Sunday, January 23, 2011

Moral Law and Evolution

In the midst of going back and reading my comments on AVI's post from a few years ago, I decided that I should read The Language of God, by Francis Collins because it was the focal point of AVI's posts and I never actually read the book.

I'm almost halfway through and I can definitely see what AVI meant when he referred to Collins as having used C.S. Lewis too much. The first couple of chapters are simply Collins rehashing Lewis' most famous apologetic arguments from Mere Christianity. I will assume that Collins does this because he thinks that his prospective audience is made up of those who have no knowledge of Lewis, or Mere Christianity, or the argument from Moral Law.

This is all well-traveled ground for me. Honestly, I'm at the point where when I pick up a Christian book and all it is is a rehashing of Lewis, or heavily dependent on Lewis' fleshed out fictional portrayals of the Divine, or simply dressing up Lewis' ideas and arguments, without even acknowledging that they came from him, that I seriously want to stab myself in the eye with a fork.

And it isn't even that I don't like Lewis. I have tons of his work on my bookshelves. It is simply that I expect more from a book than a reframing of someone else's work. I suppose that reframing is good every once in a while, but there are so many books out there reframing Lewis that I hardly see the point of why they continue to get published. How many do we need?

That's my little rant.

In one of the sections in which Collins interacts with Lewis, in the context of evolution and altrusim, Collins writes this:
Agape, or selfless altruism, presents a major challenge for the evolutionist. It is quite frankly a scandal to reductionist reasoning. It cannot be accounted for by the drive of the individual selfish genes to perpetuate themselves. Quite the contrary: It may lead humans to make sacrifices that lead to great personal suffering, injury, or death, without any evidence of benefit. And yet, if we carefully examine that inner voice we sometimes call conscience, the motivation to practice this kind of love exists within all of us, despite our frequent efforts to ignore it.
He goes on to dismiss evolutionary explanations for the conscience on the basis that sacrificing oneself denies one the privilege of furthering the individual's direct genetic line. It is not advantageous, evolutionarily speaking, for a person to die for an altruistic cause, so therefore the conscience that we have must be inexplicable in biologic terms. He refutes an example of worker ants sacrificing themselves in order to protect the queen because all ants from a colony carry the same exact genetic code, meaning that the worker ant is somehow involved, indirectly, in the propagation of its genes.

This is a weak argument.

Attempts to explain human altrusim in terms of evolutionary behavior that has a single individual's desire to reproduce will definitely seem strained. Many altruistic soldiers lay dead on the field of battle, cut down in the prime of their lives, no children, no contribution to the gene pool. The high death rate among altruists would seem to prevent altruism from developing as a beneficial, evolutionary trait.

On the other hand, many of the traits that humans possess, supposedly as a result of evolutionary selection, would seem to me to be directly related to a sense of altruism. Certain genes have a trickle-down effect and cause changes in the next generation, not only in one area, but in multiple areas at the same time. One example that comes to mind is the experiment done with silver foxes in Russia in which, by selecting for tameness and breeding only the foxes that seemed least fearful of and less aggressive towards humans, the experimenters wound up creating animals that were more like proto-dogs. Not only did the successive generations become more and more tame, but the coloring of their coats changed, they acquired the ability to make dog-like noises, their tails changed. In short, one selective pressure had a domino effect on their physical and social characteristics.

Isn't it possible that any number of evolutionary steps could have given humanity a radically different social and mental orientation?

One of humanity's unique cognitive traits is the ability to imagine: the ability to imagine the future, the ability to imagine what might have happened in the past if things were done differently, the ability to imagine what it would be like to be someone else, or what it would be like to experience what other people experience. It is the human imagination that allows planning and mental leaps of understanding and gives us an evolutionary advantage over other animals.

Because we have this imagination and are more prone to thinking beyond the simple individual urge to procreate, it would only be natural for humans to be altruistic when it came to the survival of their species as a whole. Humans are altruistic because they are socially tied to other humans and have the ability to see beyond themselves as individuals and to imagine the negative consequences for survival of not being altruistic.

We can recognize the value of altruism even as many altruists die. Because we can perceive how the sacrifice of one can save the many, we mentally reinforce the value within ourselves. Not all altruists die, either, and those who do may do so after already reproducing.

Also, we are the only species that has the ability to purposely direct our own evolution. At this point, purely biological/"survival of the fittest" evolution is a thing of the past for us. We influence our own biologic make-up, for good or ill, all the time.

We are more like those worker ants than we care to admit.

Does this do away with Moral Law? If we assume that conscience is the result of highly developed, constantly selected, evolutionary traits does that mean Moral Law has no merit?

I don't think that it does, necessarily. I do, however, think that it changes shape.

That's up next.


Like a Child said...

Though I liked Francis' book at the time I read it when it came out, there were plenty of holes as you have acknowledged. He did a great job of convincing you about evolution and the "idea" of God, but why Christianity was left unanswered for me. A few years later, I read Darryl Falk's book, but again, I was left with the same conundrum. These two books converted me into a theistic evolutionist that now questioned the theism part more than the evolutionary part. You know the rest of the story from my blog.

I like your criticism of the moral code. There are many good selfless people in this world...and not all of them are Christian. Plus, the idea of a God that sends some to hell, simply because they didn't believe in him, does not seem very altruistic or morally compassionate.

HeIsSailing said...

Terri, I found you via LikeAChild's blog. Glad to introduce myself.

It seems to me that we value creatures more, the more similar they are to us. We value each other as humans. We value members of our culture, religion, etc, over others. We can slaughter cows for food, but there is something about eating a chimpanzee that seems, .... , unnatural. We value dogs over houseflies.

Altruism? I am not even sure there is such a thing any more. It seems to me more and more that morality is nothing more than a series of value judgements that we place on things.

Nothing divine about that.

terri said...

If there are such things as morality and altruism, they are rooted in our very humanity. To be without moral scruples is to be "inhuman" in a sense.

That, in an extreme sense, is what sociopaths are....humans who lack the ability to empathize and make moral judgements and foresee and understand the consequences of their actions...or even have the ability to care about the consequences of their actions.

I have often wondered if the concept of hell was developed as a subliminal reaction of what we ultimately do with anti-social people...and by anti-social I mean destructive, evil, uncaring, greedy, murderous people who put their own temporary desires before others....not anti-social in the sense of being grumpy.

In that sense, I don't think the concept of hell developed because we couldn't imagine a God who could make all things right or achieve justice in other ways, but because, humanly speaking, we imagined what might be done with the type of people who make living on earth hellish.

The first thing a group does is cast out the troublemakers, put away the people who impinge on the freedoms and peace of others.

In that sense, I understand how "hell" has taken root in religious belief.

It isn't that God must have hell, so much as we wanted him to have a hell. Our depictions and thoughts about God are directly tied to our own human intuitions both good and evil. So, at times, we can imagine a fully benevolent deity, willing to justify all, and at other times we can imagine a wrathful deity ready to pay back those who have horribly wronged others.

If good and evil exist for humanity, they exist within the realm of human behavior. And actions which fundamentally are destructive to humans are evil, and actions which affirm humanity and the social order are "good".

terri said...

In what sense, then is it possible to sin, or do evil, against God?

If good and evil rise and fall on human nature, and evil is directly tied to mistreating/abusing humanity...then it is possible to sin against God?

I would say that to ignore our moral conscience is such a sin...and that an attack against humanity and our consciences is an attack against God in some sense.

Or at least I think that is what is behind the discussion of God and human conscience.

That probably only makes sense to me! ;-)

james said...

I'm a scientist, not a theologian, but consider this aspect of things.

God maintains the world. (Creation and maintenance are different views of the same operation, but let that be.) Our choices are input into that maintenance.
If I decide to give my bus seat to an old man, that action does not occur unless God gives me the strength to stand, a floor to stand on, a strap to pull myself up with, and so on. Moment by moment God is supporting/serving what I do.
If I instead decide to trip him, God gives me the strength to stick out my leg, the inertia of the leg to interfere, and the gravity to pull him to the floor. God is again supporting/serving what I do.

In that sense every time I commit some offense I am implicating God in my crime, over and above offenses from rejecting His commands and His love.

terri said...


Interesting thoughts.

Makes me think of the saying Paul used in Acts, "In hIm we live and move and have our being."