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June 23, 2005

Religion, evolution, and morality

Mark Kleiman argues that members of the reality-based community (believers and atheists alike) should be a little more indulgent towards our opposite numbers in the culture war who insist on the literal truth of creationism:

The red team is, I am convinced, wrong to think that believing the account of human origins in Genesis is a necessary condition for behaving well. But red-teamers aren't wrong to think of that account as providing a potentially powerful prop to moral behavior, and can't, therefore, justly be faulted as unreasonable or superstitious for objecting to attempts to kick that prop out from under their children, and other children who are their future fellow-citizens.

The blue team shouldn't back off on its insistence that children be taught accurate biology in biology class, but we should acknowledge that the larger argument isn't really about biology, and cut the folks on the other side some slack rather than dismissing them as ignorant rustics.

I have to side with PZ Myers on this one.

Mark is correct to point out that many people fear Darwinism and the naturalistic worldview because they assume that morality must be a sham unless there's some religious underpinning to it. Or else, because they worry that everyone else will give up on morality if naturalism becomes widely accepted, regardless of whether naturalism actually justifies moral skepticism.

But it's not respectful to play along with those delusions because we think that the red team thinks that the world could only be any good if the Genesis account of creation is true (and/or if it is widely believed to be true).

Real respect requires us to call each other out on wishful thinking and bad reasoning. The members of the red team who cling to the literal story of Genesis are embracing a terrible theory for indefensible reasons.

First, as most modern people of faith affirm, there's no empirical evidence to support any Genesis-based account of the origins of life or the descent of humans. If man really is created in God's image, surely our rational faculties are among our most Godlike attributes. Surely it's a form of self-abuse, and therefore a form of God-abuse to subordinate our intellect to dogma. Mark's a proud member of the skeptical tradition, so I think he might be sympathetic to this line of argument.

As an atheist, I can't say what reality-based believers should tell "red team" creationists, but if it were my God, I wouldn't be very sympathetic to intellectual blasphemy through willful ignorance. (Deists are just too polite, IMO.)

Even if the red team thinks it would be morally better to perpetuate the creation myth at the expense of evolution, they don't deserve much slack for their good intentions. They're just wrong to think that the truth of the story of Genesis must figure in our moral reasoning one way or the other. If all humans were created in God's image, that might be a reason not to torture them. On the other hand, if we also take the rest of Genesis seriously, we have to accept that women were created as accessories for men, that moral knowledge separated us from God and Eden, that humans know that our bodies are shameful despite having been created in God's image, and that God Himself so despised the creatures he created in his image that he killed them all off, except for Noah and his family, that the God of Genesis is a pretty harsh racist, and so on.

Simple Darwinism* tells me that every single human is literally family to me. Darwinism tells me that racism is crazy. Pace Genesis, Darwinism also reminds me that I'm not so different from a lot of other animals who are capable of feelings and therefore shouldn't be tortured, regardless of what any deities have to say about our respective statuses. I'm not saying that Darwinism is the only road to those conclusions, just that these Darwinian-inspired tenets are at least as good prima facie reasons for tolerance as anything in Genesis.

Note that I'm only criticizing the red teammates who have had ample opportunity to compare the scientific and Biblical accounts of creation. There is a lot of non-culpable ignorance out there. Some people simply haven't been taught the biological facts. They are ignorant in the purely descriptive sense and they have been kept in that deplorable state by a few despicable members of the red team who would prefer to deceive themselves and/or lie to their own children and everyone else about the biological facts.

I don't think the blue team should be ridiculing or belittling anyone. On the other hand, I don't consider it respectful to coddle people just because they might be well-intentioned.

Update: *Just a clarificaiton. For rhetorical purposes, I'm borrowing Mark's phrase "middle-school Darwinism," as it appears in his original post:

Insofar as middle-school Darwinism asserts that each of us is merely an animal of a particular species, fundamentally like animals of other species, it undercuts both halves of that double-barreled moral proposition. If I'm merely an animal, why shouldn't I act like one if I feel like it? And, if you're merely an animal, why shouldn't I beat you up, if I'm so inclined and bigger than you are?

As several commenters have rightly pointed out, "Darwinism" is vague and possibly anachronistic in its connotations. Moreover, strictly speaking, no naturalistic theory logically implies any moral conclusions. Well, a least not without a huge and contentious fight that I'm more than happy to beg off of the time being... Sorry, moral realists, I'm just not going there today.

All I'm trying to show is that the broad metaphorical implications of naturalism are at least as favorable to humanistic values as any reading of Genesis. I don't see where the red team gets off arguing that their Creation myth is inherently more ennobling than our scientific account of the origins of life. At any rate, Mike the Mad Biologist puts these points much better than I did.

Also, Eli has a good post on the rather flimsy theological implications of the claim that something is created in Jahweh's image.

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The "larger argument", Kleiman suggests, is instead about morality, and whether evolution undermines it. I'm not sure why he thinks that this makes creationists any less ignorant. Well-meaning, perhaps, but rational and well-informed? I think not. [Read More]

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Comments

I posted a little nugget on this earlier...Kleiman's also just wrong in his assertion of what being created in God's image implies.

"Simple Darwinism tells me that every single human is literally family to me."

You don't define "Darwinism". I'm not aware of it as a scientific theory. Did you mean natural selection? "Darwinism" is more likely a political theory than a scientific one.


" Darwinism tells me that racism is crazy"

Again, did you mean natural selection when you said "Darwinism". Natural selection does not teach that racism is crazy. You're forcing your own moralality onto a theory that has little to say about primate morality, save for how it developed. If that interests you, read Frans de Waal.

I'm stealing the publishers text from the page on Amazon devoted to Frans de Waal's book "Good Natured":

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0674356616/qid=1119571296/sr=8-2/ref=pd_bbs_ur_2/002-5523543-8948807?v=glance&s=books&n=507846

"Is morality a biological or cultural phenomenon? Can nonhuman animals be humane? Primatologist de Waal (Chimpanzee Politics) explores these questions in a provocative book and makes a strong case for biology. He is convinced that social tendencies come into existence via a genetic calculus rather than rational choice. He defends anthropomorphism, noting that it serves the same exploratory function as intuition in the sciences. He discusses aggression and altruism and offers abundant anecdotal evidence of moral behavior among primates and other animals?food sharing, protection, sympathy, guilt. De Waal argues that the remarkable trainability among certain species, e.g., sheepdogs and elephants, hints at a rule-based order among them. He takes issue with the animal rights movement; rights, he says, are normally accompanied by responsibilities, which cannot possibly apply to apes and other animals. Readers who enjoyed Why Elephants Weep (Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy) will welcome this volume. Illustrations."



De Waal's focus on this book is tracing what evolutionary forces lead to mechanisms of conflict resolution. Mind you, we could, if we wished, do research in the opposite direction, why does tribalism, or racism, exist?

You can, if you wish, conclude that racism is morally wrong, but "Darwinism" doesn't teach that. It doesn't teach at all, it only offers a possible method of explanation.

Lindsay --

Did you listen to the excerpt of Julia Sweeney's performance, Letting Go of God that aired on NPR? In it, upon reading the Bible for the first time in decades, she observes that people who think every word in the Bible is literal truth can't even have read the first two chapters (or something), in which two completely contradictory Adam/Eve stories are offered.

"Natural selection does not teach that racism is crazy. You're forcing your own moralality onto a theory that has little to say about primate morality."

"...tells me..." = "suggests to me." It's a device, as, by the way, is your construction "natural selection teaches..." or "a theory that has little to say." It doesn't teach anything or say anything. Not really.

Good post, Lindsay. But did you have to use the hideous neologism "people of faith"?

What's wrong with "religious people"?

""...tells me..." = "suggests to me." It's a device, as, by the way, is your construction "natural selection teaches..." or "a theory that has little to say.""

Try this:

"Darwinism tells me that God doesn't really exist."

It doesn't. One either has faith in something that one can not see, hear, touch, smell, or taste, or one doesn't. Darwinism can't prove faith is wrong. Lindsay's construction of that sentence is wrong.

Italics off.

I'm perfectly happy with "Darwinism suggests to me." I'm talking about the Darwinian account of evolution by natural selection as a broad narrative, not as a literal interpretation the writings of Charles Darwin (nor as the the last word in evolutionary biology to date, for that matter). All I'm saying is that it's crazy to claim that Darwinism is less conducive to humanistic moral interpretation than the Book of Genesis. Either can be taken as a source of ennobling metaphors by people of good will, no question. In response to MK, I'm pointing out that the metaphors of Genesis don't deserve special status vs. the certain very natural metaphors arising from "middle school" Darwinism.

No, Darwinism doesn't literally teach anything. But nor does the Bible for that matter! Think about all the schools of ethics that claim to be derived from the interpretation of a single text. At least large swathes of evolutionary theory have the advantage of being true!

The theory of natural selection literally implies that all humans are a family, in contrast to Genesis which seems to say that certain races were created separately or designated separately from a common human predecessor.

The best science of our day, which is all in the Darwinian tradition, tells us that so-called "racial" differences between humans are a) of incredibly recent origin, b) scientifically specious. The best physiology of or day, again in the unabashedly Darwinian tradition, confirms this.

Quisp, I haven't seen the Sweeny piece, but I'll certainly check it out.

She is great. God Said Ha! was really great, although I never saw the movie that came of it. I only saw it on stage here in LA. Her follow-up is running right now. When I get a life, I'll be going.

Darwinism is an incomplete subset, seminal as it is, within the overarching theory of evolution. We've learned a lot more about evolution since Darwin was published a century ago.

That said, I think that believing in, and worshiping, a deity or deities is silly. Just plain silly. Don't I have as much a right to express and live my beliefs as a deity worshiper does? As anyone else does? How can I respect it when I don't respect it? I accept it. I have to accept it. I even have to tolerate it. I have family and loved ones who are believe in the supernatural. But I don't have to respect it. That's like mind controll.

"they don't deserve much slack for their good intentions" -- No, because THEY DON'T HAVE good intentions. People say Oh, they have their heart in the right place... no, they don't. I'll believe whatever my pastor tells me and damn the consequences for all other sentient beings is not the right place. I don't have a problem with people "believing" whatever they want to "believe." What would be the harm, if it was about belief? It's about behavior. Good intentions, even if they are present, are irrelevant. I don't care what you're thinking, I care whether you're pouring molten brass down my throat. Religious organizations encourage their members to abandon all reasonable standards of ethics. At that point there is no such thing as good intentions. You know what? It's not right to hurt other people for any reason. It's not right to hurt other people for any reason. I say again, it's not right to hurt ANYONE for ANY reason, and this is exactly what religion will always excuse until people don't feel like being excused for perpertrating atrocities any more. Good intentions! -- can a protection racket have good intentions? "Mighty nice soul you got there. Sure would be a shame if anything happened to it..."

Kleiman is full of crap. If it were just about respecting someone elses belief... I don't have a problem with that. People are free to believe what ever they want.

But everyone knows that isn't what it is about... they want their kids to be taught creationism in science classes no matter what Kleiman says.

If they want to have comparative religion classes and teach creationism and the Hindu Vedic mythology, the Hopi Indian creation tales... great! No problem... but not in science class.

You want to ask why be moral? Great have an ethics and philosophy class added to the curriculum. You should also add atheistic traditions to the mix as well.

I think the foundation of tolerance which is necessary in a pluralistic society begins with understanding others point of view and I can support that. But that isn't what the "red staters" have been pushing for is it?

Have you read any of the Anarchist Biologists?

Their emphasis on symbiosis as the primary survival and evolutionary mechanism that works in concert with competition and natural selection, that probably occurs in a punctuated equilibrium-like framework...seems to be the best we have come up with so far.

My take?

The number one, super-duper, extra-cool adaptation that genus homo has developed is language. Language is the ultimate form of cooperation (we all have to agree on the meaning of sounds and their connection to objects or ideas).

Cooperation is required, an absolute fundamental requirement, for hairless, clawless, slow-moving, short-sighted, hard-of-hearing, can't climb fast or run fast or whatever...apes.

No cooperation = no community. No community = extinction as far as we hairless apes are concerned.

Morality, tolerance, social norms, and the various expressions of that morality are a reflection of the evolved and required need for stable communities of a certain minimum size to share enough labor and specialize enough tasks and have enough bodies to get the work done needed to avoid individual and group death.

My fav...

The number one, super-duper, extra-cool adaptation that genus homo has developed was beer! A guy did his PHd thesis on the subject claiming that civilization was built on it.

It changed man from a hunter gather to the beginnings of organized agarian society in order to cultivate the crop of hops and grains necessary to produce it in regular quatities.

Language came later, between burps, when they had the desire ot put something on the label!

"The members of the red team who cling to the literal story of Genesis are embracing a terrible theory for indefensible reasons."

A fundamental problem is that this statement alone can easily be construed as "ridiculing or belittling" and yet it is entirely defensible. I'm doubtful than any real dialog can exist, they'll be a limit in tolerance for a few of the "red team" when convenience and economy turn more violently against them, however the core will then become more steadfast. cutting slack isn't acceptable.

"Respect" to me means treating a person appropriately for the role he/she is occupying. You can, for example, give GW the deference due the President of the United States while violently detesting the man. A few years ago, a creationist would be in the role of "he who believes differently from me" and the concomitant respect would be to allow said creationist the space to enjoy his beliefs unmolested. Today, some of us view the intellectual climate as a return of the Dark Ages, with superstition supplanting science and an encroaching faith-based oppression. It now seems possible that creationism could become part of the science curriculum and this is unacceptable. The creationist is now in the role of intellectual enemy. Enemies are to be feared and defeated. Ridicule might be appropriate and therefore an element of respect for the role of intellectual enemy.

this is fool's bait and we all know it... one could just as easily argue that the earth really WAS designed by deep thought and is run by meeces or that it really is turtles all the way down as you can argue that jesus died on a cross and decided to show up again a couple of days later just for kicks.

i'm technically a hindu and while the fundamental concepts and associated vegetarianism seem quite alright to me, i realize that most of the stories about the various Gods and their internecine battles and competitions and what not are just supplements to and/or illustrations of the basic moral and ethical guidelines.

i would like to be reincarnated based on my actions in my previous life, but i'm not going to bet the farm that it's gonna happen. same goes for going to heaven, hell or any sort of afterlife.

it's really a pity and (to me)a sign of the times that so many people have become despondent enough to put all of their faith back into literary interpretations of religious texts.

Good post, I enjoyed that one.

Reincarnation is magical thinking, and Hindus believe in multiple deities. It's all bull. I weep for mankind's need to believe in this crap, but I also believe it's hardwired into the brain.

Example; Runners High. There are schools of thought that say that runners high is nature's way of makeing the experiance of being over-run and eaten by a tiger less horifying. Adults aren't meant to run, except away from something. Once our knees and joints start (mechanicaly) breaking down, then according to nature, we're just tiger-meat. Runner's high is evolution's way of making the experience more tolerable. But in the long run (so to speak) running will break down the knees, and up our cortisol (stress hormone) levels.

Of course today, we live modern lives with caveman bodies. Our stresses kill us more slowly. That's the key to today's longevity. We're no longer tiger-meat. Now we're cancer-meat. Evolution cuts both ways.

Now mudkitty... don't be so glass half empty! Humans needed to run after somethings as well as run from them. Like chasing game or the joy that men find in running after women. Of course there is also women running away from men and men running away from women too... so I guess it goes boht ways.

Since you agree with me, I have to agree...but please, avoid the term "Darwinist". I know it's common in philosophers, but it makes biologists cringe. "Darwinian" means something very specific and narrow within the broad spectrum of evolutionary mechanisms.


As for this--"The number one, super-duper, extra-cool adaptation that genus homo has developed was beer! "--sorry, guy. I just wrote about alcohol evolution. Yeast did it for entirely selfish reasons, and if anything, they've domesticated us as a means of propagating even more yeast.

I see you clarified the term later...I should have used that as another thing to chew Kleiman out about.

A brief point:

It's unfortunate that Kleiman is either unaware of or does not acknowledge the considerable dialogue with respect to the proper roles of reason and faith that you allude to here:

If man really is created in God's image, surely our rational faculties are among our most Godlike attributes. Surely it's a form of self-abuse, and therefore a form of God-abuse to subordinate our intellect to dogma.

This is not at all far from what Augustine wrote and was further developed by Galileo in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Cristina. I think it's safe to say neither were rabid atheists.

It's hard to see what Kleiman is asking for. Treat creationists with due respect? The mainstream media already does this, as do all but a tiny minority of politicians. Some bloggers still get Enlightenment on the creationists' asses, but they're no worse than the creationist bloggers, with their condescension and demonization.

Creationists, on the other hand, feel quite free to fling disrespect at us. If it's not Robertson and Falwell telling me I'm responsible for 9/11, it's my neighbor's car ornament reminding me how the TRUTH will soon swallow my silly theory.

Like Kristof before him, Kleiman fails to realize that "due respect" will not satisfy the creationists. No matter how you say it, advocating the position that only mainstream science should be taught in the classroom is the equivalent of joining a homosexual, communist, satanic cabal of condescending elitists bent on destroying the very fabric of American society. Be as polite as you like, but if you point to a single flaw in a creationist argument, they will think that you're persecuting Christians and looking down your nose at the "yokels" who are, after all, the only "real" Americans.

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