Evolutionary theory undermines all that is
good, true and beautiful in human nature
— Darwinism gives human values the un-Midas touch: turning gold into crud —
Kindness has persisted in a competitive world – cultural evolution can explain why (The Conversation, 25 Sept 2023). Jonathan R. Goodman’s byline lists him as “Researcher, Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge.” He probably appreciates kindness, and just wants to “explain” how it characterizes so many people. He gives a nod to religious traditions, saying, “There’s an evolutionary beauty to the teachings of religions, which are the products of thousands of years of cultural change and refinement.” But is “evolutionary beauty” a thing? What does evolution know about beauty? It sounds like a sophoxymoronic phrase, a contradiction in terms (oxymoron) stated by a sophomore (wise fool).
Who is he to claim that religion evolved, anyway? Theologians could just as well claim that evolution is a substitute religion. Darwinist Michael Ruse has admitted that evolution is a religion, and he embraces it (Evolution News).
After giving examples of nice teachings about kindness and altruism in various religions, Goodman proceeds to “explain” kindness as a product of Darwinian evolution and “cultural evolution.” Cultural evolution is like biological evolution with its foot on the accelerator pedal.
Cultural evolution — the spread and change of information that isn’t encoded in our genes — helps to explain the ubiquity and complexity of these systems. Cultural changes are far faster than biology, allowing intelligent species like humans to develop behavioural adaptations for managing complex social environments.
The study of those changes has helped us to understand how we successfully spread around the world as cooperative groups. For example, biological evolution, including a reduction in testosterone, has helped humans be more cooperative, but cultural changes have accelerated this process.
But by putting his un-Midas touch on it, has he turned gold to crud? Has he spoiled the milk of human kindness by mixing it with Darwin’s bromide? If cultural evolution is a mere extension of biological evolution, then it’s just as unguided and purposeless as natural selection. The leaves are going to reflect what the root takes in, and the fruit is genetically determined. Goodman tries to get around this with a non-sequitur:
Many of us are taught these views in schools and universities. But unlike the more ancient religious tenets, they aren’t often a part of our basic acculturation — though that doesn’t mean they have any less to offer us. Both moral philosophy and guidance from our religions have much to teach us about how to overcome our selfish natures.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Aristotle wrote that to be ethical, we shouldn’t just follow a rule but aim to understand the purpose that rule serves. Evolutionary thinking illustrates that purpose clearly: cultural evolution helped us to conquer our selfish beginnings.
This does not follow from evolutionary theory. As Dawkins has repeatedly expressed about evolution, our genetic nature is selfishness. It’s about fitness—if not for me, for my kin and group. What grows out of selfish genes cannot be unselfish. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Jesus taught. Can the leaves fight against the “nature” of the root? Can a bad tree produce good fruit? (Jesus, Matthew 7:16-20).
How can Goodman claim that religion emerged by natural selection to fight the very nature that natural selection produced in us? His photo caption says, “religion has helped accelerate evolution.” But if religion is a product of evolution, then it has the same nature as biological evolution. Cultural evolution is not some new thing that suddenly wakes up to understand the good, the true, and the beautiful. It doesn’t have the tools for that.
Goodman appeals to a common explanatory gimmick for qualities like altruism and kindness, saying that virtues are things that have been found to work to perpetuate the species:
Tzedakah, the golden rule, osotua, or any practice that helps to maintain good treatment of others in society, is the result of tens of thousands of years of cultural trial and error. The customs passed down over time are those that help us to thrive as cultural groups.
Sam Harris has promoted this kind of pragmatic explanation. The problem with pragmatism is that it is amoral. It is not explaining kindness as something intrinsically good, true, or beautiful, but as something that works at a given time and place. Natural selection presumably hit on it (by chance; perhaps a mutation in a Neanderthal brain) and found that it can foster sustainable human populations. It’s not really “good”—it just works.
But if the goal is perpetuation of the species, then anything goes that works—even war, genocide, or cruelty. That is exactly what the Nazi scientists used to persuade Hitler that it was morally good to sterilize or kill the unfit, because letting them bear children was weakening the race. He sincerely believed that he was helping evolution by aligning his policies with the laws of nature. His program would spread good genes in more places and bring a genetic utopia. To him, that was an act of kindness. It was very unkind, in his view, to protect the weak and unfit.
Goodman’s explanation dehumanizes virtues like kindness by Darwinizing them. But worse, his explanation is illogical. His Darwin toolkit has no process to generate anything that is intrinsically good. “Good” is not found in the Darwin Dictionary. What is the evolutionary purpose of altruism, such as giving an anonymous gift?
It sounds like a trivial difference, but trying to give anyone anything anonymously is hard. (Have you tried?) We always have an impulse to tell others about our generous spirit, and fighting against that is combating our own evolutionary history, which encodes in us the desire for a good reputation just as much as a desire for attaining resources that help us to survive.
Here, Goodman says that altruism fights against our nature to survive that is genetically determined because of our “evolutionary history.”
We have a drive to keep others informed about — or to hide — our actions. And a set of principles derived from religious customs, such as tzedakah, helps us, in turn, to stifle those impulses.
Why is it good to stifle selfish impulses? What makes a reputation “good” by those who learn through principles (immaterial concepts) to stifle our evolutionary nature? This is incongruous. It’s a house divided.
The only way Goodman can speak well of religion, the golden rule and other customs that “maintain good treatment of others in society” and “help us to thrive” is by stealing from the toolkit of Christian values. Stealing is not good, man (read the Ten Commandments). Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not covet what is thy neighbor’s.
The Bible explains this conflict in our natures. We were created innocent by a good, holy Creator, but we fell into sin: pride (“you will be as gods”) and selfishness (lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, pride of life). This is why we struggle to do good. Even in our fallen, selfish nature, we humans retain our imago dei endowed by our Creator. This includes a conscience. It is why many world religions teach a similar idea to the Golden Rule; the remnants of that imago dei rise up and speak to the hearts of men around the world, even in non-Christian lands. Only Christianity gives the explanation for that human nature and the way back to righteousness in Christ. Kindness and altruism are intrinsically good because they accurately reflect the nature of God.
If people are evolved apes, by contrast, then there is no such thing as a goodman or a badman, because goodness has no meaning. All that matters is “fitness” (whatever that is).
New study helps explain why people cooperate when no one is looking (Santa Fe Institute, 4 Oct 2023). Oh wow: another study. Everyone genuflect. But wait; did these evolutionists study very hard? Can they pass the final exam? Watch for the same Darwinian pragmatism that undermined Goodman’s explanation.
That strong urge many people feel to abide by social norms even when it is individually harmful may have its roots in Darwinian fitness, according to a new study in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.
The research uses agent-based modeling to provide an evolutionary mechanism that helps explain what keeps people cooperating even when no one is looking. It also points to new ways that humanity’s norm-internalizing tendencies could be harnessed to benefit societies, businesses, and other organizations.
“Even when only a minority of the population internalizes norms, it can have a big impact in terms of getting people to cooperate more and for longer,” says Victor Odouard, a former predoctoral researcher at SFI and lead author of the study. “Our research offers an evolutionary explanation for why people will work together for the benefit of the group, even when it would be better for them, individually, not to do so.
A better example of our headline, “Darwinism Dehumanizes,” could not be found. You are just a pawn of evolutionary forces. When you cooperate, you are following a genetically-determined “strong urge” that was produced by blind, unguided natural selection. You don’t want to cooperate because it is good to do so. Even if you cogitate on it and make what you think is an informed decision, you are a puppet of an “evolutionary mechanism” that operates on you even when you know it is not good for you and nobody is watching.
Truth or Consequences
Darwinizing values is not only dehumanizing, it is dangerous. Did you notice that the Santa Fe guys hinted that our evolutionary nature “could be harnessed to benefit societies”? Harnessed by whom? The government, those leaders whose virtues are as white as the wind-driven snow? A harness is a check on freedom.
If unscrupulous government leaders learn about selective pressures and mechanisms that produce cooperation, could they not use those to manipulate the populace to their own ends? That is what is actually being suggested in Big Science. Examples in recent news of manipulation:
- Can masculine marketing convince more men to eat vegan? (Medical Xpress, 5 Oct 2023). Manipulators could trick red-meat men to eat their bugs with “masculine marketing.”
- Dark defaults: How choice architecture steers political campaign donations (PNAS, 26 Sept 2023). The nudging practice of pre-selecting desired choices can steer political campaigns.
- Prevalence and predictors of wind energy opposition in North America (PNAS, 25 Sept 2023). If science can find out who opposes windmills in their neighborhoods, it can twist their arms to consent.
- Naming and shaming as a strategy for enforcing the Paris Agreement: The role of political institutions and public concern (PNAS, 25 Sept 2023). Don’t debate facts about climate: shame the opponents.
- New study on how governments can fund radical ecological and social policies without GDP growth (Free University of Berlin via Phys.org, 26 Sept 2023). Governments can fund radical decarbonization policies without hurting the economy. (Does this belong at a science news site?)
It starts with nudging but often ends with shoving. If altruism is an evolutionary illusion, not an intrinsic good worth preaching, then the powerful will default to pragmatism. And if the kind of human nature bequeathed by selection is inherently selfish, the selfish power brokers will always end up on top of the fitness peak.