Christianity Worth Thinking About
Did Morals Evolve?
September 18, 1994
I have consistently put forth what I believe to be a very strong
argument for the existence of a personal God and the reality of personal
guilt before God based on the existence of self-evident moral rules in the
I think it's a good argument. But it hasn't gone unchallenged,
especially by those who are committed to the belief that nothing truly
exists which is not subject to examination by the senses through
This idea has been around in some form for a long time and goes by a
variety of different names, depending upon how it's nuanced: physicalism,
scientism, anti-realism, nominalism, strict empiricism, naturalism, etc. I
think it's safe to say that modern man thinks he believes
this. (Shannon) But this man who said knowledge was only available through
empirical testing also said he'd been in love many times, and you can't
put love in a test tube. Further, you can't weigh this empirical knowledge
he was referring to. And the more we talked the more it became evident
that we couldn't even discuss the issue without having to employ the very
abstract entities he claimed didn't exist.
By the way, virtually everything we hold to be dear and important to
us....cannot be analyzed empirically. If this is true, and if it's also
true that nothing is real that is not available to scientific scrutiny,
then nothing truly important to us actually exists.
A recent challenge to the transcendent nature of morality comes from
the book The Moral Animal--Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science
of Evolutionary Psychology, by Robert Wright, published by Pantheon
Press. I have not read the book, but I have read the review by Sara
Lippincott in the September 4 (1994) Book Review section of the LA
Times. Lippencott sketches out the arguments for us.
The thesis: "conscience, the seat of our moral sense, evolved as a
survival mechanism. When...we feel guilt because we have harmed a sibling,
it is because we have thereby imperiled the proliferation of our genes.
When we feel guilt because we have harmed someone outside the family
circle, it is because we have potentially damaged our own (survival
This doesn't account for guilt we may feel for wantonly mistreating
some other animal, which is an immediate problem with this view as an
explanation for morality, but let's ignore that for a moment because
something else is more pressing.
If everything about man can be explained in scientific, evolutionary
terms, Our belief that we're exploring truth is merely the result of our
physical wiring over which we have no control.
This explanation implicitly contains a remarkable claim. It suggests
that there is something in us that is self-consciously aware of the
process of evolution, that understands what the goal of evolution
is--survival of our own species--and instructs us through our conscience
to fulfill the optimal conditions for that survival. How do we know that
harming a sibling has "imperiled the proliferation of our
genes?" Isn't this a remarkable statement? Nobody even knew what
genes were until Gregor Mendel in the latter part of the 19th century.
Consider two cavemen in neighboring villages. One kills the other in
cold blood. We're being asked to believe that he feels guilt because he
realizes such an act ultimately undermines his own survival status (How?
He didn't say.) In the rest of the animal kingdom, killing the opposition
seems to secure just the opposite.
We think we have a type of transcendent knowledge we call morality,
Wright argues. But there's an explanation for that in evolutionary terms.
Something in us knows that conscience is useful for
securing the long-term survival of our race. So now to explain away the
existence of morality as transcendent knowledge Wright posits the
existence of some other kind of transcendent knowledge that creates
morality for its own purpose. But this only pushes the problem one
generation back. One can then ask, "Where did this force, this law,
to always seek the survival of the species come from?" You can't say
it evolved, because that would be begging the question: Where did the
impulse to seek your own species' survival come from? It evolved based on
a species seeking its own survival. The argument becomes circular. Wright
solves nothing with his amazing claim.
There are more problems with this, of course, and they center around
one inescapable observation. If everything about man can be explained in
scientific, evolutionary terms, Our belief that we're exploring truth is
merely the result of our physical wiring over which we have no control.
In other words, this kind of physicalism always seems to lead to some
kind of determinism: Everything about us is determined by our prior
physical states. It's very hard to argue, then, that there is any truth at
all to be known, moral or otherwise.
If the moral element is prior to the behavior, then it can't be the
Then why should I believe this article? This article purports to tell
us something true about the universe, but in the process tells us that our
perception of truth is something that is dictated by our genes to
"get our genes into the next generation."
This view changes drastically what it means to be moral. It reduces
morality to mere survival, to pragmatics. We feel moral urgings because
these moral urgings help us to survive better. They have at their core
self-preservation in mind. But does self-preservation truly capture what
we mean when we say a thing is moral. Indeed many things that fall into
the moral category have to do with denying self.
But what is this "correct" business? It implies that there is
some higher standard outside of the morality that he is allegedly
explaining, a higher standard of moral conduct that can
correct the "moral biases built into us by natural selection."
But it's precisely this higher moral law that needs explaining and defies
naturalistic explanation. Robert Wright doesn't explain it. He merely
offers an explanation for some low order moral conduct that has survival
value. And then cavalierly refers to this other morality that enables us
to become "a truly moral animal." He writes, "Go above and
beyond the call of smoothly functioning conscience; help those who aren't
likely to help those in return, and do so when nobody's watching. This is
one way to be a truly moral animal."
Arguably, certain ways of acting may have evolved (I don't believe
this, but I'll grant this for the sake of argument), but morality is not
merely a way of acting. How do I know this? Because there's an oughtness
about behavior that we can feel that actually precedes the behavior
itself. It's not a behavior pattern, but an internal compulsion that
compels us to choose certain behaviors--to do what's right--even though
this moral incumbency can be denied or disobeyed. If the moral element is
prior to the behavior, then it can't be the behavior itself.
||This is a transcript of a commentary
from the radio
show "Stand to Reason," with Gregory
Koukl. It is made available to you at no charge through the faithful
giving of those who support Stand to Reason.
" Did Morals
©1994 Gregory Koukl
Reproduction permitted for non-commercial use only
Stand To Reason, 1-800-2-REASON
Posted: Aug 17, 1996