Can Evolution Explain Morality?: Religion, science and the desire to be good

More than 200 years after the birth of Charles Darwin, the debate about God and evolution shows no signs of abating. Voices loud and soft continue to read Darwin’s science as if it were irreconcilable with religious faith.

The noisiest Darwinian controversialists include Richard Dawkins, an evolutionist at Oxford; Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts; Paul Zachary Myers, a biologist and blogger at the University of Minnesota; and Jerry A. Coyne, a biologist at the University of Chicago. These writers habitually festoon their scientific writings, philosophical musings and Internet offerings with extravagant claims about how Darwin has destroyed theology.

Most scientists and scientific journalists, by contrast, are reluctant to flash their views on evolution and faith so openly, even when they agree with the more combative Darwinian atheists. The Pulitzer prize-winning author Robert Wright (The Evolution of God), for example, whose religious skepticism is based directly on his reading of Darwin, prefers not to be called an atheist, though he admits he is a materialist and does not believe in a personal God. Wright looks kindly on religion but does not address the fact that materialism is incompatible with a coherent understanding of God.

While Nicholas Wade, a talented science writer for The New York Times, explicitly professes that he has no atheistic intentions, he claims in his book The Faith Instinct that religion arose in human history for a single reason: to help human genes pass from one generation to the next. Wade insists that he has no interest in suppressing the “faith instinct,” which has been adaptively fertile, but says he would not be unhappy if the idea of God would just go away for good.

All of these writers are devotees of “evolutionary naturalism”: the belief that neo-Darwinian biology (a synthesis of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the more recent science of genetics) can provide the ultimate explanation of all living traits. Evolutionary naturalism, which must be distinguished carefully from evolutionary biology, is now increasingly popular with scientists, science writers and other intellectuals. According to the evolutionary naturalist, religion and theology, far from being explanatory, are nothing more than obsolete adaptations themselves, fully understandable in evolutionary terms. Beneath the surface of all of the world’s myths and sacred traditions, what is really going on, they say, is that populations of human genes are blindly adapting, surviving and making their way from one generation to the next. And that is all. Evolution has even aimlessly concocted human morality to make people cooperate with each other to improve the chances of transferring their genes to subsequent generations.

The Morality of Babies

An interesting illustration of soft-spoken evolutionary naturalism appeared in an article in The New York Times Magazine (5/9) by Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University. Entitled “The Moral Life of Babies,” the article seems innocent enough, but the tacit assumptions that guide it are theologically far-reaching. Commenting on new research in child psychology, Bloom surmises that babies, long before the age of reason, exhibit a rudimentary sense of right and wrong. They do not have to undergo lengthy inculturation before expressing their genetically determined moral propensities. Cultural formation gives content to morality, but evolution makes humans ready to receive it. Even apart from cultural influence, writes Bloom, “some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone.”

What catches my eye is Bloom’s insinuation that the new research proves that Darwinian evolution, rather than any divine spark, ignites human moral instincts. Bloom tries to avoid the question of God, but his article cannot hide his fundamental agreement with the ultra-Darwinians: that evolution demonstrates the godlessness of life and the universe.

Above all, Bloom’s new science of babies offers no hope to those who still think people cannot be truly good without God. Babies, according to Bloom, do not come into the world as blank slates, morally speaking, any more than they do linguistically. Evolution, long prior to socialization, “jump-starts” the process of moral development all by itself. Infants come equipped naturally with rudimentary moral tendencies only because this endowment has been adaptive—conducive to gene survival—in the past. Beginning with primates and hominids, the moral instincts inherited by modern humans were being sculpted by genetic accidents and natural selection hundreds of thousands of years ago. God is nowhere in sight.

Bloom takes the new research to mean that no divine invitation, no Platonic awakening to a transcendent realm of goodness, no sense of the holy is ever necessary to ground the seriousness of human morality. After Darwin, moral development and the refinement of virtue must be seen as the result of purely natural and cultural processing, all in the service of gene survival. There is no need, Bloom concludes, for divine intervention.

Theological Issues

After reading Bloom’s article and countless others like it, I find no good reason to deny the scientific evidence that human morality is somehow adaptive in a Darwinian sense. A theologian need not reject contemporary evolutionary accounts of human intelligence, morality and religion. Everything living is, at some level of inquiry, grist for the evolutionary mill. If the mill is that of evolutionary naturalism, however, theologians may legitimately protest, without being hostile to evolutionary science. I would immediately want to ask, for example, whether morality is “ultimately” or “nothing more than” an evolutionary adaptation (or perhaps a byproduct of other adaptations). Can one prove scientifically that gene survival is the ultimate meaning of ethics?

Bloom, like Wade, wears his evolutionary naturalism lightly, but it is not hard to detect the metaphysically provocative subtext in his ostensibly scientific essay. Bloom is not content to test his ideas by comparing them exclusively with other empirically based developmental theories, as one would expect a scientist to do. Instead he launches an attack on the conservative Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza, who is cited in the piece as a defender of the Christian faith.

Why would a good scientist do this? Why not just stick with science? Perhaps Bloom still assumes that theology is little more than a primitive attempt to do science, which must now make way for Darwin. D’Souza, in his defense of the Christian faith against the onslaught of naturalism, appears unconsciously to share Bloom’s assumption that theology belongs to a generically scientific category of explanation, one that allows theology to compete with natural science. D’Souza grudgingly allows that evolutionary biology may explain some of the less noble instances of human morality, like people’s instinctive kindness to close relatives. He adds, however, that more self-sacrificial acts, like donating blood to strangers or giving anonymously to a worthy cause, are evidence of “the voice of God within our souls.”

D’Souza’s way of making explanatory room for God after Darwin is theologically questionable. To claim that God rather than evolution accounts for highly altruistic expressions of morality is the inverse of the evolutionary naturalist’s declaration. Both positions are theologically meaningless, since they assume, first, that theology can provide scientific information and, second, that there exists only one explanatory level, rather than a plurality of them.

Bloom’s predictable response to D’Souza is that evolutionary biology can fully explain all levels of moral development. Even the selfless moral acts that for D’Souza point directly to the supernatural have for Bloom a purely natural rationale. “Giving up a bus seat for an old lady,” writes Bloom, “turns out to be a cold-bloodedly smart move from a Darwinian standpoint.” It is “an easy way to show off yourself as an attractively good person.” Such displays of altruism are good for attracting mates, hence for promoting gene survival. According to Bloom, Darwinian mechanisms (along with some degree of cultural influence) rather than divine influence explain ultimately and adequately every instance of moral aspiration and activity.

In his broadside, Bloom has moved away from objective reporting into theological disputation. Most evolutionary naturalists—as distinct from evolutionary scientists—habitually try to validate scientific theories by bringing them into competition with theology. Their strategy for debunking deity is to transform the idea of God into a crude scientific hypothesis and then announce that the “God hypothesis” cannot compete with natural selection as an “evidence-based” ultimate explanation.

This is why Richard Dawkins spends so many pages in The God Delusion trying to convince readers that the idea of God is a pathetically primitive scientific hypothesis. The biologist Jerry Coyne’s otherwise informative work Why Evolution Is True follows the same strategy, as does Victor Stenger’s book God: the Failed Hypothesis. The authors’ central assumption is that if only people today would come to their senses and realize that the God idea is nothing more than our species’ infantile stab at doing science, they would be more receptive to the superiority of Darwinian biology. Evolutionary naturalists expect in this way to purify science of all contamination by “faith.”

It backfires.

Whenever Darwinian scientists joust directly with religion instead of giving evidence of scientific purity, they insult both science and theology by transforming empirical information into atheistic propaganda. Evolutionary naturalists like Wade and Bloom may not speak as thunderously as Dawkins and Coyne, but their efforts contribute to the unhappy contemporary fusion of biology with materialist naturalism.

On the other side, D’Souza’s way of responding to evolutionary naturalism is also suspect. He sabotages his apologetics by allowing theological accounts of morality to compete directly with those of Darwinian biology. Like the proponents of creationism and intelligent design, D’Souza cheapens theological commentary by placing it at the same explanatory level as natural science.

Evolution as Grammar

A thorough critical inquiry would ask Bloom and other evolutionary naturalists what exactly they mean by morality, goodness and evil; what makes behavior moral or immoral; how a purely evolutionary explanation of morality can escape moral relativism; whether an exclusively scientific account of morality can be compatible with claims to human freedom; whether Darwinian biology alone determines what true responsibility means; what it means that human beings pass through different stages of moral development. These all deserve lengthy comment. But the main issue is to avoid placing theology and biology into competition with each other in the first place. How can evolutionary science be kept from becoming evolutionary naturalism, and theology from appearing to be a primitive kind of science?

One way is to think of evolution as comparable to grammar. In written or spoken language grammatical rules generate the structure of sentences by placing constraints on everything one says and means. Analogously, one may think of Darwin’s recipe for evolution—variation, inheritance and selection—as a set of grammatical rules that generate biological outcomes, including moral behavior. Scientists rightly claim that evolution “gives rise to” moral instincts, along with the whole suite of distinctively human traits. But it does so the way grammatical rules structure sentences and paragraphs.

It is good to learn both the grammatical rules for writing and the evolutionary constraints on life. Grammar, however, does not determine the meaning or content of what is written. An article is more than its grammatical structure, just as life and morality are more than the results of a Darwinian formula for generating biological forms. Just as one would not consult only a grammarian to interpret the meaning of a text, so one would not consult only the evolutionary biologist to discover the meaning of life or whether (and when) one should submit to moral imperatives. The claim that evolution is contrary to theology, therefore, seems as nonsensical as the claim that the grammar underlying this article (or any article) is opposed to its content.

No doubt theology and evolutionary naturalism are incompatible belief systems, but biology and theology lie on distinct planes of inquiry and are logically incomparable. At one level of life, science explores the “grammatical” constraints of evolutionary process. At another level evolutionary theologians explore a still unfinished drama embedded in the grammar of life. Evolutionary naturalists notice the drama too, but summarily declare it pointless. Evolutionary theologians, however, have every right to comment on the story themselves, without having to repudiate the evolutionary rules. Theologically,the drama of life carries a momentous meaning that falls out of the range of what scientific method is wired to receive. Since the adventure of life is ongoing, humanity may have to wait—perhaps in joyful expectation—to see how it turns out in the end. Meanwhile, one can follow the drama without grumbling at the grammar.

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6 years 5 months ago
As St. Paul might say, "Because you are wise, put up with me," professors, theologians, atheists, scientists, et al, as I borrow from Georgetown University Professor John E. Haught's thought to say, don't grumble at the grammar, just follow the drama. In this case "grammar" means the "what ifs" (hopefully a little more than that) I venture to propose!

So then, "Can evolution explain morality?" Respectfully, is the Pope Catholic? The answer to the first question is as obvious to me as is the answer to the second question. So, what if humanity's sense of right and wrong, of morality, is naturally rooted, induced by a kind of "Faith Instinct" using the insightful title of Nicholas Wades book which I have not read.

Creator God is I propose, an Evolutionary Being, Father, Son, Spirit, proceeding (evolving) one from the other in everlasting creative processional love without beginning, without end. Consistent as always, at a predetermined moment and in predetermined ways, Creator God set in place evolutionary processes and outcomes saying momentously, "Let there be Light!" He spoke that single word with many meanings. I think one meaning goes like this - "Let materiality reveal in time an aspect of truth, by throwing LIGHT on how I did it - 0n how I created human receptivity to morality." From the beginning God was unchangeably satisfied with all that was, or was yet to be and in that satisfaction called it "Good!"

Thus it seems to me, by calling creation "good" Creator God saturated evolutionary activity with the instinct towards right and wrong, as only from goodness can the reality of right and wrong , morality, emanate. If nothing is good, neither is anything right, or wrong, nothing is moral. Because creation is good, all of it, especially as it pertains to humanity, it comes packaged in a sense of right and wrong which we inherit. The sense of right and wrong is in our genes, "written in our hearts on tablets of flesh" loosely quotng St. Paul, a revelation that gives a certain buoyancy to Faith!

As a result all creation smells of God! Once that scent is picked up myopia at every level disappears and one begins to see things in an entirely new way - invisible realities take shape! The fragrance of God thus perceived is not only illuminating but also healing! It explains a lot - everything really!
Marie Rehbein
6 years 5 months ago

It is a belief (not scientific fact) that some degree of self-sacrificial behavior in individuals works to the benefit of the survival of the species.  This belief was foundational to the economic policy of the United States due to Alan Greenspan's devotion to the ramblings of Ayn Rand, who was a philospher, not a scientist. 

The idea that self-interest is at some high level in sync with the common good, whether survival of the species or thriving of the economy, might be a logical conclusion, but in reality the individual is considerably more short-sighted, even when making moral choices.  After all, what evidence is there that any specific altruistic act left undone would threaten species survival?
Andrew Russell
6 years 5 months ago
The final two paragraphs give a good summary, not only of the article, but the complimentary nature of science and theology.  The arguments of evolutionary biologists against religion remind me of arguments against evolution by religious fundamentalists.  Both groups of people have one tool and apply it to all knowledge.  It is my hope that humanity might use many tools to examine our universe. 
ed gleason
6 years 5 months ago
If 'giving up a seat to an old lady' is used to demonstrate gene survival I would like to propose my long un-scientific observation that sociopaths, with none of the 'better instincts', should have the best of gene survival in that they would have an advantage in both long survival and reproduction. Happily, while they are many for many centuries,  they don't seem to have the masses yet.   
6 years 5 months ago
From whence comes morality? Science and religion are two modes of inquiry one giving certainty, the other clarity and I think that they require one another. Where D'Souza errs in equating God with Christianity, Bloom and associates err in ignoring anything that cannot be replicated in a double-blind research effort.

Plato presents morality at length long before Christianity (though well after God) and while I am happy that science can see morality I am a bit disappointed that they never ask why.
David Smith
6 years 5 months ago
"while I am happy that science can see morality I am a bit disappointed that they never ask why"

How can they?  Isn't "How?" the proper scientific question?  "Why?" implies purpose, and science is only about cause and effect, no?  A scientist is satisfied if he can prove that there's a genetic basis for moral behavior.  To expect him to ask why that's so is to expect him to be something other than a scientist.


It looks as though Haught and D'Souza may be getting at more or less the same thing when they speak of more elaborate moralities.
David Smith
6 years 5 months ago
Marie writes:

"The idea that self-interest is at some high level in sync with the common good, whether survival of the species or thriving of the economy, might be a logical conclusion, but in reality the individual is considerably more short-sighted, even when making moral choices.  After all, what evidence is there that any specific altruistic act left undone would threaten species survival?"

But doesn't any argument about self-interest - in this context - depend for its validity not upon proximite, individual behavior but upon aggregate communal behavior?  The idea being, I suppose, that individuals, even in large groups, can make horribly bad decisions, but that the larger community will eventually correct the mistake.  I suppose that's based on the observation of statistics and on historical experience.
Marie Rehbein
6 years 5 months ago

David, you may have the idea right, but Greenspan didn't.  He, apparently, failed to recognize the government's role as part of the group.  In any case, though, my point is that there are a number of logical conclusions that don't prove true in practice.  In my example, some people reasoned that what is good for group is good for the individual and vice versa, they based this on their understanding of evolutionary theory and natural selection, and they drew more conclusions from that mistaken premise.  They turned a scientific theory into a philosophy and didn't even question whether this was a legitimate thing to do.  I think the result shows that this is not legitimate and this example in particular shows that even very smart and articulate people can be wrong.

The argument that an inborn predisposition toward moral behavior can be taken for granted as a genetic trait that has been naturally selected through the evolutionary process seems to be another case of evolutionary philosophy masquerading as evolutionary science.  The philosophy assumes that if a trait exists then it is genetic and has been naturally selected.  This is not a reasonable starting point from a scientific basis because no gene or group of genes has been identified as containing the "morality" trait.  Furthermore, it is a leap to say that self-sacrifice is the result of either moral reasoning or the inborn sense of right and wrong.  In fact, the whole definition of self-sacrifice is rather nebulous in that sometimes what appears to be sacrifice is so rewarding to the individual that this behavior could be viewed as being self-interested.

David Smith
6 years 5 months ago
"In fact, the whole definition of self-sacrifice is rather nebulous in that sometimes what appears to be sacrifice is so rewarding to the individual that this behavior could be viewed as being self-interested."

Mm, yes, one can look at *every* action in that light, no?  Theoretically, we never do *anything* that we don't think is in our self-interest.  Depressing way to look at life, but, in a way, realistic.  The question is whether humanity is more than that - more than the sum of its mechanical parts.
Marie Rehbein
6 years 5 months ago

I would say that what we do, we do keeping our self-interest in mind.  Doing otherwise would be self-destructive, not self-sacrificing. 

A large amount of what we do is neutral with regard to self-interest, however.  Some of us, though, seem to come equipped with a sense that if someone else is benefitting, then we must be losing no matter what.  Not everyone is like this, though.  Some of us actually cheer on the good fortune of others and believe that if those around us are doing well, then we are doing better than we would otherwise. 

Therefore, I would say that moral thinking is much more complex than determining what is right, what is wrong, what is good for me, but bad for others vs what is bad for me, but good for others, etc.  I would say a good deal of moral reasoning is affected by feelings - feelings of affection or animosity or indifference.  Feelings are sufficiently unpredictable that it cannot be claimed that specific feelings in specific situations have a biological cause that has developed in us due to evolution.

This sentence from the article struck me: "Infants come equipped naturally with rudimentary moral tendencies only because this endowment has been adaptive—conducive to gene survival—in the past."  It was this sentence that moved me to point out that people should be questioning whether everything that exists does so because it has been adaptive.  I think every single time someone chooses to apply principles of biological evolution to sociological questions, every presumption should be questioned.

David Smith
6 years 5 months ago
"I would say a good deal of moral reasoning is affected by feelings - feelings of affection or animosity or indifference.  Feelings are sufficiently unpredictable that it cannot be claimed that specific feelings in specific situations have a biological cause that has developed in us due to evolution."

Yes, but there is really no difference between emotional activity and intellectual activity, is there?  They interact continually, and to complicate the situation further, both are affected by chemical and other environmental influences and by God knows what other factors we may not even know about. 

Life is a mystery for us and it will always be a mystery.  All science can do is poke about a bit at the edges.  Humanity is living through a time when its hubris is particularly high, when we're intoxicated with our cleverness, but we forget that all that we know must be filtered through that little box of gray matter between our ears.  We can never know more than we can know. 

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