“My Genes Made Me Do It”
Is Ethics Based on Biological Evolution?
by Paul Copan
It is quite common to read in the philosophical and scientific literature that ethics is nothing more than the result of biological processes and social forces. Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell asserted that “the whole subject of ethics arises from the pressure of the community on the individual.”1
Philosopher James Rachels says something similar: “Man is a moral (altruistic) being, not because he intuits the rightness of loving his neighbor, or because he responds to some noble ideal, but because his behavior is comprised of tendencies which natural selection has favored.”2
Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson says, “Precepts and religious faith are entirely material products of the mind.” He claims moral feeling is rooted in “the hypothalamus and the limbic system” and is a “device of survival in social organisms.”3
Science philosopher Michael Ruse maintains that morality is simply the “ephemeral product of the evolutionary process, just as are our other adaptations,” such as our hands and feet and teeth. “Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, and has no being beyond this.”4
Ruse writes with E.O Wilson: “Human beings function better if they are deceived by their genes into thinking that there is a disinterested objective morality binding upon them, which all should obey. We help others because it is ‘right to help them and because we know that they are inwardly compelled to reciprocate in equal measure. What Darwinian evolutionary theory shows is that this sense of ‘right’ and the corresponding sense of ‘wrong,’ feelings we take to be above individual desire and in some fashion outside biology, are in fact brought about by ultimate biological processes.”5
We could pile up lots of other quotations like these, but you get the idea.
We shouldn’t be surprised at this viewpoint if the physical world is all the reality there is. This outlook undermines such objective moral values as, “Torturing babies for fun is wrong,” and, “Kindness is a virtue rather than a vice.” In addition, the stark worldview known as naturalism ultimately undercuts any sense of objective purpose or meaning in life.
The outspoken atheist zoologist Richard Dawkins puts it this way: “… if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies … are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention …. 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 …. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”6
In this brief series, we have examined certain ethical perspectives. We have attempted to show that if these ethical perspectives fail to include an intrinsically good God as the source of objective moral values and the Creator of humans in His image, then systems will be woefully inadequate. This certainly applies to naturalistic evolutionary ethics, as we’ll see.
Problems With Naturalistic Evolutionary Ethics
While not all naturalists claim that ethics is “nothing more” than the product of biological evolutionary processes, many do — and this viewpoint is quite pervasive in the academic and wider cultures. According to this perspective, God has nothing to do with moral beliefs or conscience since naturalists claim God doesn’t exist.
Naturalism advocates three key tenets concerning reality (metaphysics), causes (etiology), and knowledge (epistemology). First, the physical universe is all the reality that there is. Second, all causes operate mechanistically and deterministically. Third, knowledge is only (or best) achievable through science — a view called “scientism.” So if we are the products of a strictly physical universe, the development of our moral beliefs is due to the mechanisms of evolution or natural selection. All that can be known about morality is discovered through the tools of science.
With this basic outlook in mind, let’s respond to the representative naturalists we’ve just cited.
First, even if morality reflects the influence of biological evolution, this still doesn’t discount God as the source of humans’ basic moral awareness. It doesn’t follow that God has nothing to do with morality simply because evolution plays a part. If the evolutionary process produced moral beliefs such as, “Love your neighbor,” why couldn’t this be the result of God’s guiding hand?
Second, we cannot trust our minds if we are simply the products of naturalistic evolution, hardwired with the drive to fight, feed, flee, and reproduce. Notice the confident statement above by Michael Ruse and E.O. Wilson, who argue our genes have “deceived” us. They claim that morality is a “corporate illusion” that has been “fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.”7
How is it that these two naturalists have somehow risen above the deception to recognize that this is what is happening to the rest of us? Why are they not taken in by the illusion? This suggests they don’t really believe they are deterministically programmed to believe what they do. They can reflect on and evaluate their beliefs.
In 2011, I had the opportunity to ask Richard Dawkins this very question. Here is the gist of what I asked him: “If theists and atheists alike are shaped by non-rational forces beyond their control (after all, we are dancing to the music of our DNA), then why think that the atheist is more rational than the theist? After all, the naturalist would only be accidentally correct, not because he is more rational.”8
Unfortunately, Dawkins never answered the question. (He was “Dawkin” the issue!) He only gave the rhetorical quip that “science flies rockets to the moon, but religion flies planes into buildings.”
Of course, Dawkins ignored or was unaware that the Nazis invented rockets. And what about the 9/11 Muslim terrorists? Weren’t they simply “dancing to the music of their DNA”?
Charles Darwin was rightly skeptical about the possibility of rationality for the naturalist: “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”9
Why trust our moral beliefs — or any of our beliefs — if they are the products of nonrational material forces beyond our control? Yet even the most skeptical person assumes his mental faculties are trustworthy and not systematically deceiving him. He doesn’t doubt laws of logic or the workings of his mind to come to his skeptical conclusions. He thinks he is in full control of his beliefs. But given naturalism, such faith that these processes will lead me to truth is unwarranted.
However, if we have been made in the image of a truthful, rational Being, we have the proper context for generally trusting our five senses — as well as our fundamental, moral intuitions.
We could believe many things that enhance survival and reproduction. For example, our genes could fob off on us the belief that humans have dignity and worth or that we have a duty to love our neighbors. Both ideas are beneficial to species survival. Yet from a naturalist viewpoint, these assumptions might be completely false. If a truthful, rational God exists, however, such problems about rationality and trusting our beliefs evaporate.
Third, this view of evolutionary ethics goes against our intuitions about fundamental realities. We assume a number of common sense beliefs — that we humans are morally responsible for our actions, that our minds are not systematically deceiving us, that we have duties, that we act with purpose, and that our acts make a difference in the world.
But consider what naturalistic philosopher of mind John Searle of Berkeley says: “Physical events can have only physical explanations, and consciousness is not physical, so consciousness plays no explanatory role whatsoever. If, for example, you think you ate because you were consciously hungry, or got married because you were consciously in love with your prospective spouse, or withdrew your hand from the flame because you consciously felt a pain, or spoke up at a meeting because you consciously disagreed with the main speaker, you are mistaken in every case. In each case the effect was a physical event and therefore must have an entirely physical explanation.”10
But if that’s the case, Searle’s own statement has “an entirely physical explanation.” One suspects that in writing this, he doesn’t really believe this, however.
Richard Dawkins, at least in some places, is willing to admit that as a naturalist he can’t practice what he preaches. He says: “As an academic scientist, I am a passionate Darwinian, believing that natural selection is, if not the only driving force in evolution, certainly the only known force capable of producing the illusion of purpose which so strikes all who contemplate nature. But at the same time as I support Darwinism as a scientist, I am a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics and how we should conduct our human affairs.”11
In fact, in an interview, Dawkins had to confess to the counterintuitive belief that the conviction that rape is wrong is just an evolutionary adaptation and nothing more. His interviewer pressed him: “Ultimately, your belief that rape is wrong is as arbitrary as the fact that we’ve evolved five fingers rather than six,” to which Dawkins replied, “You could say that, yeah.”12
Fourth, naturalism cannot derive “ought” from “is” — duty from scientific descriptions. “Why should I be moral?” For the naturalists we’ve described, they would say that this is like asking, “Why should I be hungry?”13 Drives such as hunger and sex or emotions like jealousy and anger are hardwired into us by evolution.
But C.S. Lewis observed that given such conditions, moral impulses are no more true (or false) “than a vomit or a yawn.”14 Thinking, “I ought” is on the same level of, “I itch.” Indeed, Lewis continued, “My impulse to serve posterity is just the same sort of thing as my fondness for cheese,” or preferring mild or bitter beer.15
Naturalists like Ruse and Dawkins can only describe how human beings actually function, but they can’t prescribe how humans ought to behave. These states just are.
Dawkins elsewhere admits that, rationally speaking, you can’t get angry with criminals since they’re hardwired by nature to do what they do — although Dawkins finds this emotionally unacceptable.16 Naturalism doesn’t allow him to move logically from “is” to “ought.” On the other hand, if a supremely valuable God exists who has made morally valuable human beings in His image, we have no illogical leap from “is” to “ought.”
Fifth, naturalistic morality is arbitrary and could have developed in opposite directions. Michael Ruse (with E.O. Wilson) gives an example of how this works. Instead of evolving from “savannah-dwelling primates,” we, like termites, could have evolved needing “to dwell in darkness, eat each other’s [waste], and cannibalize the dead.” If the latter were the case, we would “extol such acts as beautiful and moral” and “find it morally disgusting to live in the open air, dispose of body waste and bury the dead.”17
Our firmly embedded moral beliefs could have developed along other lines.
And what if humans have evolved in such a way that rape actually enhances survival and reproduction? A biologist and an anthropologist teamed up to document this very point. In their book, A Natural History of Rape, they argue — much to the horror of many people, including staunch atheistic feminists — that rape can be explained biologically.18 How so? When a male cannot find a mate, his subconscious drive to reproduce his own species presses him to force himself sexually upon a female. And acts akin to rape do occur in the animal kingdom — perpetrated by male mallards and scorpionflies, for example.
Don’t think for a minute that these authors advocate rape. They do not excuse rapists for their behavior (or misbehavior). But what if rape is as natural as granola? What if human nature has the rape-impulse embedded from antiquity, conferring biological advantage? The is-ought problem rears its head here as well. The authors cannot condemn this behavior based on their logic. The authors’ resistance to rape, despite its “naturalness,” suggests objective moral values exist and that they are not rooted in nature. An ethic rooted in mere nature leaves us with an arbitrary morality.
On the other hand, the existence of an intrinsically good God helps us anchor these basic moral intuitions about the wrongness of rape in something transcendent — something outside or beyond nature. Thus, the naturalist must borrow from a worldview like theism to justify opposition to an act that is both very natural and morally revolting.
As we have noted in previous articles, in contrast to other ethical theories on offer in the academic world and popular culture, biblical theism presents a way out of the ethical cul-de-sac that naturalists face. This perspective gives us solid grounding for affirming the reality of objective moral values (such as, “Kindness is a virtue rather than a vice,” or, “Rape is wrong”) instead of denying these and other common sense beliefs about rationality, human dignity, and free will.
Also, theists are not left with the problem of the “is-ought” gap. And they do not have to worry whether they can trust their senses or basic moral intuitions. Nor do they have to wonder whether their minds are systematically deceiving them. Theism offers resources unavailable to the naturalist, who often inadvertently borrows from the metaphysical resources of a theistic worldview.