Wednesday, March 21, 2007


The Wellspring of Morality

"By undermining the idea of absolute standards for behaviour," and by this the young earth creationists at Answers in Genesis mean the Ten Commandments, "evolutionary thinking has already had a devastating impact on our culture."

Fundamentalist Christians, young earth, old earth, and intelligent design theorist alike, place blame for the evils of modern society, from Hitler to the Columbine shootings, on Darwin and the theory of evolution.

A look at "The Wedge Strategy," the founding document of the intelligent design movement, clearly illustrates this common view of the basis of moral behavior and the evils of Darwinism. The ID movement claims to be based on science not God. And while they strongly reject any notion that their movement is religious in nature, their "Wedge Strategy" uses almost identical language to describe what they see as the destructive consequences of evolutionary theory:

The cultural consequences of this triumph of materialism were devastating. Materialists denied the existence of objective moral standards, claiming that environment dictates our behavior and beliefs.
Of course, these arguments have never been particularly convincing. There has never been a time in history, before Darwin or since, when human beings can be shown to have followed the dictates of objective moral standards. The Bible, on which Christian fundamentalists base their belief in absolute standards of behavior, is a virtual catalogue of the very human failure to live up to any standard of behavior, absolute, objective, or otherwise.

In elaborating the theory of evolution, Darwin recognized that he would have to explain the origin of moral behavior in human beings. "Every one who admits the principle of evolution," wrote Darwin, in The Descent of Man, "must see that the mental powers of the higher animals, which are the same in kind with those of man, though so different in degree, are capable of advancement... "

Darwin even saw belief in God -- if not his actual existence -- as playing a role. "... the conviction of the existence of an all-seeing Deity has had a potent influence on the advance of morality," he wrote.

"Nevertheless the first foundation or origin of the moral sense," continued Darwin, "lies in the social instincts, including sympathy; and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained, as in the case of the lower animals, through natural selection."

Writing in The New York Times, Nicholas Wade reports on the current state of scientific research into primate behavior and its implications for the origins of human morality.

According to Wade, Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, "argues that all social animals have had to constrain or alter their behavior in various ways for group living to be worthwhile. These constraints, evident in monkeys and even more so in chimpanzees, are part of human inheritance, too, and in his view form the set of behaviors from which human morality has been shaped."

This fascinating research, with its many surprising examples of empathy among our primate relatives, makes a very strong case for the natural selection of moral behavior in our hominid ancestors.

The combination of this research with the unraveling of the human genome confirms that we get our genetic inheritance from common ancestors including not only other primates, but fruit flies, and even bacteria. Add to this the growing understanding of brain function and human consciousness, a range of new and important fossil discoveries, and you have powerful new evidence for evolution by means of natural selection which, once again, confirms Darwin's view of the origin of moral behavior in human beings.

The creationists -- young earth, old earth, and intelligent design alike -- now face battle on many fronts. The notion of human morality as absolute and God-given will have to give way to a new, deeper understanding of the evolutionary basis of morality.

And while we don't see human behavior as perfecting itself any time soon, this new understanding may help pave the way for more humane treatment of gays or other oppressed minorities by society as a whole.


<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?