The morality of evolution.


(this is my parody of a CreationWise cartoon- this page has more of them)

I’ve been talking about the evolution of morality and what it implies for our ethical views. But the reverse topic, the morality of evolution, is also worth discussing. Christians in particular make pretty outrageous claims about why evolution should not be taught in schools. Not only are they wrong, but evolution actually should be praised for its virtuous nature as well as its truth and elegance as a theory.

Atheists and scientists always insist that evolution is morally and religiously neutral. Interestingly, that’s not at all what Darwin thought. Darwin’s life was surrounded by anti-slavery activism (his entire family was militant against slavery) and the inhumane effects of slavery around the world. His discovery of the theory of evolution was strongly motivated by a desire to fight against pro-slavery rhetoric, which was based on a ladder of races (with whites at the top, and blacks at the bottom), and he explicitly intended evolution to be a blow against such rhetoric (for more background, see Darwin’s Sacred Cause).

Unlike scientists today, it’s safe to assume that Darwin did not believe in the nonsense of being “value-neutral.” He knew that the truth and fighting for good went hand-in-hand. To claim that evolution has no moral consequences is to ignore the facts.

Many people deny those consequences because they believe that they lead straight to Social Darwinism. As a matter of fact, what we call “Social Darwinism” actually existed far before Darwin (and, as NoRemorseGER pointed out in the comments, Herbert Spencer, the leading figure of “Social Darwinism,” was actually Lamarckian). Darwin was fighting against an ideology (which at the time was called pluralism, because it claimed separate origins for each human race) which posited a ladder of species and human races. The “Social Darwinists” co-opted the language of evolution and added factors like mental diseases and poverty to species and race as measures of superiority or inferiority. This is the ideology that subtends the ideology of “scientific racism” today.

Darwin understood that compassion for other human beings comes through acceptance of common ancestry, through the belief that we are all related, one big metaphorical animal family. And it was well understood that belief in pluralism meant acceptance of slavery and prejudice. Current Christian dogma, based on God making Ham’s descendants black, falls straight into the pluralist category (then again, most Christians simply ignore the issue). In fact, a case could be made that Christians are so aggressive against evolution because evolution contradicts the dehumanizing teachings of the Bible, including its pro-slavery teachings.

Yet Christians argue that teaching evolution in schools leads to moral degeneracy, despair, and criminality, because evolution teaches children that life has no purpose and that there is no absolute morality. While both of these statements are true, they are also meant to be misleading. We don’t need absolute morality to be moral, and we don’t need life to have a purpose for us to be purposeful.

More importantly, without evolution there is no morality, period. Even amoebas cooperate, plants cooperate, and so do animal species all around the globe. Their morality may not be as complex or inclusive as ours, but that doesn’t make it any less of a morality. Without evolution, there is no sociability and no moral instincts.

Christians believe that evolution devalues humanity and drags humanity through the mud, but it’s rather ironic that Christians are the least likely to be humanist and to promote human values. Christians don’t actually value humanity, but they like to pretend they do. But besides that, it seems to me that there’s an equally valid perspective: not that humanity is devalued, but rather that other species are raised to their appropriate level.

I mean, it’s not like people have a high opinion of other species to begin with. We hunt them, we jail them in zoos, and we bulldoze their habitats. Let’s face it, we don’t have much appreciation for other forms of life, and on the whole it seems we’d rather kill them all. So it would be pretty good if people took evolution seriously and realized that all forms of life deserve to live on this planet as much as we do.

But most importantly, evolution serves as a counterpoint to the racism of religious pluralism, of “scientific racism,” and of paternalism. Despite the claims of some fanatics, who say that the Nazis were inspired by evolution (when actually they were inspired by Social Darwinism, which has nothing to do with evolution proper), no murder or genocide has ever been staged on the basis of evolution. In evolution, there is no such thing as an inferior or superior individual, race or species. The oft-quoted “survival of the fittest” refers to the fact that organisms that are most adapted to their environment (including other animals around them) tend to survive and reproduce more, but this standard of fitness is entirely dependent on context and cannot be used in any absolute sense, like advocates of Social Darwinism do.

Besides, it should be obvious to any egalitarian that, even if it could be proven that some people are inferior in some respect to others, such a proof would not disprove the premises of egalitarianism. Even if it was true that black children were less intelligent simply by virtue of being black (as per standard racist rhetoric), it would still be the case that they should receive the same level of education as everyone else. Our commitment to a fair society is driven by ethics and the facts about living in society, not capacities.

One can reject creationism and yet be repulsed by the concept of evolution. After all, blank slate theory is attractive to both sides of the spectrum, especially to dictators: if morality is not innate, then it can be molded to one’s liking through the indoctrination of children. Of course, we know that in reality this does not work, but that’s never stopped anyone.

Atheists need to stop letting their fantasy belief in “value-neutral science” and their fear of the shadow of Social Darwinism prevent any discussion on moral consequences of evolution.

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4 thoughts on “The morality of evolution.

  1. Grey Robe November 22 2012 at 1:28 Reply

    You have probably banned another of my email IDs, perhaps also my name, but I wish to say something about this post.

    I have studied about evolution, I believe in it, and it greatly reinforces my antinatalist beliefs. Not antinatalistic beliefs alone, but life-hatred.

    As I see it, “survival of the fittest” is what evolution tells us: and it’s LITERALLY that. It tells us that “might is right” is [u]how the world works[/u]. That is why lions eat cubs sired by other lions and all that. BUT I see the suffering in the world — and the unfairness that happens precisely because the world and our society make the mightiest win, stalling — at times cruelly — the less mighty.

    So no, evolution isn’t “fair”, and might may win but isn’t always right. We should lash out against evolution (the PHENOMENON and not the KNOWLEDGE of it), against the nature and against the world.

    And to do that, we should see the other side of it, which ALSO is taught by evolution (the theory) — excessive reproduction, and stop that. It is all very simple. With no life, there will be no competition, let alone cruelty.

    It is important to differentiate the normative and the positive. Evolution has happened and is happening — but it should not happen. Millions of “young ones” are born every day, and will fight — sometimes with bloodshed — for scarce resources … but the bloodshed shouldn’t happen, the fighting should not happen, and so nor should this breeding.

    • Francois Tremblay November 22 2012 at 1:33 Reply

      I don’t see you anywhere on my shit list, and honestly I don’t remember you. But your comment was excellent. Thank you.

  2. NoRemorseGER November 22 2012 at 6:08 Reply

    very nice article as always Francois.
    Yes actually Social Darwinism pre-data the On the Origin of Species and it can be traced back in a context where the Lamarck’s Theory of Inheritance was dominant. Spencer and most prominent “social darwinism” were Lamarkians not for a coincidence

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