Essential Reading: Moral Darwinism - Evolution News & Views

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Essential Reading: Moral Darwinism

Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists
By Benjamin Wiker
InterVarsity Press, 2002, 327 pages
ISBN 0-8308-2666-1

[The following is adapted from the Foreword by William A. Dembski.]
According to John Maynard Keynes, great intellectual and cultural movements frequently trace back to thinkers who worked in obscurity and are now long forgotten. But some thinkers are both famous and influential. This book focuses on two such thinkers, one largely forgotten, the other a household name. The largely forgotten thinker is Epicurus. The household name is Charles Darwin. The two are related: Epicurus set in motion an intellectual movement that Charles Darwin brought to completion.

Believers in God often scratch their heads about Western culture's continual moral decline. What was unacceptable just a few years ago is today's alternative lifestyle and tomorrow's preferred lifestyle. Abortion, euthanasia, divorce, sexual preferences and drug abuse are just a few of the moral issues that have undergone massive changes in public perception. Too often believers in God take a reactive approach to the culture war and throw their energy into combating what they perceive as the most compelling evil of the moment. In the back of their minds, however, is an awareness that something deeper and more fundamental is amiss and that the evils they are combating are but symptoms of a more underlying and pervasive evil.

Benjamin Wiker has done a brilliant job of tracing the roots of that evil in this book. Insofar as traditional theists sense an underlying cause for the moral decline of Western culture, all roads lead to Epicurus and the train of thought he set in motion. For Epicurus, pleasure consisted in freedom from disturbance. For Epicurus, to allow that God might intervene in the natural world and to take seriously the possibility of an afterlife, (with the moral accountability and judgment it implies) were incompatible with the good life.

To short circuit belief in such a God, Epicurus proposed a mechanistic understanding of nature. Accordingly, Epicurus conceived of nature as an aggregate of material entities operating by blind, unbroken, natural laws. God or the gods might exist, but they took no interest in the world, played no role in human affairs and indeed could play no role in human affairs, since a material world operating according to mechanistic principles leaves no place for meaningful divine action. Moreover, since humans belonged to nature and consisted entirely of material entities, death amounted to a dissolution of a material state and thus precluded any sort of ongoing conscious existence.

Epicurus' most prominent disciple is without question Charles Darwin. Darwinism is not only the most recent incarnation of Epicurean philosophy but also the most potent formulation of that philosophy to date. Darwinism's significance consists in the purported scientific justification it brings to the Epicurean philosophy. But the science itself is weak and ad hoc. As Wiker shows, Darwinism is essentially a moral and metaphysical crusade that fuels our contemporary moral debates. Further, Wiker argues that the motivation behind Darwinism today is its alternative moral and metaphysical vision rather than the promotion of science.

Is reality at its base purposive and intelligent or mindless and material? Wiker brilliantly traces this divide to its metaphysical foundations. In so doing, he shows how the challenge of intelligent design to evolutionary naturalism is not the latest flash in the pan of the culture war but in fact constitutes ground zero of the culture war. If you really want to understand why our culture is in its current state, you must read this book.

Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists
By Benjamin Wiker
InterVarsity Press, 2002, 327 pages
ISBN 0-8308-2666-1


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