How Evolution Challenges Christian Ethics

Posted by on Jan 3, 2012 in Darwinism, Evolution | 10 Comments

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.



  1. Mark Sloan
    January 7, 2012

    Richard, understanding morality as a biological and cultural evolutionary adaptation leads inevitably to the conclusion that there is an objective underlying basis for morality, not that there is not one.

    An eye is an evolutionary adaptation and there certainly is an underlying optics principle for all eyes, regardless of the many forms of eyes that exist. Similarly, enforced moral standards in different cultures have many forms, but they virtually all are heuristics for a single underlying objective principle, something like “Altruistic acts that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are moral”.

    The above moral principle underlies both our biological adaptations that motivate altruism, such as empathy and loyalty, and virtually all past and present enforced cultural norms (moral standards which all advocate altruism) no matter how diverse, contradictory, and bizarre.

    Understanding morality as an evolutionary adaptation provides many wonderful insights. For example, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a compact, very useful admonition to act according to a winning game theory strategy called indirect reciprocity. Indirect reciprocity has been shown to spontaneously appear and be maintained in evolutionary game theory experiments (under certain conditions common for people) using evolving computer programs. No God’s are required, just the power of evolution.

    One utility of this evolutionary understanding of the Golden Rule is that it is trivial to define when it is immoral to follow the Golden Rule, as sometimes in dealing with criminals and in time of war. As is almost universally accepted as a practical matter in all cultures, it is immoral to follow the Golden Rule if doing so is expected to decrease, rather than increase, the benefits of cooperation in groups.

  2. Bilbo
    January 7, 2012

    Hi Mark,

    How is your argument any different from Ruse and Wilson’s statement, ““Ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to co-operate”?

  3. Mark Sloan
    January 8, 2012

    Hi Bilbo,

    Ruse is the chief miscreant in the very misleading statement: “Ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to co-operate”.

    All Ruse is actually claiming is that our common emotional experience that “There are mysterious sources of justification for accepting moral obligations regardless of our needs and preferences” is a biological adaptation and an illusion, which I agree is true. What irritates me is that he seems to take a perverse delight in saying this even though morality (motivation and advocacy of altruism that increases the benefits of cooperation in groups) is no more an illusion than gravity. The illusion is the common perception of external justification for morality’s obligations.

    I understand Wilson is actually close to my position. I expect he would agree that “Morality is an evolutionary adaptation” and that this science leads to the objective conclusion that “Altruistic acts that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are moral”. Then, also based in science, accepting the burdens of this principle is rationally justified by an expectation that, on average, we will maximize our well-being (our happiness) over our lifetime by acting altruistically, not by acting just self-interestedly.

    Thanks for the excellent question.

  4. Tim Dean
    January 8, 2012

    Richard, your article is filled with embarrassing non sequiturs and straw men concerning the relationship between evolution and ethics, and suggests you have failed to understand the arguments of philosophers like Ruse. Arguments such as his are not without criticism, but the least you can do is get them right before you lambast them.

    Many philosophers today do argue that our propensity for cooperation, and the psychological mechanisms that promote it, are an evolutionary adaptation. From this psychology comes a propensity to form behavioural norms that prevent harm and encourage cooperation, and this, along with cultural adaptation, is the basis of morality. Regardless of the spurious justifications people have given for obeying moral norms, the fact is they arose historically because being moral facilitated group living, and group living benefits us all.

    This is a historical account of the origins of morality and our moral psychology. It doesn’t necessarily imply that there is no objective morality, but it does demand that we reflect upon the origins of our moral systems and reckon what are the objective facts they may rest upon. Many philosophers cite other reasons for doubting that such objective facts exist.

    However, even this doesn’t undermine morality. For example: one can adhere to a social contractarian view of morality that suggests we all ought to behave in accordance of binding moral norms in order to live peacefully in social groups. This is not based on any objective foundation, and it doesn’t suggest *any* old set of norms will do – only moral norms that encourage peaceful social living, thus disqualifying Nazi morality, among many others.

    It is well accepted in philosophical circles that it is possible to have a binding moral code that encourages good behaviour that isn’t based on objective moral facts. It stuns me that many Christian commentators seem entirely ignorant of this strong and well-argued tradition in philosophy.

    And your reference to undergraduates is utterly irrelevant to the arguments on hand. How many undergraduates have said spurious things about God or religion, and have had their arguments dismissed as being confused?

    If you’re to enter philosophical debates such as this, the least you can do is engage with the existing philosophical literature rather than fight straw men with tired and long-defeated arguments.

  5. Bilbo
    January 8, 2012

    Mark and Tim,

    I noticed that part 2 and 3 of Weikart’s article have been published, beginning here:

  6. Bilbo
    January 8, 2012

    Your Comments

  7. Bilbo
    January 8, 2012

    Oops on that last no comment comment.

  8. redael
    January 9, 2012

    How could ‘ moral norms that encourage peaceful social living’ to ‘disqualify Nazi morality’?
    Someone could say: the peaceful living can be reached only eliminating some groups of people exactly how Nazis tried to do..
    Nazis wanted a ‘peaceful social living’ but only for German arian people…

  9. David Ferguson
    January 12, 2012

    “It is well accepted in philosophical circles that it is possible to have a binding moral code that encourages good behaviour that isn’t based on objective moral facts. It stuns me that many Christian commentators seem entirely ignorant of this strong and well-argued tradition in philosophy.” – Tim Dean

    Tim, Christian commentators are not ignorant of this argument – they have dismissed it because it’s not valid and seems almost wilfully to misunderstand the main plank of their argument, which is that you can’t have a binding moral code unless morality is based on something objectively real and transcendent. Clearly your definition of “good” and “binding” does not coincide with theirs.


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