Much virtual ink was spilled recently in celebration of what has been dubbed “Darwin Day,” the annual February 12th celebration of Charles Darwin’s birthday. Of those articles fighting for the survival of the fittest on the interwebs was a piece published by Huffington Post titled “Darwin Day Revelation: Evolution, Not Religion, Is the Source of Morality“. While the article reads easily and proved to be quite provocative (hence the current response), the reasoning within it proved to be as fallacious as it was badly misinformed. But this appears to be standard fare when those within the Darwinian camp attempt to cross professional lines and try and connect biology (evolution) to ethics (morality). Though I could simply allow readers to click on the article and read it without commentary, let us take a few things in hand from the article itself to demonstrate the hypothesis.
First of all, Mr. Naff, the article’s creator, opens with a typical look-how-stupid-creationists-are quote lifted from a website with such confidence-bolstering categories as “Conspiracy Facts” and “Forbidden History” and a front page article purporting to have the “latest cutting edge research on UFOs, Remote Viewing, Stargates, Genetic Engineering and Alien DNA.” After besmirching any respectability creationists might have had in the readers’ minds, he runs off a beautiful litany of scientific information in the areas of paleontology and genetics. Having established “the fact” of evolution and the idiocy of creationism, he plunges forward to the point of his article, namely that evolution is the best explanation for a universal morality for the human species. But by this point the fight is already over for most readers. After all, who wants to be aligned with a bunch of evolutionarily regressive creationists when you can post cool phylogenic models with the ‘in’ crowd?
Secondly, the article betrays a pretty crayon-simple misunderstanding of how religion in general (but Christianity in particular) considers the morality of humanity in general. For instance, Mr. Naff says, “If religion were the vehicle that delivers morality, then atheists, the disaffiliated, and those who have never heard of God’s laws should show comparatively inferior moral behavior. They don’t.” But this has never really been the position of, at the very least, Christianity. As a matter of fact, the Christian understanding of humanity, namely that all humans are created in God’s image, is the very basis for why there seems to be some common, moral currency between humans across the full spectrum of religion and philosophy. If God has indeed impressed His character onto each person, engraving on our humanity some fundamental moral principles, then we would expect to see reflections of that moral character in every person. It’s what C.S. Lewis labeled “the Tao” in his book The Abolition of Man. The problem (from a Christian standpoint) is that our rebellion against God and His ways, namely the suppression of the truth written on our hearts, causes major differences in what individuals deem moral/immoral. So no, Mr. Naff, the Christian would say that atheists and other non-Christians can and do perform positive, moral actions, sometimes even moreso than some Christians. But this is not new information. It has been the position of Christianity for hundreds of years. The problem in this realm is actually that even our moral actions need redeeming (see chapters 10 and 11 of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God for more on this idea), but that goes beyond the scope of this post.
Next, the hinge pin and weakest point of the article appears to be that evolution – and more specifically cooperation – has granted us a morality more… uhh… humane than the typical characterization that Darwinian doctrine of survival of the fittest grants us. After a brief review of some examples of a rudimentary moral instinct in the animal kingdom (e.g. dolphins, elephants, monkeys, and voles), Mr. Naff encourages his readers to consider how the four chambers of our heart is an example of cooperation pointing to evolutionary morality. But this is a very strange (and fallacious!) thing to do. After all, our hearts are not independent organisms, and his point is to prove how cooperation between independent organisms points to an evolutionary origin for morality. However, the fact that the action of our heart’s four chambers are coordinated (not the same thing as cooperation) is as much evidence of evolutionary morality as a heart attack is an instance of immorality. But even if we reject this heart-cooperation example and simply focus on the rudimentary ‘moral’ instincts found in the animal kingdom, it is fallacious to argue that just because something is observed in nature , therefore it ought to be so. This poor reasoning (sometimes called the “naturalistic fallacy”) is even eschewed within the stridently evolutionary camp. Steven Pinker, for instance, a Harvard professor and staunch proponent of evolutionary psychology said, “Today, biologists denounce the naturalistic fallacy because they want to describe the natural world honestly, without people deriving morals about how we ought to behave (as in: If birds and beasts engage in adultery, infanticide, cannibalism, it must be OK).”
In the end, Mr. Naff’s article has to assume certain moral universals such as cooperation, empathy, and disgust, and then be very selective in the evidence it puts forward as suggesting an evolutionary root to those universals. Unfortunately, he leaves major, crucial questions unanswered like, “Why should cooperation, empathy, and disgust be deemed good?” “Cooperation with whom?” “Empathy towards whom?” “Disgust over what?” As a counterpoint, the picture at the top of this post depicts a troop of chimps coordinating an attack on an alpha male, not because he was a “bad actor” among them as Mr. Naff has suggested, but because they wanted the food and the chimpanzistas that were his. Why is this activity not included in our canon of human moral universals? Whose to say that Nietzsche wasn’t right in his work The Antichrist: “What is good? — Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man. What is evil? — Whatever springs from weakness.” Nevertheless, convinced proponents of Darwinian doctrines are always trying to force this world into their mold. Daniel Dennett attempted this in the mid 1990’s with his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and he proved to be largely unconvincing even to committed Darwinists. And Mr. Naff has resuscitated that attempt only to have it expire yet again, falling prey to those of us unevolved enough to still be willing to question the reigning Darwinian establishment.