Does Evolution Compromise Human Morality?

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January 14, 2013 Tags: Morality & Ethics

Today's entry was written by Loren Haarsma. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Does Evolution Compromise Human Morality?

Note: Today's post is an excerpt from Loren Haarsma's essay "Evolution and Divine Revelation: Synergy, not Conflict, in Understanding Morality". In it, Dr. Haarsma discusses a concern that many Christians find deeply troubling—if science could demonstrate that human morality arose through an evolutionary process, then it would imply that our ethical foundations have no objective status or truth content.

Professor Haarsma responds that the biggest problem with this position is not faulty science, but faulty logic. Describing how something came to be is not equivalent to knowing everything about why it exists. Mechanistic explanations of historical development do not necessarily exclude theological explanations, and they certainly can't "rule out" the possibility of divine, personal revelation within human history.

You can find the complete version of Dr. Haarsma's essay in the book Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality in Biological & Religious Perspective, edited by Jeffrey Schloss and Philip Clayton. This excerpt is reprinted by permission of the publisher; all rights reserved.

Once we have a scientific hypothesis for how something exists, it is tempting to make the philosophical inference that this is also why it exists. Richard Dawkins (1976), as well as Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson (1993), do this in the evolution of human morality. Scientifically, they hypothesize that, once humans started living in large, complex social groups, individuals whose genes made them constantly selfish were punished by the group and therefore produced fewer offspring than individuals whose genes made them believe in an objective moral code. Moving into philosophy, Ruse and Wilson (1993) write,

Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive end.

Important scientific theories invite philosophical and theological reflection. Dawkins, Ruse, and Wilson, have described their conclusions. But scientific theories are often compatible with multiple philosophical and religious interpretations. For example, Newton's laws of motion and gravity allow several competing theistic and atheistic interpretations.

To avoid Ruse and Wilson's philosophical conclusion, we need not dispute their scientific hypothesis about how morality evolved. We need only dispute their philosophical extrapolation as to why morality exists. Even if we restrict ourselves to an atheistic worldview, this extrapolation is questionable. Donald MacKay (1965) would call this an example of "the fallacy of nothing but-tery". This is the assertion that a description of something at one level renders other levels of description meaningless. From our everyday experience, we know that a successful description on one level does not invalidate other levels of description. For example. one might assert that a Shakespeare sonnet is "nothing but" ink blots on a page (MacKay 1965). True, one way to describe a sonnet is to precisely specify the page coordinates of every ink blot. This description is valid and complete on its own level; however, one could also analyze the sonnet linguistically, emotionally, socially, historically, and on other levels. If one is programming an inkjet printer, the most important description is in terms of ink blot coordinates. For almost every other purpose in life, however, that is an unimportant level of description. In the same way, a complete evolutionary description of the existence of morality does not necessarily invalidate the truth, utility, or significance of other levels of description of morality.

If we do not restrict ourselves to atheism and instead allow for the existence of a creator, the extrapolation from how morality evolved to why morality exists fails further. Consider an analogy. Suppose an inventor builds a robot which could do a variety of useful things—mow the lawn, clean the house, grade homework, write book chapters, and so on. One thing this robot can do, given a complete set of spare parts, is build a replica of itself. Whenever the inventor needs another robot, she gives one robot a set of spare parts and has it build a replica of itself. Amongst all the software subroutines within this robot, there is a set of subroutines that govern the robot's self-replication, including the replication of those self-replication subroutines. Would it be correct to say that the purpose of the robot's existence is merely to reproduce those particular self-replication subroutines? Do all of the other software and hardware of the robot—which allow it to mow the lawn, and so on—merely further the reproductive ends of those self-replication subroutines? At one level, the robot's hardware and software do serve to reproduce those self-replication software routines. At another level of analysis, however, those self-replication software routines serve the robot to produce more copies of itself. At still another level, those self-replication software routines serve the robot's creator. The creator of the robot should get the last word as to which of those levels of description is most important.

In humans, does morality exist to further the reproduction of certain genes, or do those genes exist in order to allow for the production of new human beings who can behave morally? If human beings have a creator, the creator gets the final word on the question of purpose. The mechanism which the creator used to make those genes—whether de novo or via evolution—is secondary. The creator's purpose in creating those genes decides the issue.


  • Dawkins, Richard. 1976. Pp. 1-11 in The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • MacKay, Donald. 1965. Christianity in a Mechanistic Universe. Chicago: InterVarsity.
  • Ruse, Michael, and Edward O. Wilson. 1993. The approach of sociobiology: The evolution of ethics. In Religion and the Natural Sciences, ed. James E. Huchingson. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Javonovich.

Loren Haarsma earned a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University and did five years of postdoctoral research in neuroscience in Boston and in Philadelphia. He began teaching physics at Calvin College in 1999. His current scientific research is studying the activity of ion channels in nerve cells and other cell types, and computer modeling of self-organized complexity in biology and in economics. He studies and writes on topics at the intersection of science and faith, and co-authored Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design with his wife, Deborah.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #75952

January 14th 2013

Yes and no, but basically no.

If the purpose of life is just to survive and reproduce, that is a not rational.   People, who claim that reality is composed of nothing but matter/energy,are saying that Life has no purpose or meaning beyond itself.  That is not true or rational.  

So the question is,  Whether nature as humans know it is “naturalistic” or not?  Atheists claim that Darwinian evolution proves that the universe is naturalistic.  It is up to those who disagree with this view to marshall evidence to show that they are mistaken, not to just assert that a Creator exists independent of science. 

sy - #75953

January 14th 2013

I enjoyed this essay, and agree with everything in it, but I would like to take this opportunity to explore the premise from Ruse and Wilson et al.  of the origin of morality as described in the essay, namely that this origin is perfectly explainable by evolutionary adaptation. Dr. Haarsma concedes this point, in order to go on to look at the why of morality. As the  author states, “ we need not dispute their scientific hypothesis about how morality evolved….” While we don’t need to dispute this, especially if our interest is in the more philosophical issues expressed in the rest of the article, I think we should. In fact, I think that the adaptationist knee jerk response for explaining a good deal of human behavior, is far from scientific (SJ Gould, vehemently agreed with this position), and has been getting an unfair and unexamined free ride from all sources.

The basic idea for altruism and morality adaption is the extension of the advantage of kin selection to all members of the species, based (as Dawkins has put it) on the notion that in early human groupings, an individual was most likely to meet only kin. This led to the spread of the “Golden rule meme” namely that doing good unto others was a survival method that became an adaptive trait in human beings.

While this legend sounds quite nice, it is totally unscientific. There is no evidence for any part of the idea. While its true that H. Sapiens went through a severe population bottleneck, about 50 -70,000 years ago, populations were quite robust before that, and virtually exploded starting 50,000 years ago. Making nice to strangers could not have been much of an advantage during the period of fierce competition in a rising population. In fact, we know that migrations out of the home continent marked this period of human history, and one could only wonder at the motivation for groups of Sapiens to take off for parts unknown if fierce and deadly competition was not a factor. All we really need to do is examine modern man to see the failure of the Golden Rule meme as a universal trait.

What this adaptationist approach completely fails at is explaining the dichotomous nature of human morality, in other words, how is it that we can be as bad, as we can be good. If the selective advantage of altruism is bred in our genes, then why do so many people do so many bad things, or at the least NOT do good things all the time for their fellow man?

There is no real science behind the claim for an evolutionary origin of morality, but a lot of scientism. For it to make any sense at all, one must first exclude the most logical and consistent explanation, that of our creation by God, our fall from grace into sin, and our redemption by Christ. The explanatory power of that view far exceeds the evolutionary one. But for atheists, there isnt much choice; they are forced into the adaptationist idea, even without any evidence to support it.

Merv - #75954

January 14th 2013

But Sy, your last paragraph edges back into the dichotomous approach that Dr. Haarsma rightly disputes:  that creation by God and evolutionary explanations for morality are competing hypotheses.  

I agree that adaptationist approaches should not be given a free ride, but nor should they be given a hasty dismissal.  Let it all fall where it may.  Dawkins, along with most of us, isn’t smart enough to get absolutely everything wrong!


sy - #75955

January 14th 2013


Im not sure I am disagreeing at all with Dr. Haarsma, who is stressing the philosophical extrapolation of the “scientific hypothesis” of the evolutionary origin of morality. I agree with everything he states, assuming that there is such a valid scientific hypothesis. I dont think there is one. And my last paragraph, while it does seem to directly confront the philosophical aspect of why morality exists, I mean to stand also for HOW it came to be.

Yes, Dawkins is right about a huge amount of stuff, all of it biological and perhaps even a small bit of philosophy as well. But he has made the fatal error in science, of trying to prove his a priori belief system, no matter what the actual data say. This is very unfortunate, in my view.  

Thomas Burnett - #75992

January 15th 2013

Hi Sy,

Thanks for your insightful comments.  If you have time, I definitely recommend reading Dr. Haarsma’s article in Evolution and Ethics (2006), edited by Schloss and Clayton.  This post is only a small excerpt of it, but in the full version, Dr. Haarsma discusses the role of divine revelation in human morality.

sy - #76001

January 15th 2013

Thanks Tom, will do.

Jon Garvey - #75961

January 15th 2013

The origin of morality through natural selection (ignoring Sy’s astute critique of the lack of actual scientific evidence for it) seems to commit the common error of defining “morality” in utilitarian biological terms and then importing it into faith.

What I mean is that evolution purports to explain how unselfish behaviour arose. But that, according to Christian faith, isn’t what morality is. What needs to be explained if one is a truly theistic evolutionist is Christ’s definition of morality, which is love for God and love for one’s neighbour, unselfish behaviour being only the symptomatic result. If kin selection is based on the imperative of survival, then it hasn’t explained love as the basis of morality, so it’s not on the same page as faith, which says that we love because God first loved us (“first” actually meaning “before the world was created”).

If we say that the “love” part only came through revelation, after unselfishness evolved, then evolution has failed to account for the key part - so there is no need to insist on an evolutionary secondary explanation, let alone a Just-So story, for any of it, other than scientism, as Sy points out.

It’s like suggestions about the evolution of religion on the basis of some adaptive advantage, or a spandrel, or even Carl Sagan’s simplistic God hypothesis. None of those can possibly provide an explanation for what religion actually is - a relationship with an actual deity. Relationships do not evolve - they are forged by communication.

Perhaps one could find an evolutionary explanation for how humans are physically capable of conceiving love, or the divine, but that’s trivial: the evolution of sight cannot explain why some views are sublime, and faith, including true morality, is about the sublime.

sy - #75975

January 15th 2013

Thanks Jon, both for your kind words, and for this elegant comment, which I think sums up a great deal of what is really a crucial debate on the nature of humanity, and our relationship to God.

I would just like to add, continuing for a moment on my first comment, that during his lifetime, Gould was bitterly opposed to Dawkins on the whole question of adaptationism. This argument, (between confirmed atheists) had nothing whatever to do with faith, but was purely about what Gould (in my view, correctly) saw as a not very scientific approach to forming hypotheses about evolution  by making things fit, in a Just so way, and often with insufficient evidence. Most of these arguments had nothing to do with such difficult phenotypes as morality or any human behavioral characteristics, but with purely biological features of various animals.

Another aspect of this argument, which Gould did not address, is the entire subject of genetic determinism. In other words, do we really thing that there are genes “for” goodness? But that is an entirely different discussion.

Chip - #75993

January 15th 2013

Professor Haarsma responds that the biggest problem with this position is not faulty science.

I suppose this is correct in a sense:  It’s not that it’s faulty science; it’s that it’s not science at all…

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away (where Observation, Testing and their very useful friend Falsification were never allowed to go), there was a small boy in a small tribe.  One day, Random Mutation arrived in the boy’s villiage without warning—and really, without meaning to—(as he always did), and gave the boy a special Gift that none of the other boys had.

The girls in the villiage noticed the Gift, and saw that the boy was “sweet,” and they liked him more than the other boys, and they called him Virtue. At villiage dances and sockhops, Virtue would give gifts to the girls, and speak to them warmly, while the other boys could only try to drag them off by their hair, as their fathers had done before them.

Because of this, the girls gave Virtue more and better babies than any other boy.  And he named his children Compassionate and Other-centered, and Empathetic and Kindhearted.  And he became Chief, increased in wisdom and stature, but most importantly, in population.

And Natural Selection looked down upon the villiage and called this new thing Morality, and saw that it was Good—in spite of the fact that the whole idea of “Goodness” was utterly foreign and had never occurred to him before.  Still, he signed-off on the change, because cognitive dissonance didn’t bother him much.  And besides, he knew that the Wise Men in the Impressive Shiny White Tower would later learn that it was all just an adaptation anyway….

Daddy, thanks for telling me that great story.  When I grow up, if I’m a scientist, can I learn how to tell stories like that too? 

Of course you can son, of course you can.  And BioLogos willl post them for you. 

Merv - #75994

January 15th 2013

Daddy, how does one get to know Natural Selection better?  I mean, he sounds like a really cool dude!

Daddy:  “Er—well, he isn’t really a person—just my personification of a concept.  He can’t really have a relationship with you any more than gravity can ...     I guess if you want to know about relationships, you need to read the Bible.  There’s  a cool dude there that you really can get to know!”

Merv - #75995

January 15th 2013

Jon, I totally agree that no physical mechanism can explain the ‘real germ’ at the center of the concept of love, altruism, or morality itself.  We can only look at some of the physical manifestations, or consequences of such behaviors (which is not the same as justifying or explaining them at their very root.)  At least I hope I understand you and Sy correctly on that.  As time allows I’ll have to take in the rest of Dr. Haarsma’s essay.


Jon Garvey - #75998

January 15th 2013

I guess it would be interesting to try and explain the evolution of dissertation-writing in adaptive terms, whilst the core motivations of increasing knowledge, achieving qualifications and so on could be accepted as realities at a different level that doesn’t affect the truth of the biological explanation.

It’s a toughie, but you have to make the effort.

GJDS - #76002

January 15th 2013

“Important scientific theories invite philosophical and theological reflection.”

I think it is a mistake to believe that evolution (or Darwin’s idea) can be confined to a theory that science employs for a focussed scientific endeavour - indeed this area is distinguished by a constant ‘extension’ into every branch of the physical sciences, the social sciences, and ethics/morality. I suspect that some may wish, or pretend, it is otherwise, but facts shows that it is the case. I have a quote from “Accounts of Chemical Research”, a prestigious journal dealing with the ‘hard sciences’, which is sober reading for scientists of all disciplies -

“Chemical evolution includes the capture, mutation, and propagation of molecular information and can be manifested as coordinated chemical networks that adapt to environmental change. The robustness of a chemical network depends on the diversity of its membership, which establishes the probability for the successful selection of superior chemical species and populations.”

This is a serious editorial and not a joke - it gives us a good idea of just where evolution has gone. I think we can easily find other quotes that show evolution is now considered (without challenge) as the ultimate explanation and basis for reality and nature.

It is naive to think its proponents would take a lesser position. Just what reflection should those who consider the truth important, when we read statements such as the one above?

PNG - #76005

January 16th 2013

How about, “is it true?” Is there any real chemical system where you can study such phenomena or is just an imaginary idealogical construct? You’re the chemist. Does it correspond to anything real?

GJDS - #76006

January 16th 2013

“How about, “is it true?”

The systems proposed cannot be viewed as “true!” or “false!”. They are constructs that even the proponents state as pure speculation. However their approach is inevitably the “other way around your question” - i.e. we believe evolution must be true and therefore the work we do must, by definition, show us that it is true. I recommend you read some of these papers as they try to combine evolutionary outlooks with highly speculative chemistry - my conclusion is that without a commitment to the ideology, such work would never be funded, or performed. 

PNG - #76007

January 16th 2013

Whose work are you talking about?

HornSpiel - #76008

January 16th 2013

Just what reflection should those who consider the truth important, when we read statements such as the one above?

Since the statement you quoted is part of an editorial statement, I think it should be considered a “working hypothesis” or an ideology as you put it. Like you say a commitment to a particular explanatory framework is necessary for directing research and  motivation—and there is nothing wrong with that. Speculation is a necessary first step to exploring truth, but then there must be a reality check.

Like Haarsma says “successful description on one level does not invalidate other levels of description.” If the author above is trying to reduce biology—life—to a chemical network then I thin we have an example of “the fallacy of nothing but-tery”. However  we should not be too quick to judge. The evolutionary paradigm provides very compelling explanations for the development of complexity within given “ecosystems.”  Another question would be: How did those ecosystems (or what I would call emergent levels of reality) come to be in the first place?

sy - #76013

January 16th 2013

I am not quite as patient as you are Hornspiel with these examples of evolutionism. Yes, natural selection does appear, at least on the surface to be a powerful force everywhere, from chemical networks (whatever they are) to competition between electronic devices.

But I do not buy it. Darwinian theory is, to me, a profound and exclusively Biological theory, which involves some mechanisms that are only found in the world of biology. These include the concept of individual death, inheritance, variation, genotype phenotype connections, and all of the details of gene replication (with a very carefully controlled level of error), translation, and interaction with environment.

Chemicals, MP3 players, and human societies appear to follow similar rules, but that is an illusion. Evolution is a biological property, and is not even true when applied to one biological species  - Man.

Natural selection has been displaced as the key mechanism for the evolution of man. Unlike any other species, we decide how and if we are going to change. Both culturally and biologically.


PNG - #76015

January 16th 2013

What? You are going to get about 30 point mutations (roughly) compared to the genome of your parents. You have some chance of getting an indel or a few and a lower chance of getting larger scale copy-number changes or transposon insertions. All this in addition to some unknown number of somatic mutations, which may affect how long you live and whether you get cancer.  I don’t see where your decisions come into this at all.

sy - #76055

January 18th 2013


Sorry I wasnt clear. Of course biological processes continue to ocurr in human beings, including germ line and somatic mutations. My point is that human life, unlike that of any other species is not controlled by such very slow changes (with some notable exceptions, like the lactose tolerance mutation, and skin color adaptations) compared to cultural evolution. Things like life span, parity, and quality of life of individual humans are quite different from what they were even 1000 years ago, whereas even chimps and dophins live exactly as they did 1000000 years ago. And those changes in human life are neither genetically induced not a function of biological natural selection, but of cultural history and change.

HornSpiel - #76049

January 18th 2013

Darwinian theory is, to me, a profound and exclusively Biological theory


There are many who use the evolutionary paradigm to explain things like language change and economics.The interesting thing is that it works, at least as a framework, for studying those levels of reality.

Moreover, “evolutionary algorithms are now used to solve multi-dimensional problems more efficiently than software produced by human designers.” So we find in a complex, perhaps changing, environment, evolutionary approaches to design are superior to ridged analytical approaches.

You have the every right to insist evolution is exclusively biological, however that is a working hypothesis that needs tested against reality.

sy - #76056

January 18th 2013


A problem I often face in commenting on blogs, is my propensity to sacrifice clarity for the sake of brevity. I agree that the general concept of evolutionary change arising from differences in selection is very useful for a vast array of historical trend analysis. I once used it myself to help a friend understand the changes in the design of pianos that happened in Europe in the 18th and 19th century.

BUT… I maintain that it is essential when applying any aspect of evolutionary theory to some non biological context, to keep in mind that many of the details, assumptions and correlates of Darwinian theory in biology, simply do not apply to other systems.

As an example, if we want to apply evolution to the development and survival of electronic devices, we can certainly see the effects of fitness (measured by parameters such as efficiencty, clarity, cost etc) on the competition for success between different brands. But what is the target of selection? It isnt the device itself. Devices do not replicate themselves, and therefore a successful device is not likely to produce more of itself. In this case the target of selection is the a complex web of stock holders, company executives, and other humans, who consciously analyse data and make decisions.

This kind of departure from the standard biological model of natural selection has some pretty serious consequences for the conclusions that can be drawn from applying evolutionary paradigms to non biological contexts. The application itself is fine. It is the conclusions and (to my mind) unsubstantiated hypotheses that result from such applications that are suspect.

HornSpiel - #76062

January 19th 2013


Thanks for your reply.

The example you give actually does, in my opinion, fit with biological evolution. Let me explain.

For evolution to happen you must have several things listed below. Let me suggest that all the factors that are necessary for biological evolution have straight forward correlates in many other domains that deal with apparently unguided change in complex systems. I will focus here on the correlates for electronic gadget evolution and language evolution.

  • The blueprint (the genotype): This is information. In biological systems this is in the DNA. For electronic gadgets, it is in the manufacturers schematics and know how. For language it is learned linguistic competence. It is important to realize that often what scientists are describing is collective information rather than individual. A humming bird genome is a kind of average of all humming birds of that species. Likewise a language, as described by a grammar, is an average of the linguistic competence of all native speakers of the language.
  • The product ( the phenotype): This is what is produced from the blueprint. In biological systems this is the organism, but it could be anything from electronic gadgets to to speech. 
  • Realization: There must be some way for the information is converted into the product. For organisms is the biological process from reproduction to the sexual maturation. For gadgets it is the manufacturing process. For language it is the process of putting thoughts into words and speaking. 
  • An environment: The products exist in a complex system where they reproduce and “compete.” For electronics it is the “free market,” where manufacturers design and build products to compete for market share. For languages it is societies, where individuals speak different languages, teach them to their kids, and sometime change them depending on their usefulness.
  • Reproduction with variation: Information, the blueprint, is copied in a way that results in slightly different products. It does not matter if the changes are made deliberately or not. For electronics manufacturers usually deliberately change the designs, normally to improve sales in competition with other products in their market niche. Language reproduction is usually through teaching it to ones children. But people don’t exactly reproduce their parent’s speech for numerous reasons. 
  • Selection: Changes in the blueprints reproduced and realized, on average, are not random. It does not matter if the selection is made by environmental pressures that favor certain individuals, or social pressures that favor certain products or speech forms. There is no need for any overarching guiding intelligence to make this work. These changes are patterns produced by many individual effects/choices influenced by what works best in their unique environmental circumstances.

These correlations, it appears to me, are not just happenstance. They reflect necessary conditions for adaptable, self-sustainable complex systems. It is not therefore inappropriate to apply evolution to these other kinds of changes. In fact there is no better model that I know of to use when studying, describing and understanding these kinds of systems. 

PNG - #76068

January 19th 2013

It appears that “evolution” is this broader sense can have Lamarkian and other non-Darwinian characteristics. The language use of one person gets modified by learning and adopting innovations from other people (family, peer group, media, etc.) and those patterns are then transmitted to some degree to one’s children. Whether they are transmitted or not may depend on some subjective assessment of whether they are useful or not. (You might learn to “talk ghetto” for your own amusement as a teenager, but not transmit that ability to your children if it doensn’t seem useful.) I tend to be with Sy on this that you have to be careful about assuming that just because things evolve (in this Heraclitean universe, what doesn’t), they must be like biology.

Jon Garvey - #76072

January 19th 2013

I think that given the ideological debate over evolution, which already gets totally confused by different understandings of the word “evolution” within biology, it is pretty dangerous to apply the word to human developments.

Though now banned, Gregory rightly pointed out there is a fundamental difference between things that evolve by scientifically random change and natural selection, and things that are consciously designed by humans to be an improvement and judged, consciously, by punters on their merits. He coined the term “human extension” for the latter, and it avoids the dangers.

Which dangers include:

(a) Scientistic claims that undirected evolution is the principle on which the whole Universe runs, Ford’s development program being an example.

(b) The sidelining of human freedom and accountability. Weapons, behaviour, or anything “just evolve” so we have to live with the results. Whereas humans can ban weapons devolpment, reform behaviour and all the other things that God’s unique call gave us in order to govern the world in his image.

HornSpiel - #76098

January 19th 2013

It appears that “evolution” is this broader sense can have Lamarkian and other non-Darwinian characteristics.


I suppose you could say that. Here are a few reflections on the subject.

One might suggest that a free market allows consumers freedom to choose products and producers the freedom to innovate. This unguided system is very Darwinian and, economists tell us, leads to efficiency and great prosperity—at least for some. Other have looked at the negative side of laissez faire economics and concluded a controlled economy would be more just. They have therefore attempted to use their intelligence and political power to guide economic development. One might say this is a Lamarkian approach.

This then gets to the heart of the subject of this post: Does evolution compromise human morality? When one looks at cultural issues through the lens of evolution (in this larger sense) one understands that we really do have choices, moral choices to make.

For instance many favor a laissez faire, Darwinian approach to economics. They feel Government involvement is bad so the best thing is to allow as much freedom as possible in the market place. Yet experience has taught us that unrestrained freedom does hurt people so, like it or not, Lamarkian regulations have been found necessary to protect people from immoral operators.

In general, natural Darwinian patterns, as in biology, are efficient but amoral. In domains where the operators are human, such as economics, people can pursue Darwinian advantages that are immoral. But whether Human or Natural, our “knowledge of good and evil” requires us to curb the most egregious Darwinian patterns because we know they are wrong, or at least that it is wrong to stand by and do nothing.This takes wisdom because the correct way lies between the extremes.

Jon Garvey - #76103

January 20th 2013


The economics thing is a case that fits my worries above. Laissez faire economics isn’t “natural” just because its macro-operation isn’t controlled by a government. The comparison with biological evolution is only an analogy, because the observed patterns depend not on absence of choice, but on the agglomeration of millions of individual choices.

The crash happens because many lenders decide to get rich quick and think they can get away with it, having a specific moral outlook that disclaims responsibility for anything except profiting shareholders and themselves. And borrowers buy into a dream of home ownership for particular reasons too.

Control or not control - it’s people, not impersonal forces that are producing the effects, which is why they’re so notoriously unpredictable. It’s not chance that makes some electronic product a must-have whilst its rival fails, but the social complexity of human choices.

One rather mischievous conclusion from that, of course, is that if someone were controlling the decisions in biological evolution, whether the divine hand or Shapiro’s self-directing organisms, there would still be scientific patterns to observe, just as there are in economics. After all, if one may call an activity of the will like economics “evolutionary”, why not call evolution “willed” by the same token?

sy - #76111

January 20th 2013

I think that Jon and PNG have raised some good points in favor of my argument, but Hornspiel has in fact identified the key weaknesses in his comparison of biological with technological evolution, but discussion of the conscious, and often moral choices made by manufacturers, and retailers.

This is why I mentioned that while in biology the target of selection pressure is very different than the target of selection pressure in non biological systems. And this difference renders a good deal of the calculations, predictions and logic of biological evolution quite different from that of technological or cultural evolution.

A clear example to me is warfare. There is no selective advantage for a soldier to fight in a war. As the target of selection, the soldier cannot come out ahead, only break even, if he is lucky. And yet wars have not disappeared, because this cultural phenomenon, is outside of the range of evolution by natural selection, since the target of selection is not the soldiers but the entire society, and the decision to go to war is not actually based on the survival of the society (as might be the case with some ants and other species) but on a very complex dynamic of social interactions within the society.

As Jon suggests, it is interesting how quickly, moral issue come into play when speaking of non biological examples of evolution in human culture, war, economics, and technology being examples.

Jon Garvey - #76123

January 21st 2013


Warfare’s an interesting commentary on natural evolution, too, I feel. World War 1 killed 12% of British combatants, and is widely regarded as having destoyed the best of a generation, rather than selecting out the weak and feeble.

As you say, HE and machine guns ensured that the fittest did not survive, but the luckiest (unless you count those with innate cunning to get themselves invalided home etc).

Small scale tribal skirmishes, however, would no doubt select for valour and strength: so the “beneficial” effects of war on human selection are finely determined by the actual nature of the war environment, as the limiting case of nuclear mutually assured destruction shows in high relief.

Similarly, although Darwinian variation/NS is an intuitively easy concept to understand, it actually  requires some real environmental as well as biological fine tuning not just to end up in survival of the luckiest, or even the biological equivalent of World War 3 and global extinction.

As far as I can see neutral evolution proposes survival of the luckiest anyway, but transforms it into a mysterious creative force - a biological Dr Strangelove, maybe?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #76014

January 16th 2013

First of all, please do not call Dawkins an adaptionist.  He is not.  He refuses to say that how and why natural selection works.

Now if we are to say that humans are to love God because God first loved us, then what is the more important evidence of God’s love than God created humanity and created us in God’s own Image.  How can we say that God is good, if we cannot say that life and the universe are good?

This is what Dawkins & Dennett are attacking.  They are saying when you dig deep into it that life is evil, because it has no purpose or meaning.  What can be worse and more evil than a meaningless life? 

Why live if life is pointless?  If life is without meaning or purpose, then living makes no sense.  This is the point of the new atheism, and if we ignore this we do a great disservice to believers and nonbelievers.

Evolution is change and change leads to history if it going in a particular direction.  We postmodern folks have been told not to believe in “progress” for good reason, but God still is in charge of salvation history which is evolving in a particular direction. 

Conservatives might not like where history is headed and might not understand how it is moving, but a Christains we need to see how God is leading us toward God’s Kingdom, whether we like it or not.   


PNG - #76020

January 16th 2013

Roger, Dawkins is a pretty thoroughgoing adaptationist, if one is using the term the way evolutionary biologists do. (I can’t figure out your private meanings.) He does usually go for the adaptationist explanation, as opposed to invoking neutral explanations. Of course the whole selfish gene thing was the exception, since the filling up of genomes with transposons was seen as initially neutral (from the organism’s perspective - of course it is adaptive from the transposon’s perspective), even if the organism did occasionally get some benefit later.

GJDS - #76016

January 16th 2013

PNG reply to #76006

Papers are found in Accounts of Chemical Research”, Volume 45, Issue 12, Pages 2023-2222. All of the papers deal with origins of life for evolution. An example is: Jason E. Hein and Donna G. Blackmond       who states, “….Even while some synthetic issues for plausible prebiotic construction of RNA remain unsolved, our work has focused on coupling these synthetic advances with concepts for the evolution of biomolecular homochirality. Drawing on our own findings as well as those from others, we present an intriguing “chicken or egg” scenario for the emergence of single chirality of sugars and amino acids.”

Other papers include statements such as, “life is evolution”,  and “The advent of life from prebiotic origins remains a deep and possibly inexplicable scientific mystery. Nevertheless,….” You need to read these papers for yourself; you will find that my remarks are reasonable in terms of emphatic certainty of evolution, but …. From your comments on “mountains of evidence”, I would imagine you should make comments based on these papers that would form part of that certainty and evidence you claim so often.

PNG - #76019

January 16th 2013

There is plenty of evidence that evolution has happened. (When I offered to point you to it, you refused to look at it. You have accused other people of holding ideologically determined beliefs. What does one call beliefs that someone carefully shields from evidence? “Ideology” seems as good a word as any.) As far as the mechanism(s), the standard explanations of positive and negative selection and drift certainly refer to things that do happen. There is an enormous literature in population genetics that supports it. Whether these mechanisms can account for the development of the basic cellular mechanisms hundreds of millions and billions of years ago becomes something close to ideology, because the direct evidence for selection would have been washed out long ago by the accumulation of further mutations and recombination. What is clear is that pieces of genes have been reused in other genes many times. The process seems to work by rearranging things that it already has by duplication, mutation and recombination. There are countless examples of this. I saw it repeatedly in the gene families that I worked on. We can only extrapolate from these examples and what we can observe today of recent evolution. The origin of life is even more distant and necessarily less certain. I don’t claim any certainties about that - there is only more or less informed speculation.

Why am I as sure as I could be of any thing in science that humans and other primates have common ancestors? There are millions of complex mutations (transposable element insertions and other insertions or deletions as well as multiple point mutations in proximity) that are exactly reproduced at the corresponding (orthologous) locations in the human genome and in chimp and in many cases gorilla, orangutan and even gibbon and other monkey genomes. In the case of individual transposon insertions, the peculiarlities of the particular event, e.g. the degree of trucation or the specific rearrangement of the element, the exact length of the short direct repeats that flank the insertion, are reproduced in the genomes of different species. The age of the insertion, as estimated by the sequence divergence of the transposable element sequence, matches the age determined by which species contain the insertion (the phylogenetic age) of the insertion. The same kind of observations on the inactivating mutations in unitary pseudogenes that are shared by multiple species confirm that these are records in multiple species of the same mutation events occurring millions of years ago during the branching descent of these species. If you look at really ancient transposon insertions, they tell the same story about mammals in general. There is no way to account for these millions of genomic observations in multiple species except common descent. That is what biologists are talking about when they say evolution is a fact. It is possible to argue from now on about mechanisms of evolution, but the starting point is common descent. These observations about genomes don’t depend at all on any theory of the mechanism of evolution,  whether all the mutations are really “random,” or whether the elements involved have since acquired some function. The process of insertion of these elements has been very thoroughly studied for several decades and the results are clear.

GJDS - #76022

January 16th 2013

PNG #76019

I do not question or try to rebut opinions of scientists who have made their conclusions based on their own work - nor am I positing my views on biological research, since I do not practice in this area. My point (I originally felt a simple point) was to dispute the certainty displayed by various proponents of evolution. You point to events (or data) that has been gathered in your own lifetime, and also refer to events you postulate that may go back millions of years. I do not question present day data, but This  I question various conclusions on matters millions of year in the past, and have pointed out that scientific reviews of this area confirm this - that in many cases, some conclusions or opinions are assumed. This does not negate the findings of those who are convinved of evolution - but it also re-enforces my personal views that evolution is discussed with far greater certainty and confidence than it should.

If my comments were to progress to suggestions, it would be mainly in seeing more workers in this field asking questions which would mean, let us postulate another theory than that of Darwin. Commonality in life forms is a ‘dumb’ fact of this area. Turning this into a quantitative and ‘measureable’ line of species development is a questionable exercise. (I have type this quickly so I am sorry in advance if there are errors).

PNG - #76069

January 19th 2013

I had a protracted discussion a few years ago with one of the more strident anti-evolutionists on the web concerning the genomic evidence for common descent, especially orthologous transposable element insertions in the genomes of multiple species. After much argument (and shifting of the argumentative goalposts by this guy), he finally conceded that this was pretty good evidence for common descent, but he nonetheless rejected it. So I asked him what was his alternative hypothesis to account for this large number of observations.

Of course one can always insist that God created every species separately and put all the transposon insertions in miraculously. There’s no pattern of evidence that can’t be accounted for by invoking miracles, but you have to invoke miracles to account for all those parallel insertions. The known biochemical properties of the transposable elements simply can’t account for what is observed on the basis of parallel events, and he knew that. If you resort to miracles, it is in essence the hypothesis that evolution didn’t happen but God went to a lot of trouble to make it look like it did.

At that point he got mad and insisted that one must reject common descent even it appears to be the only way to account for what is observed (other than miracles.) He didn’t resort to the miracle hypothesis. He just insisted we must wait for some other hypothesis and in the meantime practice hypothesis-free science on the problem. 

So, do you have a better hypothesis, or do think we should practice hypothesis-free science?

GJDS - #76073

January 19th 2013

PNG #76069

I do not have a problem with any hypothesis - in fact I have put forward one such hypothesis that is ‘out of the norm’ in my field (non-biological) and have been given a rough time by some reviewers. I respect that because I think the scientific method demands a critical approach.

You provide an opinion that you find satisfactory in your field. I am not commenting on this specifically, but instead point to various areas that evolutionists claim they cover, and I have seen that they change their opinion over time - yet without the critical ‘flack’ they should receive from other scientists. THIS is what I do not accept. I tried to show you and others from well respected journals, the often tenuous nature of the speculation, and point out the danger of accepting this within a theological outlook. If you disagree with my approach, then by all means criticise it and put forward your views. Constantly bringing up a section (common descent) that also includes so many ‘twigs’ in the tree of life (?), or bush, or web, and so on (some evidence based on a bone found here and there) and seeking to make this a mjaor point of discussion is not productive. I am sure that for every question I can ask you will have a response - but that is not certainty - that shows the matter has been, and is debated, ad nausea. You may feel it should not be debated or argued, but it still is.

Puting forward a hypothesis is just that - claiming scientific certainty and extending this into faith and theology is a vastly different matter. Creationists should have learnt their lesson by now - perhaps TE’s are reading themselves for the same fate.

Seenoevo - #76021

January 16th 2013

PNG wrote: “You are going to get about 30 point mutations (roughly) compared to the genome of your parents. You have some chance of getting an indel or a few and a lower chance of getting larger scale copy-number changes or transposon insertions. All this in addition to some unknown number of somatic mutations, which may affect how long you live and whether you get cancer.”

I’m not sure what all that means, but I was curious about what these researchers from Harvard, MIT, U of Michigan, et al, said about human genetic variation and specifically about single nucleotide variants (SNVs). It appears the primary purpose for this article’s publication was the significant surprise in how recently most variants have occurred – within the last 5,000 – 10,000 years!

“To more quantitatively assess the distribution of mutation ages, we resequenced 15,336 genes in 6,515 individuals of European American and African American ancestry and inferred the age of 1,146,401 autosomal single nucleotide variants (SNVs). We estimate that approximately 73% of all protein-coding SNVs and approximately 86% of SNVs predicted to be deleterious arose in the past 5,000–10,000 years.”


Perhaps they know, but I don’t, how this could be, for a species (homo sapiens) which has supposedly been around for 100,000 – 200,000+ years.

PNG - #76039

January 18th 2013

I just wrote a longish response and had this infernal editor throw it out, so here goes again, probably shorter this time. (Webmaster, you fixed this nonsense once before. Can we try again?)

First, to correct myself, the likely number of new SNVs is more like 60-70. I was thinking in haploid terms. I reason for the comment was just that I was (and am) puzzled by Sy’s statement that we now control our biological change.

As for the paper quoted, I haven’t read it but I think the explanation is just that the large increase in population that began with agriculture and herding 10,000 or so years ago means that a lot of mutations have happened since then. More people, more mutations, since each of us gets a bunch of new ones. Still, when the population geneticists calculate coalescence times for different regions of the genome (how long it would take to accumulate the variation observed in the population) they get anywhere from 100,000 to several million years. I’m not expert enough to explain the rationale of those calculations (they depend on the observed current mutation rate) and why they vary for different parts of the genome, but they don’t get anything close to 6000 years.

Joriss - #76023

January 17th 2013

Isn’t that a good question of Seenova?  John Sanford, in his book “Genetic Entropy”, explains that by a number of new genetic mutations in every new generation, which are slightly deleterious, the human genome has been deteriorating ever since it’s existence. Because the mutations are too slight to be selected for, they will accumulate over time and finally cause a “meltdown” of the human genome, just like a car that , not by a big accident, but by rusting and other negative influences, will eventually get total loss. So the more “rusty” the genome, the more diseases will appear in the human race, accumulating according to the state of rust. Could he be right?

PNG - #76040

January 18th 2013

There has long been a discussion among human geneticists about the human deleterious mutation rate (it is considered to be high) and whether, especially with the relaxation of purifying selection that presumably results from modern improvements in sanitation, diet, medicine, etc. there would be a substantial fitness decrease. That was a lot of what motivated the eugenics movement in the early-mid 20th century. Weakly deleterious mutations aren’t removed very effectively in a small population, which the historic human population certainly was, but I would guess the much larger modern population results in more efficient selection. The accumulation of deleterious mutations is more of a problem for asexually reproducing species than sexual species, since meiotic recombination allows some individuals to get a “good hand” while those who draw a “bad hand” can result in multiple deleterious mutations dying out at once. For a recent paper on the situation in humans, see Keightley, Genetics 195, 295-304, 2012. He comes down on the “not-to-worry” side. For older papers that may be freely available, search J.F. Crow’s papers on PubMed. One in particular, PNAS 94, 8480, 1997.

PNG - #76041

January 18th 2013

Sorry, typo in the ref. Should be PNAS 94, 8380, 1997.

sy - #76057

January 18th 2013

PNG and Joriss

The concept of deleterious mutations is somewhat problematic. Truly deleterious mutations are eventually selected out of the population, but we need to remember that the definition of deleterious depends entirely on the environmental conditions prevailing at the time and place. The sickle cell hemoglobin mutation being the classical example. (For a further explanation please Google). I also think that the rate of human cultural advance (see my earlier answer to PNG’s question about my assertion regarding natural selection in humans) is so much faster than natural selection effects on genetic variants, that the ideas of “genetic deterioration” promoted by eugenicists of the beginning of the last century are simply (at best) far out of date, (and at worst, much worse than that).

PNG - #76060

January 18th 2013

Another paper which looks interesting as to the modern takes on this issue is “Contamination of the genome by very slightly deleterious mutations - why have we not died a 100 times over?”, Kondrashov, AS, J. Theor. Biol. 175, 583, 1995. I don’t have access to this journal without making a long drive. The problem isn’t the strongly deleterious mutations that the eugenicists were worried about. It’s the very mildly deleterious mutations that individually are of little account, but because they are too weak for effective selection against them they are expected to accumulate over long periods of time. There should be many such mutations in basic cellular function that would be slightly sub-optimal regardless of the environment. I don’t know what how they are eliminated unless when random assortment accumulates an unusually large number of them in an individual, their effect is more or less additive and they are lost by death before reproductive age.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #76024

January 17th 2013


in response to 76020

How do you figure than Dawkins is adaptionist?  Please give me a definite reference.

You say that the Selfish Gene is the exception, but from what I understand the selfish gene and the gene’s eye view is the basis of his scientific and ideological position. 

His argument, backed by Dennett, with E. O. Wilson and others is just over this.  Is group selection based on the ability to adapt to the environment the basis of Natural Selection, or is kin and sexual selection, which are not related to adaptation to the environment, the basis of Natural Selection?  

The problem with NeoDarwinism is that it is atomistic and thus is chaotic.  When you combine evolution with ecology which is relational and moves beyond genes to a holistic view of life and nature, then you have more than a simplistic, materialistic, mechanistic understanding of life and the universe, which makes possible a true morality far different from social Darwinism.

Darwin’s evolution based on Malthusian population theory is based on conflict.  Maybe the scientific understanding of Natural Selection has changed, but thus far no one has stipulated this.  If the theory has changed, this needs to be made clear and explicit. 

How can one have a scientific theory that no one seems to understand or can explain in a coherent, scientifically substantiated manner?  That seems to be the real problem that no one wants to address.  

PNG - #76061

January 18th 2013

I think the problem is one of terminology. “Adaptationist” just means that they think phenotypic changes are usually or almost always the result of positive selection. Hence, all the “just so” stories about why a particular trait would be positively selected. Positive selection can be based on adaptation to a food source, evading a predator, sexual selection or whatever. You seem to think that natural selection must always be due to the same mechanism. I don’t see why that should be the case. Alleles of different genes can enhance reproductive success by acting at a lot of different points in the life cycle.

The alternative to adaptation is neutral evolution where traits change by random drift. In most cases this doesn’t make much sense to me, but some people think there is convincing evidence for it. One case where it does seem to me to have happened is in the filling up of animal and plant genomes with transposable elements, but this is not really an organismal phenotype - it’s just a characteristic of genomes that you would never suspect by studying whole organisms, and is driven by the fact that the elements catalyze an increase in their own copy number, and the there is neither sufficient selection against them nor a mechanism to facilitate their efficient elimination from the genome.

GJDS - #76059

January 18th 2013


I cannot get the reply to work (again) but this is a reply to HornSpiel and sy.

As a scientist I find the mis-use of language in this area objectionable. We should speak of changes over time, the accumulation of knowledge (e.g. computing, but also many other areas). I have published papers using phrases such as ‘the evolution of hydrogen from ..... and so on’, but would never contemplate this to be related to Darwinian thinking. Yet even such language, in the physical and social sciences, becomes in the mind of some people, a substantiation of Darwin’s ideas?!!

It is for such reasons (and also words such as ‘the central dogma, orthodox theories’ to mention one or two, all used when discussing Darwinian thinking), that leads me to see such activity as ideological and part of an argument for a belief system based on Darwin’s (and his disciples) thinking.

I think we should at least acknowledge this as real, and accept that anyone who are involved in this and similar debates, are dealing with belief systems which are, by definition based on a materialistic basis. If people accept this proposition by incorporation of such beliefs in a non-materialistic system, such as Christianity, than they would inevitable indulge in error and mistaken theology.

By all means discuss particular opinions of scientific endeavour - I have given ample examples that illustrate the speculative (which means sceptical/non-belief approach) nature of many basic tenets of Darwinism. But it is wrong to include this in the Faith. 

Roger A. Sawtelle - #76077

January 19th 2013

GJDS wrote:

You seem to think that natural selection must always be due to the same mechanism. I don’t see why that should be the case. Alleles of different genes can enhance reproductive success by acting at a lot of different points in the life cycle.

I certainly do not think that natural selection is always due to the same mechanism.  When I say that natural selection is based on ecology, I am refering to the totality of physical and bilogical influences and mechanisms. 

Evolutionary biology is by definition concerned only about biological influences and mechanisms.  Ecology is concerned about climate, soil, pollution, etc. as well as the interactions between flora and fauna, humans, microbes, etc. 

What you are talking about is how genes change which is about Variation, which of course is a very important aspect of evolution.  What is am talking about is Selection and what seems very clear to me is that Selection is primarily cause by changes in the environment.  Either the environment changes or colonies migratre into a new environment. 

Selection is not the result of genetic change.  Selection determines whether a genetic change will be successful or not.  In one environment it may be successful, while in a different one it will not. 

Unrelated life forms living in similar, but separate, environments tend to adapt their environments in similar ways.  On the other hand lions and tigers are both big cats but they have adapted to their different environments is marked different ways.     

The relative success or failure of groups and individuals is a different environment will be their ability adapt to this environment or ecolgical niche.  This of course takes many forms and is usually multilateral or coevolutionary in character.    

The earth has come a long way from the primordial sea in which life was born to the multitudinous niches and life forms we have today.  Which came first, species or ecology?  I think that it is clear that ecological niches came first and species grew into the niches.   

In a sense one might that that it is backward to put the physical aspects of earth before the other aspects of life.  I see it as God the Creator designing a process, through God the Logos, by which God created human life and by which God could bring humans into a positive relationship with God and others through the Holy Spirit.     

GJDS - #76079

January 19th 2013

I did not write the above quote

Roger A. Sawtelle - #76090

January 19th 2013


Thank you for the correction.  My apologies.

My response should have been derected to PNG.

I wonder if this could be corrected. 


Seenoevo - #76157

January 22nd 2013

The title of this article/blog is “Does Evolution Compromise Human Morality?”

If it is not evolution, then at least something has “compromised” human morality, that is, historical, traditional Christian morality.

For example, for over 1,900 years after Christ, all Christians and virtually all civilized people regarded abortion as an abomination. [The very thought of the Virgin Mary having second thoughts and ending her “unplanned” pregnancy is horrific.]

Yet as of this day, the 40th anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision, over 90% of Americans feel abortion is OK or at least OK in some circumstances. [Only 9% believe abortion is wrong in all cases.]

About 55 million human lives have been aborted in the U.S. alone since Roe vs. Wade. Objectively, scientifically, common sense-ically human lives.

And today, over 90% of the “survivors” think it’s not that big a deal.

Over 90%.


Mat 7:14.



I’ll be at the March for Life in Washington D.C. on Friday. Who knows, maybe I’ll unknowingly be walking beside some BioLogos folks.

Eddie - #76161

January 22nd 2013

Seenoevo wrote:

“I’ll be at the March for Life in Washington D.C. on Friday. Who knows, maybe I’ll unknowingly be walking beside some BioLogos folks.”

More likely ID folks.  :-)   But glad to hear that you put the teaching of your Church into action.

Regarding this:

“If it is not evolution, then at least something has “compromised” human morality, that is, historical, traditional Christian morality.”

The official teaching of your Church does not blame “evolution” per se for the rise of an anti-human morality.  It is careful to distinguish tentative (and permissible) scientific hypotheses explaining the origin of the human bodily frame from the reductionist, materialist view which would see the human totality—soul as well as body—as the product of uncaring, unguided natural forces.  The teaching that each human soul is the creation of God prevents the rise of the various versions of “evolutionary ethics” which are standard among the atheists, which are common among mainstream Protestants, and which now appear to be infiltrating Protestant evangelical thinking as well.  It is to your Church’s credit that it has “held the line” on this.

Of course some Protestant churches, and many Protestant individuals, are onside.  In fact, the 1994 document Evangelicals and Catholics Together shows that there is important common ground between traditional Protestants and traditional Catholics on a number of theological and moral issues.  This is another reason why polarization among Christians based on the question “Who has authority?” can be counter-productive.  It is possible for Christians of different persuasions to agree on a lot without first settling the question of which Church is the “right” Church.  The traditional versions of Calvinism, Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodoxy, etc. have a great deal in common, and many shared criticisms of the ethical and political direction of the modern world.  Increasingly, I see the division between “traditional” and “liberal” to be more important than the difference between denominations.  The differences between denominations are still important and still at some point have to be dealt with, because theological truth matters—but at this point in human history there are greater dragons to slay than the doctrines of other denominations.

Jon Garvey - #76165

January 23rd 2013

Seenoevo’s question is surely worthy of some serious thought. There is certainly a coincidence in time between the change in moral views over abortion and evolutionary theory, but obviously that doesn’t make for causation. When I studied embryology at University and Medical School (around the time abortion became legal here in UK) the textbooks said unequivocally that human life begins at conception ... all the later nuancing came from socio-politics rather than science.

Two main strands seem to come together in the issue. The first is human autonomy, which was very much the agenda of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, of which evolutionary theory, sociologically speaking, was just another part. That view of the rational self as the real core of humanity replaced the earlier, more social and corporate view, that humanity was an essential feature of our form (in the Aristotelian sense). In other words, we are human because we are part of humanity. In the context of Christian ethics, we are in God’s image because we are human, even if that image is deformed by disability, early death, and so on, or as yet not fully expressed. As philosopher Roger Scruton astutely says, it is not that rational individuals group together to form society - rather society forms rational individuals.

Darwinian evolution certainly fed off and into that individualism by focusing mainly on the survival of the fittest individuals of a species. The species survives by rejecting its weakest members (the majority) in a Malthusian way. That zeitgeist inspired eugenics and social Darwinism, of course, but also more subtly makes us think of pitting individuals against each other (so the rights of the mother outweigh rights of the fetus, or vice versa), rather than considering the sacredness of humanity itself as previous generations did.

Alongside autonomy came a reductionist view of humanness - we are the sum of our traits, rather than an integrated whole. Once again, evolution per se is only a small part of that, but science as a whole has majored on reductionism. If I cannot find a seat of consciousness, then its existence is in doubt. The separation of consciousness from the whole human being is part of that, since Descartes’ famous “Cogito ergo sum” ushered in Cartesian dualism.

So people look at a fetus, and say that because it doesn’t think, ergo non est. In a Christian context, it takes the form of foolish arguments about when the fetus “receives” its soul, instead of the biblical and Thomistic position that it is a soul - ie the only life it has, as a human, is rational humanity in God’s image, even when that has not yet become expressed.

So when people say the Bible doesn’t condemn abortion directly, they miss the point that its whole view of humanity makes such a condemnation inevitable, as witnessed by the fact that in Jesus’ time the Jews were unique in the Roman Empire for not practising abortion or exposure of infants, which partly accounted for their large population.

Science also contributes yto reductionist arguments by specious arguments like discovering the high rate of spontaneous abortion and concluding that God doesn’t value individual fetuses - as if high infant mortality teaches the lack of value of poor people, or fatal diseases somehow justify killing the healthy. If evolution contributes to this, maybe it’s in the puzzling over when hominids “evolved to become human”, the answer being given in terms of the gradual emergence of some rational or other “thing” that fetuses also lack, rather than in God’s ordination of the whole race as being holy,  the shedding of their blood demanding an accounting before God.

So evolution is by no means the main factor, but does help form some of the assumptions that explain such a surprising change of attitude within our ethically rather isolated, though morally conceited, culture. Of course, we put it all down to being more compassionate than anyone else in history, on rather scant evidence.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #76167

January 23rd 2013

Seenoevo says that because over 90% of people polled think tha abortion is justified under some circumstances they think that abortion is not a big deal.

And today, over 90% of the “survivors” think it’s not that big a deal.

Over 90%.

My friend, can you not think of a circumstance what abortion might be justified, such as to save the life of the pregnant woman?  If the life of the potential child is absolute as the Roman Catholic Church teaches, does that make the life of the mother worth nothing? 

Are you saying that taking the life of the mother for the sake of the child is NO BIG DEAL?    

The very thought of the Virgin Mary having second thoughts and ending her “unplanned” pregnancy is horrific.]

You make this statement about Mary.  How about Joseph’s plan to put Mary away so she could have the Baby privately, put Him up for adoption, and then go about her life.  While God vetoed that plan, God did not reject Joseph for thinking about it.

Indeed God told Mary in advance what was going to bear the Messiah so she would not panic and do something rash like have an abortion.  God did not make it a test of faith to go through this situation blindly to see how she and Joseph would act.  God kept them informed though the process as to what God was doing through Jesus.

Jesus came into this world as a real human being, which means to be exposed to all of the trials and tribulations, dangers and temptations that we all face.  We all have choices of right and wrong at each step along the way of our lives. 

To take the choice of abortion, birth control, and divorce away from people does not strengthen our faith or our morality.  We need to know how to make good decisions, not be told that we have no choice in such matters.       

Roger A. Sawtelle - #76188

January 25th 2013

It looks like Seenoevo is not going to defend his own views, so I will make further critique of them.

Seenoevo is thinking in absolutist terms, such as if abortion is most instrances is wrong, then it must be absolutely wrong in all cases.  In other words nothing can be determined right or wrong based on circumstances or relationships, but must be determined right or wrong absolutely in all circumstances or relationships.  This is the slipperly slope point of view.

The primary problem with this kind of thinking is that it takes only one exception to break the rule.  If something is absolutely wrong then ther must be no exceptions.  If there is one exception, then it must be absolutely right.  There is no middle ground for making rational moral judgments.

The NRA makes the argument that the 2nd amendment is absolute.  It is not.  It claims any qualification of the right of some people to own firearms is tantamount to the confiscation of all firearms, which it is not unless you buy the absolutist argument, which many clearly do.

If the words found in Gen 1 are absolutely true, which is the theological position of many evangelical Christians, then evolution is wrong.  It is not a question of science, it is a question of theology.  According to my understanding of the theology found in the Bible, the words of Gen 1 are not absolute, they are relational.

Science cannot really dispel bad theology.  Only good theology can dispel bad theology.        

Jon Garvey - #76191

January 25th 2013

If the words found in Gen 1 are absolutely true, which is the theological position of many evangelical Christians, then evolution is wrong.  It is not a question of science, it is a question of theology.  According to my understanding of the theology found in the Bible, the words of Gen 1 are not absolute, they are relational.

Roger, you’re hung up on the word “absolute” again. All words are relational, because only words that communicate are anything other than empty sounds. That goes for “I will blow you away if you don’t give me your wallet” as much as for any subtle parable.

But “absolute” is a poor substitute for “interpreted materialistically and without regard for language, genre or context”, which is the only way in which your reference to Genesis 1 makes much sense. I regard Genesis 1 as true to the same extent that the “blowing away” threat is true, and say that it has absolutely no implications for evolution one way or the other, except that it shows material theories of origin to be only a partial account of our cosmos.

As regards abortion (or other moral issues) and absolutes, I think you you are over-specific. To say that murder is absolutely wrong does not prevent one exempting such things as self-defence, capital punishment or just war from that prohibition on the grounds of some other absolute moral principles. Indeed it’s hard to think of how moral judgements, per se, would be made otherwise, especially on relational grounds.

Would one really say “Paedophilia is wrong, but not if there’s real love involved, or if the perpetrator was himself abused, or if the victim gave consent”? Should one say, “Murder is wrong, but I know your aged mother was a vicious old bag so in your case we’ll make an exception”? One certainly would hope that your judgement would be more “absolute” than the person who says, “I know he fiddled the accounts, but he’s a good man and what’s more he’s my lifelong friend.”

It could be that Seenoevo is the kind of chap who would let a woman bleed to death rather than allow a fetus to die to save her, but invoking a general moral principle doesn’t make that especially likely. I speak as one who has been personally involved in more cases of abortion than most people who post on this site. Not so many of paedophilia, I’m pleased to say.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #76194

January 25th 2013


The word “absolute” means independent of everything. It is important because some conservative theologians, like Karl Barth, believe that God the Father is Absolute. When God is seen as Absolute God’s Laws are often seen as absolutely true.

Thus we have the absolutists who are modernists and the relativists who are postmodernists who at least in this part of the world are talking past each other because they really do not understand where each other are coming from.

By the way it seems that not too long ago a pregnant woman died in Ireland (I think) apparently because she was refused an abortion or permission to leave the country to get one. She was from India, so I doubt if she were Catholic.

I am sure that the doctors did not want her to die, nor did the people who set up the rules that kept her from getting the treatment she needed, however Legalism has unintended consequences.

Allowing NO exceptions for the permissability of abortions is not a general moral principle, but an absolute divine law.

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