Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Biblical Darwinism

Biblical believers (like Carson Holloway and John West) often criticize Darwin for promoting a materialist view of morality that is morally corrupting. They argue that healthy morality requires biblical religion.

But I would say that in The Descent of Man, Darwin lays out a moral psychology that coincides with what one finds in the Bible.

Darwin sees moral progress in human history as a product of the complex interaction of innate sociality, cultural learning, rational reflection, and religious belief. "Ultimately, our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment--originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit" (Penguin Classics edition, p. 157).

In the primeval history of human beings, Darwin sees morality emerging through tribal conflict. Those tribes with more cooperative and courageous members would tend to prevail over those tribes that were less cooperative and courageous. Biblical believers criticize this as endorsing a crude morality of tribal brutality.

But the Old Testament confirms Darwin's history. Moses commands the people of Israel that in conquering the land of Canaan, they must put every town under "the curse of destruction"--every living thing must be killed (Deuteronomy 20:10-20). They must do this if they want to be successful in their conquest. They must cooperate among themselves to compete with enemy tribes with whom they cannot cooperate without being destroyed. Whenever Moses gives the reasons for obeying his laws, he explains that obeying these laws is the condition for the survival and reproduction of the people of Israel (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).

Of course, biblical believers might remind us that in the New Testament, Jesus offers a new moral law surpassing the Mosaic law. He teaches the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12).

But Darwin quotes this verse from the Sermon on the Mount and endorses the Golden Rule as "the foundation of morality" (p. 151). He sees this as a moral conception that human beings had to learn over a long history of moral experience by which they learned to extend their humanitarian sympathy to ever wider communities. "As man advances in civlization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races" (p. 147).

This quotation from Darwin is the epigram for Robert Wright's book Nonzero. Wright argues that the moral and political history of human civilization is a history of cultural evolution in which human beings discover ways of expanding the range of tit-for-tat reciprocity to resolve "prisoner's dilemma" problems. Learning how to cooperate with those who are trustworthy while punishing those who are not trustworthy will be favored by both natural selection and cultural evolution.

Of course, Jesus' commands to "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemies" would seem to subvert the moral logic of tit-for-tat reciprocity, which requires that cheaters be punished by retaliation. But generally Christians have read this non-resistance teaching as a teaching of perfection that is not attainable in earthly life, because most Christians understand the reasonableness of the Darwinian claim that the success of morality depends on punishing the immoral.

So it seems that in some respects, the moral teaching of the Bible is Darwinian.

1 comment:

David Cooke said...

Do you know of any analysis of the bible which views it through the lense of Darwinism. That takes god as the ultimate selector the Jews or humans not as the chosen but the selected the 10 commandments as rules for survival the respect for Abel's sacrifice as an endorsement of meat eating?