s mouth, but if you do this, the baby will smother to death.  Is it morally permissible to do this? Some people say yes and some say no.”


With this kind of dilemma, the brain scans show both parts lighting up at once, with the calculating regions of the brain glowing brighter and for longer, as compared to the emotion based “inner chimp” NO! DON’T KILL regions. The scientists say it looks  like global warfare on the brain scans.


So, how does the conflict get resolved? Greene says there’s another part of the brain, right behind our eyebrows that breaks the tie, and decides. When this region is highly activated, the calculation section of the brain (one baby versus everyone hiding in the basement) gets a boost and the inner chimp emotional response (NO! do not kill the baby) is muffled. In other words, when people say, "Yes, it’s okay to smother the baby," they exhibit increased activity in parts of the brain associated with high-level cognitive function. This region is highly developed in humans and barely present in chimpanzees and other primates.


So, you see, relatively recently in the 150 years since Darwin published the Voyage of the Beagle, we have begun to understand how our brain works. We know which parts of the “subway hero’s” brain lit up as he decided to rescue the man who’d fallen onto the train tracks, but we don’t yet understand why he--and not someone else--did it. Mystery!

Sympathy, fidelity, and courage – these social qualities seen by Darwin in other animal species – guide humans toward altruistic actions. As our global reality becomes more and more clearly interconnected, and the challenges facing the earth more and more dire… it is imperative that humans extend the reach of these social qualities well beyond our own families, kinds, and nations.

The same neural pathways, evolved from our ancestors, that got us to this challenging predicament will have to serve us in getting out of it!

Let us cultivate in ourselves adaptations that will extend the reach of our sympathy, fidelity, and courage to prevent our extinction as a species and save human life as we know it.  Amen.


For our closing words, first we have Darwin’s, then mine.

The last sentence of his 1859 treatise On the Origin of the Species:


There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.


May this be a place where we practice altruism.

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