On God, Darwin and Morality

A recent article by Steven Pinker, reprinted in the Age last week, tried to explain morality from an evolutionary perspective. Steven Pinker is an evolutionary psychologist and an atheist. As an atheist, he is a philosophical naturalist and a materialist. Thus he believes that only the natural world exists, and that only matter matters. It is hard in such a scheme of things to argue for something manifestly outside of the natural order.

Yet he tries to do this in suggesting that moral realism might be true. Moral realism is the idea that real objective morality exists. Now Christians happen to be moral realists. We believe in objective moral laws. But we ground those in God himself. God is a moral being, and moral law is simply a reflection of who he is.

But people like Pinker are entertaining the possibility of a secular version of moral realism. They certainly do not believe in God, yet are open to the possibility of objective morality. This would seem to be problematic for Pinker. Moral facts of course are non material. So how can they exist in the world of the materialist? Good question.

Readers might recall that Pinker caused a bit of a stink when he said in a November 1997 New York Times article that women who murder their newborn babies may be just acting out their evolutionary design. Infanticide may be a hideous moral evil, but it may also simply be part of the way nature has designed us.

So it is clear that his naturalistic and evolutionary worldview has some real implications for morality. In the piece in the Age Pinker tries to wiggle his way around the implications of his worldview. He wants to let us know that there may be such a thing as morality after all, even though it does not easily fit into his own philosophical system.

The title of his article, “The evolution of morality,” gives the game away. Morality has evolved, like everything else, and that is the way it is. He seeks to show, under a Darwinian framework, how we can account for altruism, self-sacrifice, and good and evil in general.

Thus he suggests that some type of moral realism may have to be dragged into the picture. But the question remains: in an atheistic and naturalistic worldview, how can one even speak of an objective morality? Right and wrong are not material things, and should not even exist in a Darwinian world.

The more consistent Darwinists, such as Dawkins, simply concede the point: there is no such thing as right and wrong. As Dawkins put it in River Out of Eden, “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

Evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson and philosopher Michael Ruse insist that morality is just a survival mechanism. Ethics “is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate,” and “the way our biology enforces its ends is by making us think that there is an objective higher code to which we are all subject.”

Naturalist Simon Blackburn put it this way: “Nature has no concern for good or bad, right or wrong. . . . We cannot get behind ethics.” Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr says that “altruism toward strangers is a behaviour not supported by natural selection.”

Yet Pinker and other Darwinists speak of “reciprocal altruism,” the idea that we do “good” things in order to help our survival chances. Thus the survival of the fittest mentality is dragged in here to explain even altruism. Yet as Dinesh D’Sousa points out, reciprocal altruism is simply “the equivalent of ‘I’ll be nice to you, so that you be nice to me’.” He is worth quoting at length in this regard:

“The problem is that this entire framework of Darwinian analysis does not even come close to explaining morality. It confines itself to explaining altruism, but it only succeeds in what may be termed ‘low altruism.’ But humans also engage in ‘high altruism,’ which may be defined as behavior that confers no reciprocal or genetic advantage. A man stands up to give his seat on a bus to an old lady. She is nothing to him, and he is certainly not thinking that there may be a future occasion when she or someone else will give him a seat. He gives up his seat because he is a nice guy. There is no Darwinian rationale that can account for his behavior.”

Sorry, but try as they might, materialists and hard-core Darwinists simply cannot properly account for real altruism. Of course their reply is simply, “Yes, we may not have an answer now, but eventually we will have one”. This is really a type of “atheism of the gaps”.

Atheists accuse believers of using a “God of the Gaps” fallback when they have something they cannot explain. They claim that when science cannot explain something, believers smuggle God into the picture. Yet this is just what the atheists are doing here. When they have no clear scientific explanation for something (often for something which is actually outside the realm of scientific investigation in the first place), they just say, give us enough time, and we will cough up a good evolutionary and naturalistic explanation.

A system based on the concept of “selfish genes” simply cannot account for genuine altruistic behaviour. D’Sousa again: “The whole point of morality is that you are doing what you ought to do, not what you are inclined to do or what is in your interest to do. Morality is described in the language of duty, and duty is something that we are obliged to do whether we want to or not, whether it benefits us or not.”

Indeed, as R. C. Sproul notes, “If our convictions about right and wrong are nothing but chemical reactions, then there is no way for us to test their validity. They are necessarily arbitrary and non-binding.”

Charles Colson also picked up on the Pinker piece when it first appeared in the New York Times. Colson argues that the naturalistic worldview “leads Pinker, like other Darwinians, to redefine altruism and fairness as little more than enlightened ‘self-interest.’ We are generous toward others because evolution has ‘taught’ us that this is the best way to ensure their generosity toward us. What we call ‘fairness’ is really an unwritten pact not to cheat each other and, thus, promote social harmony and community.”

He continues, “The problem with these superficially plausible explanations is that real human beings, as opposed to theoretical ones, do not live this way. If altruism is ‘hardwired,’ many people are poorly wired, indeed: They are stingy and cheat their neighbors with regularity. Other people are profoundly generous, not only to their friends and family, but also to complete strangers. They are willing to make do with less and even go without, to help others in need. And they would much rather suffer an injustice than commit one.”

He concludes: “It is not that these people are unaware of the advantages to be gained from being selfish and unfair – it is that their morality is rooted in something that enables them to be good, even when being good comes at a cost. Because Pinker fails to describe people as they really are, he does not answer the question, ‘Why be good?’ Why be generous or honest when all the incentives point the other way? Why give your life for someone else? His utilitarianism can neither compel nor inspire people to go beyond self-interest. To do that, you need the Christian account. What Pinker calls ‘hardwiring’ is what we call being created in the image of God. Since we know that this life is not all there is, we can transcend self-interest.”

Indeed, the biblical account is the best explanation for good and evil. Being made in God’s image explains why we want to act altruistically. But the doctrine of the Fall explains why we usually don’t. The materialists will have to just keep at their “atheism of the gaps” to explain altruism. It just might take a very long time indeed.



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14 Replies to “On God, Darwin and Morality”

  1. And another thing, if Darwinism is a theory so flexible that it can not only explain selfishness but also it’s antithesis altruism, then it really doesn’t explain anything at all. It’s a bit like the theory of global-warming that proponents claim not only explains excessively warm weather but also, paradoxically, extremely cold weather too!

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  2. Bill,

    I notice that you conveniently skip over any consideration of the an explanation for evil, especially “natural” evil.

    While the God Theory may provide an alternative explanation for good, it falls down pretty badly when it comes to trying to explain natural evil. The Old Testament runs around in circles postulating different explanations, while the New Testament basically says we should suffer in this life but things will get better in the next. Altogether rather unsatisfactory, especially as there is no evidence for the existence of life after death.

    When I see innocent children (and adults) being injured or killed by tsunamis, and kids dying horrible and painful deaths from hunger, accidents and disease, I find it very hard to believe that is a loving and benevolent god in charge.

    Do all the the theological gymnastics you want, but you still can’t come up with a convincing explanation for all this. It must be nice to think that you’ll live forever, but equally it must be infuriating when that theory so damned illogical.

    Steve Angelino, WA

  3. Two things this article reminded me of:
    1) sometime back, when I was arguing with a very staunch and bluntly offensive atheist, his last parting remark to me when he couldn’t break my composure was along the lines of: “well, I’d like to see your face in a 100yrs when science has disproved Christianity unequivocally.” I gave him points for his vocab, if not for his surprising expectation on how long we would both live.

    2) in another debate, when I asked an atheist who believed in morals how it is that morals evolved, his answer was disappointing. It had something to do with liking or disliking blue-vein cheese – at least, that’s what I understood. He was talking more in terms of personal preferences rather than evolutionary processes and I never heard from him again, unfortunately, when I pointed out this error to him.

    Thanks for the memories, Bill!

    Mathew Hamilton, Victoria

  4. Thanks Steve

    The Biblical doctrine of the Fall says that not only is there a fallen humanity, but all of the created order has been impacted as well. It has gotten out of whack because of sin, and things now are not the way they were meant to be. So vast are the ramifications of the Fall, that all of creation was affected by it. The cosmic redemption in Christ includes not only getting fallen humanity right with God (for those who are willing) but a future new creation as well, putting to right what has gone wrong big time.

    And of course some natural disasters are the results of sinful human activities, such as abusing and misusing the environment for selfish ends. So some are directly attributable to human sin.

    So this is not a big problem from the biblical point of view. But for your camp it is a huge problem. Crap just happens. End of story. Not only can atheists not give a rational account of evil, much less can they tell us why we should have any sense of moral outrage at evil. Evil is meaningless in a deterministic evolutionary worldview, as consistent atheists like Dawkins and others readily admit to. And goodness and altruism is the real Achilles heel of atheism and goo-to-you evolution. We are just a collection of selfish genes, doing what we were hardwired to do. So why do anything good? Indeed, what is good, in such a scenario?

    You say, “When I see innocent children (and adults) being injured or killed by tsunamis, and kids dying horrible and painful deaths from hunger, accidents and disease, I find it very hard to believe that is a loving and benevolent god in charge.”

    Sorry, but innocent meaning what? In your worldview, they just are, in the same way that you just are. As I said, crap happens, and that is all an atheist can offer. It makes sense to be concerned about the suffering of people in the Biblical account, but none whatsoever in your account.

    While Christianity can offer a very plausible and rational account of suffering, evil, and good, all atheists can do is shrug their shoulders. You really better take a cue from Dawkins, et. al. on this one. Most people can tell which explanation is both more reassuring as well as more coherent.

    As to life after death, it does make a tremendous difference to this whole debate. Knowing that every wrong will one day be punished, and every right will one day be rewarded is tremendously comforting and reassuring. Full and final justice will take place. That is good news indeed. Atheism can offer nothing to people in this life and certainly nothing to people in the next. Re-arranged pond scum is not about justice or right and wrong or meaning or value or purpose. It just is, end of story.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. Steve,

    Can you explain how you obtained your sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair from? If, as human beings, we are all just a cosmic accidents which emerged by chance from a pre-biotic soup, then surely we would never even think about suffering as being alien to how things are. Instead we would simply accept that suffering is how things have always been. Yet deep down within each of us there is a sense that pain, suffering and death are not how things should be. Where did we get that from?
    Been to any funerals lately ? why do people cry and weep at such events, if evolutionary advances requires death then you should be excited about innocent children dying – after all that’s progress ! Of course that’s nonsense, your revulsion for evil in this world declares God, because you (made in his image) seek justice.

    Dallas James, Victoria

  6. It is interesting that atheists do not want to admit or believe in the human condition that we are innately hard wired to be moral beings and to the pursuit and desire for justice. Accusing believers of being non-objective is the very thing atheists are guilty of.

    How many times do we see the news and get outraged at social injustices, human suffering and violent behaviour of people causing harm to others. Where did we acquire such emotional responses and qualities?
    Evolutionist atheists insist that random chemical events acting on inanimate material produced highly ordered animate creatures, such as human beings – with consciousness. We are conscious, and conscious that we are conscious. Darwinism cannot explain consciousness arising from blind, non-deterministic chemical (re)arrangements. Logic, intuition and even more importantly (for the sceptics), science shows us this fact. Granted, neural transactions accompany thoughts – modern neuroscience has located brain regions responsible for different kinds of mental activity. But to say that a given thought, emotion or feeling is based on a specific set of neural transactions is as inane as suggesting that the writing of a bestseller is achieved by having pen and paper. Consciousness and thought then are not simply physical transactions.

    A conglomeration of genes and clusters of genes do not merely make human beings. Yes, DNA constructed into genes code for the physical component, but do not account or explain joy, happiness, anger and the plethora of human emotions. One cannot pin down a gene or cluster of genes translated into protein molecules to account for human emotional activity. We’re putting the ‘cart before the horse.’ When it comes to human reasoning, feelings, emotions and thought, genes are subservient. For example, a very joyous occasion gives rise to the secretion of serotonin in the brain, triggering a cascade of chemical events. In other words, it is our mental condition that regulates this type of expression in gene activity. Not the other way around!

    For too long atheists have been using a reductionist approach rather than employing an accompanying holistic attitude. My concern is that people all too readily accept the current evolution model. They believe that science has all the answers. Has science really proven from slime to man? It has not. Not too long ago, the scientific establishment believed the Earth is flat…heavier than air flight was impossible. Newtonian mechanics was the only explanation of all natural laws of how the Universe works. Now we have Einstein’s relativity and quantum mechanics which provide a further, more detailed understanding of the operation of natural laws. Science does not have the definitive answers – only approximations; even more so when it comes to biological evolution. Science can measure and test quantum phenomena, relativistic events and real world stuff. It cannot test evolution.

    We have been created by God, not goo!

    Jim Karkaloutsos

  7. Jim Karkaloutsos

    “Not too long ago, the scientific establishment believed the Earth is flat…”

    This is a myth, as conclusively documented by historian Prof. Jeffrey Burton Russell, in his book Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus & Modern Historians; see summary.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  8. I want to include that nature has designed us to do and act contrary to what the world has in its perspective. We are not to argue about morality-good or virtuous conduct, a system or code of morals and moral character or quality, but we are to actually know that there is a reward for us from God when we please Him by us exercising righteousness in what ever deeds we do unto our neighbours.
    Babatundesunday Teniola

  9. Steve,

    My heart goes out to you.
    The inability to believe that we were created by a loving God, that we were made and molded by a God who created a world as complex though wonderful as this, seemingly forces you to believe in only one other thing, evolution. Personally I don’t see why one argument negates the other, but many people seem to have their socks above their knees about this one, so assuming that evolution and creationism can only be true if the other is false then atheist live in a sorry state.

    Atheist are forced to believe that there is no such thing as love. I make no apology to atheist’s in saying this, because they are the ones who believe this and not I. But it is impossible for you to love your wife, your husband, your spouse! If we truly and completely evolved from slime and later on apes, the only instinct that you feel that comes close to the emotion of love is lust! The need to procreate that has ‘evolved’ in us all in order that our species may survive.
    You do not, and can not love you’re children either! Please do not misconstrue your ‘care’ for them as love, your apparent ‘care’ for them is purely selfish! Nothing more than innate bond that evolved beings share with their young in order that their ‘seed’ may survive.

    Love is a connection given to us by God upon creation, we know and understand Love because we have a God who Loved us first.

    If you do not, can not believe in a God who gave us love, how can you beleive in love itself? I mean, I would love to have my cake and eat it too, but lets be honest, the only thing you’ll be left with if you try is vomit.

    It may be hard to take in, again I make no apology.
    I also have a solution for you guys, you need not lie anymore in saying “I love you” instead say “I lust after you, I cannot control myself on heat, because that is the way we evolved due to special survival, and you so happened to be the closest one of my species around when I entered into puberty, that would accept me.”

    Yes it’s a few more words, but probably closer to your truth.

    Darius Khor

  10. Dear Steve,

    I’d like to agree with Bill. The simple explanation for evil is sin and that we do have free will. We face everyday with lots of choices. Ignorance to God does not lead to good things, but leads to selfish behaviours.

    You made a comment on the Old Testament and the New Testament, saying that “The Old Testament runs around in circles postulating different explanations, while the New Testament basically says we should suffer in this life but things will get better in the next. Altogether rather unsatisfactory, especially as there is no evidence for the existence of life after death.” The reasons why you find this unsatisfactory is that you have not allowed the word of God to say what it wants, but only what you want it to say. It seems that you have read the Bible with the motive to judge it.

    In the New Testament where it says we should “suffer” in this life, simply means to stand strong- not to conform to the ways of this world. This is our struggle. Again, it means to endure.

    Why would God allow you to live with Him if you didn’t want anything to do with him in this life time? Do you have evidence that there isn’t a life after death?

    No matter how much you fight God, he still loves you. More then your mind or intellect can understand. He knows you by name. He knows you more then your closest confidant. Whether you choose to accept it or not is up to you.

    Kind regards,

    Olive Pearl Oliverio, Vicco

  11. I could throw out an argument that while we are telling God He is failing us, and that we have plans for good things, we are in fact letting God down in his plans for good things, and not letting him work, or act on His wisdom.

    And when things are bad we turn to God to blame Him and accuse Him for disrupting our lives, when maybe we should be asking God, ‘am I really living for nothing?’

    It can sometimes be hard to consider where God is in the grand picture of things, and why He doesn’t seem to be there, when you don’t want Him to be there.

    Yet I guess that many good laws have come into society out of the wisdom of God found in the Bible, whilst we are constantly looking elsewhere or to ourselves to solve new problems. But if we don’t want to accept God when seeking help and asking for solutions, and rather use Him to ridicule in the hard times similar to a punching bag, I suppose it will never be easy to see the good in God.

    Sure, when I was about 8 and my mum told me to stop eating cheese or I’d be sick, it was easy to pretend she didn’t exist, until I started to feel sick and then I was angry with the facts. And sure, when I was forced by my mum to get to primary school and learn, I hated it and thought she was torturing me, but I guess I’m thankful now seeing I made it through high school and have a good job. And yes, when I was 13 and my grandma passed away I was extremely sad, thankfully my mother was there to comfort me. I guess despite never knowing why I was told to do something, where the future leads or why certain things happen, my mum has always been there… and not to divert too much, maybe it is the same with God.

    Sometimes God maybe giving us instruction, but we are arrogantly not listening, and maybe we are getting angry with the outcomes from that. Maybe God at times is teaching us, or at least He wants to, but we don’t want to take the lessons, and so we never learn. And maybe some things we don’t understand, because we cannot see it from the big picture. It is for Him to see the big picture, and for us to trust God as our Father

    Maybe actually attempting trusting God, praying and fasting consistently, asking God to reveal himself, would actually bring results, if one is truly interested in meeting God, rather than just saying I’m open to something if it hits me in the face.

    In most cases people usually look at facts and then look for solutions to problems. It is interesting and unfortunate, that in society today it can be a common habit in our difficult busy culture to go to work, come home, watch the news, and go to bed. Each night one can fill up on information about problems.

    Rather than just coming home to the news report of a night, maybe we should listen to the problems reported by the news, and read the solutions from the Bible as well.
    Matthew Law

  12. Hey Bill,

    Another provocative post. Thank you!

    One distinction I think is worth mentioning (not sure anyone did) is the “is versus ought” distinction, which often gets traced to Hume. Just because something is the case (slavery, inequality, etc), doesn’t mean it ought to be the case. And morality seems to be all about what we ought to do.

    So evolutionary ethicists face an apparently insurmountable logical hurdle. If you grant that evolution has instilled certain tendencies in us (a propensity to defend kin and family, a repugnance to certain sexual practices, a feeling of obligation in matters of gratitude or revenge), that is still no reason that we ought to follow these tendencies.

    Now, to me that’s the main problem. Where do we get guidance as to what we should do and should not do? I think a lot of philosophical ethics has attempted (with limited success) to try to answer that. For instance, Kant claimed you could somehow derive ethics from pure reason, Sartre thought the source was arbitrary choice, utilitarians (and ancient Greeks) thought that ethics was linked to happiness, and that you could derive ethical rules from objective facts about what makes people happy.

    I think all this is the first point made by your article. How could any materialist be a “moral realist”. How could they claim any sort of objective moral laws.

    Your goes on to make a second point. “The problem is that this entire framework of Darwinian analysis does not even come close to explaining morality” — and therefore that the materialist worldview is unconvincing. I have to say that I find this argument unconvincing, if I understand it properly.

    If by morality you mean “people’s beliefs about what they should and should not do” or “how people happen to behave” — well, a materialist has many ways of addressing these questions. He or she doesn’t need to speak in evolutionary terms. It’s like asking about any behaviour, or custom, or cultural artifact. Why is that one culture believes touching a cow is wrong, and another culture believes that infanticide is acceptable, and another culture believes that chopsticks are the best way to eat rice, and another culture hates Jews, and another culture spells a word “shew” rather than “show”? All these things have explanations in tems of social conditioning, custom, transmission of information and attitude and value and belief. The fact that evolutionary theory alone is a clumsy tool to explain their causation doesn’t discredit a materialistic worldview.

    Ken Masterman, Alberta, Canada

  13. Thanks Ken

    Although it is likely that two often go together – that is, most materialists accept the neo-Darwinian version of events. Regardless, the point still remains that morality (or more specifically, the reality of objective moral standards and our moral obligations) is difficult to account for in a materialist worldview.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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