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 world 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.