Evolution and Morality

Dear Jane,

Thank you for signing the guestbook and your comments on the difference between secular humanism and postmodernism. Can you explain more the statement:

"The universalist morality is based on the findings of evolutionary science--the human being is not infinitely malleable; some actions tend toward his good and some do not."

Do you mean that morality is one more thing that evolution has thrown up?

Fr. Phil Bloom


No--I mean that postmodernism and moral relativism are based on a fallacy that is essentially anti-science: the human beings can take any course of action at all and all such courses are equally likely to lead to his well-being.

If you try to apply this to the physical life of the human being, the illogic is obvious immediately: you CAN'T choose to eat cyanide and expect it to have the same effect on your body as if you had chosen to eat broccoli.

Evolution says that our brains, being part of our bodies, also have operating principles. Natural selection has "selected out" for base traits of various kinds, and if you try to create a society--or an individual moral code--in a way that ignores or violates these base traits, you will create a mess and a failure and a lot of suffering for yourself and everybody else.

Natural selection favors those traits that lead to a successful replication of genes--what gets passed on is what stays. And contrary to the ravings of 19th Century social Darwinists, such genetic success depends at least as much--if not more--on strategies of co-operation as it does on strategies of competition. That's because we don't each have our own little set of isolated genes. We share genes with our siblings, our parents, our extended family, etc.

Hypercompetition--unlimited war, dog-eat-dog contests for status and wealth, etc--actually does more harm than good even to the individuals who win it. Co-operative strategies work better--banding together in societies, learning to work on the principle of division of labor, establishing rules that let everyone know what they can expect from their interactions with everybody else on important matters like marriage and commerce.

Co-operative strategies make more people happy. They lead to the building of stable societies in which it is possible to raise children without fearing that they're going to be kidnapped by the neighboring clan and eaten for breakfast. They lead to the rise of goods like medicine and engineering and other intellectual disciplines that lead to goods (vaccinations, indoor plumbing) that make life objectively better for all people.

But not ALL strategies will lead to these goods. We can't just decide, for instance, to build our society on astrology and expect it to result in the germ theory of disease. We can't decide that the people must live without personal property and expect to have enough food to go around at the end of the winter.

Evolution provides the hardwiring that says some things will work and some will not.

Objective morality in secular humanism is a codification of what we know about this hardwiring and what it means: a set of rules meant to secure the best possible result for the largest possible group of people, the weak as well as the strong, the stupid as well as the intelligent. The universality is required not only because we are all part of the same gene pool, but because of the fundamental truth about every human being: each and every one of us is an irreducible individual who has only this one life to live and no other.

Injustice suffered now will not be made up for in a next life--therefore, injustice should never be done now. and no effort should ever be spared to end injustice in all its forms.

This leaves, of course, a number of open questions--what is justice, exactly, for instance--but the assumption is that these questions can be answered on objective grounds.

What cannot be done is simply to pick something because you like the sound of it and expect it to work no matter what it is. It DOES matter if you steal or if you don't, and it matters no matter what your society says about it or what you've decided to think about it and it is, at least as a general policy, always wrong, because if adopted generally it will always lead to a less full life for human beings.

E.O. Wilson really does this a lot better than I do.

I'm sorry if I'm been long-winded and possibly confusing.




Philip Johnson's Case Against Naturalism