By Richard Weikart -
In 1995, while working on my book From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (2004), I taught a seminar at my university on “Evolution, Religion, and Society.” As we discussed Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism by the philosopher James Rachels, two students insisted that because morality had evolved by Darwinian processes, morality had no objective reality. According to them, there is no objective right or wrong, good or evil. Wondering how far they would take this, I posed the question: What about Hitler? Do you really mean to say that he was not objectively evil? Without hesitating, they argued that Hitler was neither good nor evil and one of them stated unequivocally: Might makes right.
This was not the only time I have heard this refrain that because morality evolved, Hitler was not evil. A philosophy graduate student told me this at a conference on the impact of Darwinism at San Diego State University in 2009. Even though he told me he didn’t like what Hitler did, he eventually admitted, “Hitler was OK.”
The notion that evolution undermines any objective morality is widespread in academic circles. Darwin taught this in The Descent of Man, and many contemporary evolutionists agree. Last summer I attended a conference on “The Evolution of Morality and the Morality of Evolution” at Oxford University. One of the keynote speakers at the conference was Michael Ruse, one of the most prominent philosophers of science today. He famously wrote in a 1985 article co-authored with E. O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology: “Ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to co-operate.” Ruse has reaffirmed this position many times since then.
At that Oxford conference I presented a paper about the history of evolutionary ethics, showing that many evolutionists from Darwin to the present have rejected objective morality in favor of evolutionary ethics. Indeed I became interested in studying the history of evolutionary ethics when I was working on my dissertation in the early 1990s on the reception of Darwinism by German socialists. While researching this theme, I noticed that many Darwinists, both scientists and other scholars, wanted to replace Christian ethics with some kind of evolutionary ethics. Some hoped to construct a whole system of morality on evolutionary theory. Others dismissed this as misguided. However, most—including Darwin himself—tried to explain the origins of morality through evolutionary processes.
Also, while I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa in the early 1990s, two prominent Christian intellectuals came to the university and gave talks about apologetics. They both argued that objective morality exists and provides strong evidence for the existence of God. During the question and answer session after their presentations, secularists in the audience challenged their claim that objective morality exists. The primary argument of the secularists was that morality had evolved through natural selection, so it did not have a theistic origin.
The claim that ethics has arisen through evolutionary processes is one of the most common arguments used by secularists today to reject objective morality of any kind, including Christian morality. Even postmodernist philosophers, such as Richard Rorty, who reject any objective truth whatsoever, ironically have admitted that they rest their case for the rejection of objective morality on evolutionary theory. Apparently, in the postmodernist view evolution is a fact, even though nothing else merits that designation (especially Christianity and Christian morality).
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s sequel: “How Evolution Undermines the Judeo-Christian Sanctity-of-Life Ethic”
Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress.