Patterns of Care : Relating Altruism in Sociobiology and the Christian Tradition of Agape

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (monograph)


The purpose of this study is to relate sociobiological theories of altruism to theories within the Christian tradition of agape.

Firstly, it discusses the relation between scientific, ethical and theological understandings of altruism, and argues that it is possible to compare discussions of benevolent acts towards others or other-directedness. Such acts are determined in content by the extent and recipients, and the content make recognisable patterns. A care-pattern is defined as the giver of the benevolent act having a relation to the receiver. A cost-pattern is defined as the giver receiving reciprocation of the benevolent act. Two other issues affecting the content, value and origin of altruism in the theories are identified. Firstly, whether a qualitative or quantitative difference can be found between humans and animals and secondly, the relation between natural and cultural factors shaping human altruism.

Standpoints among authors within sociobiology (Alexander, de Waal and Sober and Wilson) and the Christian tradition (Grant, Post, Pope, Hallett and Outka) are analysed. The analysis results in adaptive and agapeistic understandings of other-directedness. Sociobiology, although finding a large extent of altruism possible, arrives at a border between in-group and out-group recipients of other-directed acts. Both care-patterns and cost-patterns are found. Agapeistic patterns are care-patterns, characterised by viewing even out-groupers as neighbours entitled to care.

Secondly, the study discusses contemporary attempts to relate sociobiology and the tradition of agape. Conflict models discuss care-patterns from either an adaptive or an agapeistic perspective. Both view altruism towards out-groupers as rare. Adaptive models leave altruism inexplicable, agapeistic models describe a paradox only solvable through religion. Independence models invoke a borderline between non-human and human organisms, exclude altruism from nature, and argue that it is culture or religion that makes humans altruistic. Adaptive independence models have to resort to transcendent sources of altruism, without accounting for them. Agapeistic independence models are found suffering from being at odds with science and having poor support from Biblical Studies, something they have in common with agapeistic conflict models. The study argues that accepting both explanatory theories might increase our understanding of altruism. Integration models admit that not only humans are capable of altruism, even if the larger complexity both in the human brain and in our cultural patterns affects the quantity and the quality of altruism. The quantity of altruism can be affected through expansion models, and the quality enhanced through transformation models. One such quality could be the moral or religious value of altruism, without denying the survival and reproductive enhancing value of care.

A proposed suggestion of an integrative model aims to respect the distinctive character of agape as out-group love and describes agape as liberating, without denying the content, origin and value of our biological heritage. Natural and cultural streams of information form a symbiosis within humans and agape love “builds into” the preferential care sociobiology describes. The answer to the question of whether conflict is the only possible relation between a scientific and theological understanding of issues connected to altruism is negative.


  • Eva-Lotta Grantén
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Religious Studies


  • kunskapsteori, metafysik, estetik, Praktisk filosofi, ideology, epistemology, Sociobiology, Agape, Altruism, Science and Religion, Independence, Conflict, Integration, Care, Systematic philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics, ideologi, General, systematic and practical Christian theology, Kristen teologi (allmän, systematisk och praktisk)
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Supervisors/Assistant supervisor
  • [unknown], [unknown], Supervisor, External person
Award date2003 Oct 11
  • Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University
Print ISBNs91-628-5747-9
Publication statusPublished - 2003
Publication categoryResearch

Bibliographic note

Defence details Date: 2003-10-11 Time: 10:15 Place: Samarkand, Akademiska Föreningen, Sandgatan 2, Lundagård, Lund, Sweden External reviewer(s) Name: Drummond, Celia Deane Title: Professor Affiliation: Chester College, UK --- The information about affiliations in this record was updated in December 2015. The record was previously connected to the following departments: Studies in Faiths and Philosophies (015017070), Ethics (015017072)