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No Fear Have Ye of Evolutionary Morality?

The implications of evolutionary theory for ideas of moral conduct make Darwinians increasingly nervous, and for good reason. Just this week we've had Michael Ruse writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the subject and now, in a similar apologetic mode, Jerry Coyne in USA Today. I wonder if one occasion for the heightened anxiety is the Norway tragedy, which John West wrote about here and Robert Spencer was kind enough to invite me to do so at Jihad Watch.

Jerry Coyne, of Why Evolution Is True and University of Chicago fame, writes under the headline, "As Atheists Know, You Can Be Good Without God." As if anyone doubted that! I have never met anyone who does. He writes to assure us that we needn't fear a future where morals are defined entirely by extra-religious considerations: "Should we be afraid that a morality based on our genes and our brains is somehow inferior to one handed down from above? Not at all. In fact, it's far better." He mentions that evolutionary morality can flex and bend as the culture changes. That's supposed to be advantage. Is it really?

A question that Coyne ought to have addressed but doesn't is whether religious faith can make individuals, not all believers but at least some, better than we ourselves might otherwise be without it, or whether embracing atheism or evolutionism could have a similar healthful effect on anyone's conduct. For all the undoubted bad behavior of some religiously identified folks, we nevertheless all know of cases where religious conversion or increased commitment effected a positive change in the way a person makes moral decisions. Can anyone think of a parallel case, a single one, where giving up faith or coming to believe in evolution performed a similar transformation? Give yourself a moment on that one. No, I didn't think you could.

Coyne argues that religious texts include many commandments and directives that appear immoral. Again, this is obvious. He gives the usual trite examples from the Bible (e.g., regulating and thereby implicitly sanctioning slavery) but I could supply many more from rabbinic literature as a Christian or a Muslim could from their written teachings. Any outsider can go through the holy texts of any faith and find disturbing material, meanwhile missing the spirit of the faith's unique culture that makes use of its texts -- much as, you might say, the genome makes use of DNA but isn't exhausted by it.

Let's stick with the biological comparison. The moral worth of a religion can't be read out simplemindedly from such written documents anymore than the physical form of a creature, never mind its spiritual qualities, can be read out or predicted from a perusal of the protein-coding information in its DNA. Moral culture is an emergent property of a faith, forming the presuppositions not only of people who adhere to the religion but even those who don't, who absorb its ethos without realizing it, from the air around them.

Coyne thinks we could get rid of religion and, to supply the basis of moral values and conduct, rely instead on instinctive, sociable evolutionary behaviors combined with "secular reason." As an example of instinctive good behavior, he cites his own split-second decision to help up a FedEx delivery guy who had lost his footing and spilled his packages on an icy street. But that isn't the kind of painful and hard moral choice that we're called on to make, that we dread, and in which we often stumble, the kind of choice that requires self-abnegation in looking to greater goods.

In helping the FedEx man, Jerry Coyne acted automatically, whether you attribute the automatic nature of his good deed to his genes or, more likely, to the spirit in which he was raised by his parents who got it from their parents, back through a line of generations that is not, we can assume, composed entirely of atheists. (I believe Coyne is Jewish by birth.) In either case, the die had been cast in favor of his doing that small kindness before he had time to ponder what to do.

In our common experience, the decision points where we most often make bad decisions and regret it keenly afterward are different. They are ones where we failed to listen to our conscience. The conscience has the power to command at all only because we perceive it as representing something much greater than ourselves. That's the way commanding always works. We may follow the dictate of a superior, in employment or other contexts, even when his will goes against our reasoning or feelings, but not, in a similar situation, the dictate of a peer or a subordinate. Nothing in "secular reason" much less in evolutionary logic can claim to represent superior authority to our own.

That flexibility that Coyne hails as the beauty of an evolutionary moral outlook is what happens when we set aside the call of conscience, or the demand of a wisdom greater than our own, in favor of immediate instinct that goes against it. Because our instincts are often very bad, the ethics associated with evolutionary thinking has often served, in recent history, as a rationale for monstrous evil. And yes, that's something we rightly fear.