Can evolution determine right and wrong?
A critique of an article entitled “The Science of Right and Wrong” in the January 2011 edition of Scientific American.1
The science of right and wrong
Scientific American has recently published an article on the science of moral issues, written by the atheist publisher and author, Michael Shermer. The purpose of the article—which quotes favorably from Sam Harris’s book, The Moral Landscape—is to claim that morality is something which human beings have acquired by a process of evolution. As one would expect in an article by an atheist, Shermer’s writings contain a number of presuppositions and logical fallacies.
For example, Shermer begins his article by declaring: “Ever since the rise of modern science, an almost impregnable wall separating it from religion, morality and human values has been raised to the heights.” In fact, the majority of scientists of the modern era were men who believed the Bible to be true—men such as Newton, Lister, Hooke, Boyle, Kelvin, Faraday, etc. All of these subscribed to a morality based not on naturalistic principles, but on God’s law.
The foundations for Shermer’s ideas of morality are deeply flawed. On the origins of morality, he states:
As a species of social primates, we have evolved a deep sense of right and wrong to accentuate and reward reciprocity and cooperation and to attenuate and punish excessive selfishness and free riding.
The first thing we should notice is that the statement relies on evolution, but assumes evolution to be true. This is the circular argument fallacy—or “begging the question.” The sentence does not seem to explain how this “sense of right and wrong” evolved, or why. If we assume that the first subordinate clause is the explanation, then it is not clear why being a species of social primates should cause a sense of right and wrong to develop.
No moral yard stick
This point becomes clearer when Shermer reports on some of his own moral convictions:
These examples are the low-hanging fruit on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, so it is easy for both science and religion to pluck the ripe ones and declare with confidence that such acts as, say, lying, adultery and stealing are wrong because they destroy trust in human relationships that depend on truth telling, fidelity and respect for property.
Leaving aside the clear allusion to Genesis, we see that Shermer has catalogued some behaviors that he considers to be wrong. But on what basis can they be declared wrong? Why is adultery wrong, for example? In evolutionary terms, surely multiple partners would spread genetic information more widely than monogamy.2 If there is no external yardstick of morality, then there is no logical reason why any behavior should be considered wrong.
If human beings really were “a species of social primates,” then you would expect similar “morality” among supposedly related species. According to evolutionists, our closest relatives are chimpanzees—and especially the rarer, smaller chimpanzee known as the bonobo. Bonobos are noted for behavior that would, if it were found among humans, be described as promiscuity.3 So it makes little sense for an advocate of evolutionary theory to claim that adultery is wrong, when it has served bonobos pretty well in the wild.
Made in the image of God
A more objective analysis of the origin of right and wrong is found in the Bible, specifically in Genesis. Humans have not evolved from a common ancestor with bonobos, so the behavior of bonobos is not to be classed on the same moral grounds as human beings. Unlike bonobos, humans were made in the image of God, and the very first humans were given a law from God to obey, which they were capable of obeying or disobeying—not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Genesis 3 is a clear and objective account of the origin of sin. If we start with the presupposition of Genesis being true, it is much easier to understand why we live in a society comprised of people capable of noble acts (because of common grace), but frequent purveyors of dreadful sin (because of original sin). The moral yardstick is God’s law, as presented to us in His word. The failure of writers such as Shermer and Harris to take such a viewpoint into account shows that their view of morality is not only flawed, it is empirically erroneous. The obviousness of our sin, and its cause—the cause being disobedience of God’s law—points up the reason why we need a Saviour, and why the only possible Saviour is the “seed of the woman” promised in Genesis 3:15.
- Shermer, M., The Science of Right and Wrong, (Scientific American: January 2011), < http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-science-of-right-and-wrong > ↩
- See, for example, Infidelity: Is Monogamy Just a Myth?, ABC News website, < http://abcnews.go.com/2020/Stossel/story?id=5380175&page=2 > ↩
- de Waal, F.B.M. (1995), “Bonobo Sex and Society,” Scientific American, March 1995, pp 82-88, < http://songweaver.com/info/bonobos.html > ↩
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