"A HARMONY OF THE LIFE OF PAUL" The Conversion Of Paul (36 A.D.) INTRODUCTION 1. Paul began his life known as Saul of Tarsus... a. Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin b. A Hebrew of the Hebrews, a Pharisee and a son of a Pharisee - Ph 3:5; Ac 23:6 2. He was on the "fast track" as far as his Jewish faith was concerned... a. Living according to the strict sect of His religion - Ac 26:5 b. Advancing in Judaism beyond many of his contemporaries - Ga 1:14 3. His zeal for Judaism led to his persecution of the church... a. He tried to destroy it - Ga 1:13 b. By seeking to imprison and put Christians to death - Ac 22:3-5 c. This he did because he believed it to be God's will - Ac 26:9-12 4. Yet Paul became converted to Christ... a. Which amazed those who first heard him preach - Ac 9:20-21 b. Whose conversion continues to provide powerful testimony to the resurrection of Christ [As we continue this harmony of the life of Paul, we shall now focus our attention on "The Conversion Of Paul", collating what is found in the scriptures about this remarkable event. We begin with what happened...] I. ON THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS A. THE MISSION OF PAUL... 1. Paul received permission to bring disciples back from Damascus - Ac 9:1-2; 22:4-5 2. Which Paul thought was proper to do - Ac 26:9-11 B. THE APPEARANCE OF JESUS... 1. Prefaced by a light shining from heaven a. Occurring around noon - Ac 9:3; 22:6 b. Brighter than the sun, shining around him and those with him - Ac 26:13 c. Causing them all to fall - Ac 26:14 2. Accompanied by a voice speaking to him a. Saying in Hebrew, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" - Ac 9:4; 22:7; 26:14 b. A voice heard, but not understood by those with him - Ac 9:7; 22:9 3. Jesus identifies Himself to Paul a. Paul asks, "Who are You, Lord?" - Ac 9:5; 22:8; 26:15 1) At this point, Paul does not know Who he is talking to 2) But he obviously recognizes His authority! b. The reply, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting" - Ac 9:5; 22:8; 26:15 1) As the Head of the church, Paul was persecuting Him when he persecuted the church which is His body - Ep 1:22-23 2) Note well: what we do or don't do for the church, we do or don't do for Jesus! c. Jesus continues, "It is hard for you to kick against the goads" - Ac 9:5; 26:14 1) In his misdirected zeal, Paul had been resisting the will of God 2) E.g., resisting the preaching of such men as Stephen - cf. Ac 7:51-53 C. THE SUBMISSION OF PAUL... 1. Still fallen to the earth, he was trembling and astonished - Ac 9:6 2. He asked, "Lord, what do You want me to do?" - Ac 9:6; 22:10 -- At this point, Paul acknowledges both the authority as well as the identity of Jesus! D. THE COMMISSION OF JESUS... 1. Paul is told to go into the city a. There he will be told what he must do - Ac 9:6 b. There he will be told what things are appointed for him to do - Ac 22:10 2. Jesus gives him an idea of what to expect - Ac 26:16-18 a. To become a minister and a witness of things seen, and would be revealed b. To be sent to both Jews and Greeks... 1) To open their eyes, to turn them from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God 2) That they might receive forgiveness of sins, and an inheritance with those sanctified by faith in Jesus 3. Paul proceeds to obey his new Lord - Ac 9:8; 22:11 a. He arose from the ground, but was blinded by the light b. He is led by the hand to Damascus II. IN THE CITY OF DAMASCUS A. HIS THREE DAY WAIT... 1. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank - Ac 9:9 2. He was also praying during this time - cf. Ac 9:11 B. HIS VISIT BY ANANIAS... 1. The Lord appears to Ananias in a vision - Ac 9:10-16 a. A disciple who lived in Damascus, well respected among the Jews - Ac 22:12 b. Told to go to the house of Judas, where Paul was praying and had seen a vision of Ananias restoring his sight c. Ananias is reluctant at first, but is reassured by the Lord 2. Ananias visits Paul a. Laying hands on Paul, Ananias relates how he was sent to him - Ac 9:17 b. Paul's sight is restored - Ac 9:18; 22:13 c. Ananias relates Paul's mission - Ac 22:14-15 d. Ananias admonishes Paul to be baptized, and Paul responds - Ac 22:16; 9:18 1) Note well: Paul was still in his sins! 2) The vision, his acceptance of Jesus as Lord, his fasting and praying, etc., had not saved him 3) He needed to be baptized in order for his sins to be washed away - cf. Ac 2:38; 1Pe 3:21 e. Paul resumes eating - Ac 9:19 C. HIS INITIAL PREACHING IN DAMASCUS 1. He spends some days in Damascus - Ac 9:19 2. He immediately begins to preach Jesus - Ac 9:20-22; 26:19-20 a. As the Christ, the Son of God, and their need to repent b. To the amazement of all who knew him c. Confounding the Jews who were in Damascus [The conversion of Paul was a remarkable event, not only for him personally, but also for the church (cf. Ga 1:22-24). It is not surprising, then, that Paul would often refer to this event...] III. REFLECTIONS ON HIS CONVERSION A. WRITING TO THE CHURCH IN CORINTH... 1. He was called to be an apostle - 1Co 1:1 2. He had seen Jesus Christ - 1Co 9:1 3. His testimony joined that of the others who had seen Him - 1Co 15:7-8 B. WRITING TO THE CHURCHES IN GALATIA... 1. He was an apostle by Jesus Christ, not men - Ga 1:1 2. His conversion was the result of a special calling - Ga 1:15-16 a. Part of God's plan for him even before his birth b. When called, it was by the grace of God - cf. 1Co 15:10 c. To reveal His Son to him, that he might preach Him among the nations C. WRITING TO THE CHURCH IN ROME... 1. Called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God - Ro 1:1 2. Having received both grace and his apostleship - Ro 1:5 3. Delivered from the bondage of sin to freedom in Christ - Ro 7:7-8:2 D. WRITING TO THE CHURCH IN EPHESUS... 1. By grace and special revelation he came to know the mystery of Christ - Ep 3:1-6 2. By grace he received his ministry to preach the riches of Christ - Ep 3:7-8 E. WRITING TO THE CHURCH IN PHILIPPI... 1. He spoke of being "apprehended (laid hold) of Jesus Christ" - Php 3:10-12 2. A possible reference to his conversion on the road to Damascus F. WRITING TO TIMOTHY... 1. Thankful that Christ put him into the ministry - 1Ti 1:12 2. Acknowledged that it was due to mercy and grace, for he was the chief of sinners - 1Ti 1:13-16 CONCLUSION 1. Paul's conversion certainly had a great impact on the early church... a. It prompted them to glorify God in him - Ga 1:22-24 b. His conversion proved a powerful testimony to the resurrection of Jesus 2. Paul's conversion also had a great impact on his own life... a. He certainly did not consider himself worthy to be an apostle - 1Co 15:9 b. But receiving God's grace motivated him to serve God diligently - 1Co 15:10 In our next study we shall notice the early years of Paul's service to God as a disciple of Jesus Christ. But as we conclude this lesson, consider how the grace of God affected your life, and whether or not it has had the effect it should... "We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain." (2Co 6:1)
Ethics and Darwinism [Part I]
|by||Trevor Major, M.Sc., M.A.|
Charles Darwin never lived to enjoy the popularity of his own theory. It would take another few decades for “descent by modification” to dominate the biological sciences. Certainly, he won some important victories. The Origin of Species (1859) gave impetus to the growing naturalism of the day. It devastated the prevailing religious dogma of species fixity, and thus undermined ecclesiastical authority on scientific matters. This success attracted a host of social and political reformers who wished to attack the conservative influence of the Anglican church. If evolution could challenge the status quo in science, then perhaps it could challenge the status quo in fields as far flung as law, economics, social policy, and ethics. Yet Darwin, who shared the reformers’ liberal leanings, saw no application of his theory outside biology.
The willingness to appropriate evolution, and the motivations behind it, has changed little in the last hundred years. Darwinism continues to attract an enthusiastic bevy of supporters who see the work of natural selection in every part of the Universe, from physics to psychology, and from genes to human culture.
As I hope to show in this article, the attempt to derive ethics from Darwinism is flawed fundamentally, and the implications certainly are not consistent with a Christian world view. Also, I would like to look at a relatively new idea that attempts to extend biology into the realm of sociology via an extremely bad analogy. Darwin, it seems, was right to be suspicious: even he would not condone the subjecting of all human endeavor to the workings of natural selection.
The Obsession with Progress
It is easy to underestimate the social and historical context in which Darwin operated. This is not to say, in the spirit of relativism, that natural selection, like any theory of science, is true only for a certain time and place. However, we have to remember that Darwin wrote during the Victorian era—a time in which Englishmen and women were enamored with the ideal of progress (Gregory, 1986, p. 379). This, really, was a carryover from the Enlightenment. It was an optimistic view that humanity would improve itself through education and liberty.
The beneficiaries of England’s spreading empire and booming industry could see how far they had come, how “right” it seemed that their nation should be so great, and how this exalted condition must be written into the course of “nature.” The liberals of that day wanted government to step out of nature’s way. They thought that an individual could improve his lot in life only by greater personal freedoms and less government interference (Desmond and Moore, 1991, pp. 217,294-295).
When putting on its kindest face, this view seemed to express a hope that God was working providentially through some sort of natural process to bring about a better world or, what really mattered, a better England. There was hope for the poor after all, but God, not man, would see to it. In its grimmest form, progress came by blind, ruthless competition. Nature had sorted society into the privileged few and the starving masses. Laws that favored the poor were futile because they ran contrary to the what the forces of nature had wrought. One day, the poor might find themselves in a better position, but only if the conditions of nature changed accordingly.
Serious proposals along these lines existed long before Darwin’s views on the natural world took shape. For instance, the seventeenth century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, described humanity as being in a “war of all against all.” As far as he could tell, a properly organized society was just a convenient way to rise above that constant struggle. In 1798, Thomas Malthus put forward his “principle of population,” which argued that strife and famine occurred when the rate of population growth exceeded available resources. It was in this period that Europe was starting to experience a population boom, mainly through a decrease in mortality. In 1800, the world’s population numbered perhaps one billion; it doubled in the next 130 years. Celibacy was about the only form of population control entertained at that time, although it was no more practiced than it is today. This left only two possibilities: either provide more resources, or allow war, disease, and starvation to run their course.
The work of Malthus attracted Darwin’s attention, too, although more for its scientific applications. Darwin realized that the descendants of a single pair of mice, or humans, or elephants, would overrun the world in a few generations. Yet this was not happening. Why? Because, Darwin concluded, nature preserves only those individuals that have the instincts, behaviors, and physical traits necessary for survival. Producing more offspring than can possibly survive “is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms” (Darwin, 1859, p. 63). This suited some of Darwin’s readers just fine. Seeing the Malthusian principle in all of nature served only to reinforce their belief that large “adjustments” in population were a fundamental feature of the world, and not something to be avoided by social welfare.
English philosopher, Herbert W. Spencer, became the most famous proponent of this reading. His utter commitment to the inevitability of progress led him, on principle, to adopt a strongly evolutionary outlook. In his view, progress permeated everything; nothing could stay the same. Matter, animals, and human societies began in an indistinguishable, homogenous form, and progressed to a state of increasing specialization and individuation. Just as there were many types of bees, and many types of deer, each adapted to its own special place in nature, so an advanced human society was one in which there was a “division of labor.” Of course, this just happened to describe industrialized Britain of the nineteenth century. If this were the latest stage of development, then it must be the highest stage of evolutionary progress. Those individuals who survived this stage would be “the select of their generation.” When Spencer penned these words in an article on Malthus in 1851, the Great Famine in Ireland had taken a million lives, and blindness due to malnutrition was becoming widespread. But for Spencer, Ireland’s misfortunes merely showed what happened when people multiplied beyond their means of support (Desmond and Moore, 1991, p. 394). The best course of action, Spencer argued, was an extreme laissez-faire economy and government. Individuals should be allowed to do whatever they want. Let them exercise restraint or multiply at will—nature would determine the outcome.
After reading Darwin, Spencer came to adopt natural selection as the force behind this progress, but the exchange of ideas went both ways. Spencer convinced Darwin to adopt his own phrase, “survival of the fittest,” in place of Darwin’s cherished “natural selection.” According to Spencer, and others, Darwin’s phrase left the impression that nature might have some sort of intelligence or mind that was doing the selecting. Darwin agreed only grudgingly, and the evolutionist never had a high opinion of Spencer’s work. Ironically, the volatile mix of inevitable progress and Malthusian theory came to be known as “social Darwinism.”
Spencer garnered respect both at home and in the United States. The momentum grew in this country with the work of sociologist William Graham Sumner. As in England, social Darwinism was seen to endorse the uneven distribution of wealth and power, and lend credence to ruthless business practices. Not surprisingly, the famous tycoons of the late 19th century adopted Spencer and Sumner as their intellectual guides. After reading Spencer, Andrew Carnegie “remembered that light came as a flood and all was clear.” James J. Hill proclaimed: “The fortunes of railroad companies are determined by the law of the survival of the fittest.” Similarly, John D. Rockefeller concluded: “The growth of the large business is merely survival of the fittest.... This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely working out of a law of nature.” Both Hill and Rockefeller ran operations that were found to be in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Apparently, competition was good, but no competition was even better! After making their fortunes, Rockefeller and Carnegie won renown as philanthropists, donating hundreds of millions of dollars to education, museums, and research, but rarely if ever to the poor directly.
As a popular doctrine, Spencer and Sumner’s social Darwinism fell out of favor on both sides of the Atlantic. Several horrifying events, such as the American Civil War, and certainly the First World War, dashed the romantic, Victorian illusion of inevitable progress. Also, scientists—the people who handled Darwin’s theory on a day-to-day basis—came to realize that the biological process of evolution had little or nothing to do with the organization of human society. It was impossible to judge that one form of society, or one group of individuals within a society, was “more evolved” than any other.
Arguments Against Social Darwinism
Apart from going out of fashion, social Darwinism made a number of critical errors. First, the people most in tune with Darwinism consciously rejected the idea of progress toward fixed goals or ideals. In the process of evolution, there must be no design or purpose. Bertrand Russell diagnosed this obsession with progress as a “human conceit” first staggered by its kinship with the ape, and then recovered through a “philosophy” of evolution (1981, p. 24).
As Darwin envisioned it, a species may appear to make progress one moment, only to become extinct the next, depending on the whims of nature. In an early notebook, Darwin wrote: “In my theory there is no absolute tendency to progression, excepting from favourable circumstances.” His young disciple, Thomas Henry Huxley, took pains to get this message across. In his view, the idea that evolution leads to perfection is a fallacy that pervades “the so-called ‘ethics of evolution’” (1896, p. 80). Huxley drew a distinction between the “natural process” of change at the biological level, and the “ethical process” of change in society. Progress in human societies would come by resisting, not following, our natural desires. Although he denied it at first, Darwin eventually came to believe that humans were able to rise above their “natural” states. He even sent money to the South American Missionary Society so that they could “civilize” the natives of Tierra del Fuego (Desmond and Moore, 1991, pp. 574-575).
Huxley’s distinction highlights a second and fatal weakness in social Darwinism. From the process of natural selection, people like Spencer wanted to derive an ethical system. They wanted to suggest what was right and wrong, or good and bad, based on Darwin’s observations. Yet such a move from nature to morality always has proved highly problematic. How, exactly, do you get from is to ought? We may be able to describe the actions of the majority, for instance, but why should this prescribe the standards of morality? Many people may find a certain activity pleasurable. Does this make the activity good or right? One law may benefit more people than another. Does this make that law good or right? Most people traveling on a particular stretch of highway may be going 10 miles per hour above the posted speed limits. Should we now condone the actual average speed?
So, even if natural selection works in nature by changing the size of finch beaks or preserving antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, how can it be right or wrong in a moral sense? If a lioness attacks and kills a baby zebra, is that right or wrong? If a late snow storm kills a newborn lamb, in what way is this good or bad—morally speaking? Human sensitivities aside, we understand that this is “nature’s way.”
Is that not the whole point, though? We cannot put our sensitivities aside. We imagine ourselves in the place of the zebra or the lamb, and we cringe because we would not want to be in their place. Yet, despite these feelings, we cannot hold nature responsible for what it does.
This is what makes recent talk of extending human rights to animals, such as great apes (gorillas, chimps, and orangutans), seem fundamentally confused. Since these animals appear to have a consciousness or self-awareness like humans, so the argument goes, we ought to include them in the moral sphere. Other activists feel that this is too narrow: we need to extend the moral sphere beyond ourselves and great apes to any sentient creature that can suffer or feel pain. But is this enough? What about fears, beliefs, or hopes? By reasonably good analogy we extend our own knowledge of such mental states to other people. But the analogy begins to break down as we go further afield. What does suffering really mean for a chimp? a sparrow? a trout? a newt? These questions are not just rhetorical. The fact is, we don’t know what it’s like to be a newt, and vice versa.
And why stop at consciousness or sentience? People who advocate bringing animals into the moral sphere have a name for their opponents: “speciesists.” It’s a mouthful, but the comparison to “sexist” or “racist” is supposed to be obvious. So why don’t we call these advocates “consciousnessists” or “sentientists” or some other equally unpronounceable slur, depending on where they happen to draw the line of admissibility into the moral sphere? The problem with all these suggestions is that they are just as arbitrary as any attempt to draw the line based on skin color or sex. The boundary of the moral sphere is drawn, not by brain functions or biology, but by the potential for moral agency. Being a moral agent means being able to choose between right and wrong, and being able to act on that choice. Only then can the results of our choosing be judged worthy of blame or praise, yet judging involves others deciding whether we could have acted differently. As far as we know, humans are the only earthly creatures capable of being moral agents. This is not to say that animals could not be the recipients of moral concern, but this makes them moral patients, not moral agents. As agents, we hold other agents responsible for their actions, regardless of whether those actions are directed toward plants, animals, people, property, or whatever. If a man acted cruelly toward an animal, it is not the animal that judged those acts to be cruel, but other moral agents. The animal may have experienced pain or suffering, but we have no idea whether it could grasp the concept of cruelty in any moral sense.
This is not intended to be the last word on the animal rights movement. What I hope to have shown, however, is that all sorts of difficulties arise when we go to nature for our morality. Animal rights advocates make comparisons between animal and human suffering, and leap from there to a demand for moral equality, ignoring the significant question of what it is to be moral. Social Darwinism makes the same sort of mistake. As Huxley saw so clearly, you cannot leap from evolution (which has little if anything to do with human social relationships) to morality (which has everything to do with human social relationships). The processes working on human biology, and the processes working within human society, operate at two different levels.
Social Darwinism and the Bible
At the risk of stating the obvious, the teaching of Christ is incompatible with social Darwinism. This is not to say that the Christian life does not include competition and struggle. After all, it was Paul who said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). He assured the Ephesians that we wrestle, not “against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (6:12). And the apostle Peter, perhaps more than any other New Testament writer, reinforced the inevitability of suffering for one’s faith, and encouraged watchfulness and strength in the face of adversity (e.g., 1 Peter 1:6-7,13; 2:19-21; 3:14,17-18; 4:1,12-16,19; 5:8-9).
In Christianity, however, competition and struggle are means to an end, not an end in itself. For someone who believes he lives in a dog-eat-dog world, the aim is to be top dog. But for Christians, the ultimate goal is to spend eternity in heaven with God, the highest good is to love God, and the second highest good is to love our neighbor (Mark 12:29-31). When an argument broke out among the disciples, Christ assured them that if “anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). And it was Christ Who left us the greatest example by putting the whole of humanity ahead of His own life (John 3:16-17). In this world, at least, an ethic that always puts the interests of others above the interests of self is not the best survival strategy.
As we have seen, the better course of action for the social Darwinist is to allow “nature” to take its course. At most, like the great American philanthropists mentioned earlier, he would allow the poor to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. We may think this has a parallel in a famous biblical passage: “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (1 Thessalonians 3:10). However, the Bible shows a great deal of compassion toward the poor. Under the Mosaic law, for example, the poor were granted the following provisions: they were not to pay interest on loans (Exodus 22:5); they were allowed to use a field, vineyard, or olive grove that was left at rest every seventh year (Exodus 23:11); they were allowed to gather from the corners of the field, and to pick up any grain, grapes, and olives left over after the harvest (Leviticus 19:9-10); they were not to be discriminated against, and the rich were not to be favored, in judicial matters (Leviticus 19:15); their labor was not to be abused or exploited (Leviticus 25:34ff.; Deuteronomy 24:12-15); and when in need, they were to receive loans (interest-free) or outright gifts (Deuteronomy 17:7-11; cf. 17:1).
We should note, also, that Paul’s instructions to the Thessalonians applied to those who could work, and chose not to. It did not apply, for example, to orphans and widows without any means of support (James 1:27; 1 Timothy 5:3-16). Finally, there were times when the will and ability to work were not enough, and direct donations were needed (as we see in the relief sent to Judea; Acts 11:28-29).
A critic might allege that such examples prove that we are, in the end, selfish brutes. Human society has adapted by inventing rules that keep our overwhelming desires for self-preservation and self-gratification in check. Did Paul not say, “with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin” (Romans 7:25)? Actually, this seems to be a classic chicken-and-egg problem. In other words, which came first: the desire to lie, wage war, steal, and murder in a peaceful society, or the desire for harmony, love, and compassion in a dangerous, violent society? Evolution would have us believe that the second scenario is true—that ethics came along after the emergence of the human species from an ape-like ancestor. However, the Bible comes down on the side of the first scenario—that it was man’s initial condition to be peaceful, and then came Satan. If the rules had not been violated—if there had been no sin—then Adam and Eve would have remained in paradise (Genesis 3:22-24). God’s laws exist, not to stop us from being who we are (rational creatures able to make choices both good and bad), but to judge the choices we make (2 Corinthians 5:10).
Social Darwinism, in the form advocated by Spencer, has not survived to the current era as a viable intellectual idea. You still may hear people mention “survival of the fittest” to justify some particularly ruthless business practice or political strategy. Unfortunately, in cases like these, any justification will do, including an appeal to Scripture (this is one reason why I wanted to lay out the biblical view).
Nonetheless, new Darwinian views of society arise on occasion. A few paragraphs earlier, I took sides with Huxley in arguing that the process of natural selection has little if any application to human social relationships. Today, there is a view that the course of evolution has everything to do with human society. This is a subtle shift. It is not a case of going back to Spencer. No one would be foolish enough to bring up social Darwinism—at least not in so many words.
Let me begin by casting this new approach in a generous light: Rather than trying to invent an ethical system based on evolution (as did Spencer), these new ideas attempt to explain morality in evolutionary terms. Usually these ideas fall under the heading of sociobiology—a term coined by Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson. As he defined it, sociobiology is “the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior” (1980, p. 4). The “all” here refers to all animal societies, and not just human society. According to evolutionary theory, humans are just animals descended from other animals. There is no comfortable divide, not even in morality. Regardless of quaint words such as “marriage” or “adultery,” what we find in the mating strategies of chimps, rats, or fruit flies applies directly to human practices and conventions.
Yet, is it reasonable to reduce morality to biology? As we saw in the case of animal rights, there does seem to be a fundamental divide between humans and animals. This is not because they have feathers or scales and we don’t, but because they lack the capacity for moral agency. Is there something, therefore, about our “quaint” morality that we can explain away as nothing more than animal urges? Is the propagation of our genes our sole mission in life?
Sociobiology nearly always seems to answer, “Yes.” For example, a survey among university students in Australia found that women were more attracted to slim men. There does not seem to be much of a story there, so medical reporter Melissa Sweet (1997) went digging for something more interesting to say. She ended up consulting Dr. Tim Flannery, of the Australian Museum, who simply dismissed this trend as a “passing fad.” In reality, women could care less about appearance. To ensure “evolutionary success,” all women really care about is their prospective mates’ “status, power and money.” So, wives think mistakenly that they came to love their husbands, perhaps attracted initially by a sense of humor, or strength of character, or even good looks. But no, when a wife tells her husband, “I love you,” she really is saying “I value your ability to pass my genes on to the next generation.” What, then, could cause these young Australian women to disregard their evolutionary dispositions? Is this a behavior that will prove evolutionarily unsuccessful and, as a result, a whole generation of Australians will have less chance of survival? Will those women who desire status, power, and money in a man, and ignore “less important” features such as kindness or good looks, pick the best mates, and in so doing pass this “superior” sense of survival on to their daughters? Eventually, will the behavior trait of preferring-slim-men go the way of the dodo? Perhaps there are a number of “cuddly” young men who hope so.
The strongest, and most sobering examples can be found in the area of marriage and family. There is, for example, the “Cinderella effect,” which shows that stepchildren occupy a dangerous position in society (Daly and Wilson, 1988). In the U.S., according to homicide statistics from 1976, infants (aged 0-2 years) living with one or more substitute parents are 100 times more likely to suffer fatal abuse than infants living with natural parents. Similarly, statistics from Canada for 1974-1983 show that children in this same age group are 70 times more likely to die at the hands of stepparents.
The explanation for this effect, according to Daly and Wilson, is that evolutionary selection has favored such homicidal behavior. It is in the interests of the stepfather to withhold parental support from offspring who do not carry his genes. He does this by killing any stepchildren, especially babies that require a long-term commitment of resources. As proof, scientists cite similar behavior among nonhuman populations. In the case of the Hanuman langurs (a type of monkey that lives in India), males eventually lose their harem to a challenger. The new male frequently will kill his predecessor’s infant offspring. Theoretically, the mothers would stop nursing, thus making them available to mate and produce the successor’s own offspring. This behavior would ensure that a new male would make as many living copies of his genes as possible before he, too, was chased out of the harem (Zimmer, 1996, pp. 73-74).
If similar behavior occurs in humans, so the argument goes, then culture does not exempt us from such evolutionary forces. How, then, do we explain the “Brady Bunch” effect? That is to say, why is it that most stepparents get along quite well with their stepchildren without murdering them? According to Daly and Wilson, this is a matter of reciprocity, otherwise known as “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” Or, to put it in evolutionary terms, “I’ll not get in the way of your genetic legacy if you’ll not get in the way of mine.” What we interpret as love or altruism becomes a cultural mask for genetic self-interests.
However, the evidence does not demand this interpretation, even in those few cases where stepparents mistreat their stepchildren. The statistics seem to show no more than the following: (a) people are more likely to be in conflict with someone nearby that they know (i.e., a family member), than with someone further away whom they do not know (i.e., a perfect stranger); and (b), when family conflict occurs, the most defenseless members are vulnerable to a person with the least parental attachment. It is quite a leap to conclude that unknown genes from some unknown past are predisposing men to kill other men’s babies.
GENES AND BEHAVIOR
Where, in fact, is the proof that evolution has selected a trait for wiping out one’s stepchildren? Another way of posing this question is to ask, “Where is the gene for infanticide?”
The point is this: genes store the code that a cell uses to make proteins. These proteins may have one or more roles to play in forming structure (hair, bone, etc.), regulating functions (hormones), transporting substances, defending against intruders (antibodies), or catalyzing chemical reactions (enzymes). So, what proteins incite a man to kill his stepchild? Does a child emit some sort of chemical, like a pheromone, that causes a violent reaction among all genetically unrelated people in close proximity? [We may have met some children like that, but it would be nice to see the evidence supporting those feelings!] Would it not be evolutionarily more advantageous to preserve a gene for something (again, like a pheromone) that endears a child to both its parent and stepparent? Does a human adult male really benefit from infanticide? If he murders the children of his wife’s former marriage, would the reciprocity principle not go by the way side? Could the wife trust her infanticidal husband if they had children of their own?
These questions, and their lack of answers, highlight the problem of applying natural selection to features of human populations. In this case, it is very difficult to say how or why natural selection would have preserved a genetic trait for infanticide. This especially is true given the relatively low incidence of infanticide in human societies when compared to animals such as the Hanuman langurs. Thankfully, infanticide remains an abnormal behavior, and cannot be an important survival strategy in our own species.
A comment by Stephen Jay Gould seems appropriate at this point. While he admits that evolution could have programmed humans to, say, distinguish between members of our own group and members of other groups, this in itself does not compel us to wipe them out. Here is an outspoken evolutionist who rejects the idea that genes determine behavior. His comments relate to genocide, but they could apply to infanticide, rape, adultery, or other behaviors attributed to our supposed evolutionary heritage:
An evolutionary speculation can only help if it teaches us something we don’t know already—if, for example, we learned that genocide was biologically enjoined by certain genes, or even that a positive propensity, rather than a mere capacity, regulated our murderous potentiality. But the observational facts of human history speak against determination and only for potentiality (Gould, 1996).
Stepfathers have the potential to murder their stepchildren. Ethnic groups have the potential to wipe out other groups. Spouses have the potential to be unfaithful. As crime statistics and news stories show, humans seem to be capable of nearly unlimited wickedness and cruelty. However, we know that most humans for the majority of history have survived quite well without engaging in these activities on a widespread, consistent basis. It is very difficult, therefore, to invoke natural selection—a supposed regularity of nature—to preserve such traits.
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was extracted, and has been significantly revised, from a chapter I wrote for inclusion in Dangerous ’Isms, edited by B.J. Clarke (Southaven, MS: Power Publications, 1997).]
Daly, Martin and Margo Wilson (1988), “Evolutionary Social Psychology and Family Homicide,” Science,242:519-524, October 28.
Darwin, Charles (1859), On the Origin of Species (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, reprint of first edition).
Desmond, Adrian and James Moore (1991), Darwin (New York: Warner Books).
Gould, Stephen Jay (1996), “The Diet of Worms and the Defenstration of Prague,” Natural History, 105:18-24,64,66-68, September.
Gregory, Frederick (1986), “The Impact of Darwinian Evolution on Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century,” in God & Nature, ed. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Berkeley: University of California Press), pp. 369-390.
Huxley, Thomas H. (1896), “Evolution and Ethics: The Romanes Lecture, 1893,” Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays (New York: D. Appleton).
Russell, Bertrand (1981 reprint), Mysticism and Logic (Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble).
Sweet, Melissa (1997), “Size Does Count, but for All the Wrong Reasons,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 12.
Wilson, Edward O. (1980), Sociobiology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), abridged edition.
Zimmer, Carl (1996), “First, Kill the Babies,” Discover, 17:72-76,78, September.
Ethics and Darwinism [Part II]
|by||Trevor Major, M.Sc., M.A.|
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Part I of this two-part series appeared in the January issue. Part II follows below and continues, without introductory comments, where the first article ended.]
ALTRUISM AND THE SELFISH GENE
Soon after Edward O. Wilson published Sociobiology, Richard Dawkins generated an equal amount of controversy (and many more sales) for his book, The Selfish Gene (1989). Neither book devoted much space to human society specifically. It was clear, nonetheless, that Wilson and Dawkins each saw an important application—indeed, a reason for their books’ existence—in what they had to say about Darwinian evolution and human culture.
Unlike Wilson, Dawkins was concerned not so much with the biological basis of behavior in general, but rather with the biological basis of selfishness and altruism in particular. He argued, as the title of the book suggests, that genes are selfish: they will do whatever it takes to ensure that their carrier—the individual—makes more copies of these genes (Dawkins, 1989, p. 19). Evolution, therefore, has ensured that our behavior brings about the preferential survival of the genes we carry. Those behaviors are “selfish” because they preserve our genes at the expense of competing genes contained in other “survival machines.”
What, then, can we say about unselfish behavior? There are times when creatures seem to act for the benefit of others at the expense of their own survival. This has been a problem for sociobiology because traditional Darwinism has emphasized the individual—it is the individual’s own traits that will determine whether it leaves a greater number of viable offspring. If a bird helps a breeding pair build its nest and feed its young, without breeding itself, then it would seem to be a loser in the struggle for life. While this individual is busy helping others, it is missing out on the opportunity to produce heirs of its own. One response is to tell some sort of just-so story that extols the benefits of altruistic behavior for the entire species. However, this idea of “group selection” is highly contentious, even among the closed ranks of evolutionary biologists. For a start, it does not explain how the gene for altruism can survive over the long term. If an individual carrying this mutation behaves unselfishly and, as a result, leaves fewer or no offspring, then the mutation will die out. Also, the group needs to discourage cheaters—individuals that take advantage of altruists to further their own selfish interests, and thus neutralize the benefits of altruism for the species as whole. Dawkins (1989) suggests this might be avoided if altruism were directed only toward individuals, such as close relatives, who are likely to carry the same gene. Under this “kin selection,” genes for altruism cause their carriers to act in a way that enhances the survival of the same genes in other carriers. Cheating still is possible. A mutation could arise that mimicked the identifying features of individuals that carried the gene for altruism. This introduces the need for some sort of policing strategy. It might not rid the group of cheaters, but it will make the cost high enough to limit their numbers. The problem now is that the difficulties have multiplied. The evolutionists sought to explain a highly complex social behavior in biological terms, and ended up having to explain other complex behaviors, such as cheating and policing.
Even so, it is not altogether clear that they have explained anything. This is not to say that altruism might not have a biological cause in social animals (although we have yet to find the gene for altruism, and no one knows how that gene would work to produce altruistic behavior). It is just that Darwinian accounts face a number of difficulties. The real issue, especially when we consider human societies, is how Dawkins defines altruism. He starts out with the individual (1989, p. 4), but ends up at the level of genes. So although the individual’s behavior seems to defy Darwinian selection, the gene for altruism will be selected if it increases the survival chances of the same gene in close relatives. Sure, the altruistic behavior costs the individual, but if all its siblings and cousins act altruistically, then the gene will increase its long-term prospects of survival.
This sleight-of-hand is typical of reductionism. We were asked to think of one thing, but were shown another. We were expecting an explanation of an individual’s altruism, but were given a story about a gene’s selfishness. If this is the case—if altruistic behavior just is selfishness—then it hardly seems fair to call this an explanation of altruism. If I continue to act for the benefit of others, only if they continue to act for my benefit, then that is not altruism as we normally construe the word. This behavior is more like “selfish benevolence” than altruism (Nunney, 1998, 281:1619).
Dawkins might respond that the “selfish gene” is just a metaphor. After all, genes are neither good nor bad in a moral sense. Still, Dawkins wants to say that altruistic behavior is not real—it is only apparent. Surely the reverse is true—it is the selfishness of the gene in Dawkins’ model that is only apparent.
It is no wonder that Dawkins asks us to separate the biological from the psychological. He does not want us to worry about hopes, desires, and beliefs. It does not matter, in his view, whether our donation was motivated by expected tax write-offs, or whether we saved a drowning enemy. But can we do this? Does our mental state at a particular time make no difference? If so, why have human societies drawn a distinction between selfishness and altruism, or between manslaughter and murder? If Dawkins wants to explain human behavior in terms of human biology, he had better not ignore human psychology.
At best, Dawkins has given us a hypothetical explanation of why social animals might act with the most charity toward their closest relatives. However, the biological causes underlying this behavior remain completely unexplained, and we have no reason to think that altruism is only “apparent” in human societies.
FROM GENES TO MEMES
Despite trying to explain one aspect of human behavior (altruism) in genetic terms, Dawkins wanted to use something other than genes to explain cultural evolution. At this point he introduced the term “meme.” Just as genes are passed from one generation to the next and acted upon by natural selection, so memes are copied from one brain to the next and are acted upon by cultural selection (Dawkins, 1989, p. 192). Under this newly coined word, Dawkins listed uniquely human concepts such as “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothing fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” Successful memes, like successful genes, are better at making more copies of themselves. Examples would be denim jeans and Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
Actually, Dawkins does not intend to produce a theory of cultural evolution; he invented memes to show the universality of Darwinism (Miele, 1995; also Hurst and Dawkins, 1992; Dawkins, 1994). In other words, he wants to show that if Darwinism works on anything that can be copied, even ideas, then it must have worked on our genes. Unfortunately, others have taken his rhetorical device seriously. Following the mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate members, an article in Newsweek drew on the “new science of memetics” to suggest that their self-destructive ideas, or “mind viruses,” could find new hosts through the popular media (Cowley, 1997). There is now a Journal of Memetics.
However, the analogy between genes and memes, and viruses and ideas, fails completely. Dawkins acknowledged some of these criticisms (1982, p. 112), although they did not perturb him. Here are some reasons why we should be skeptical:
- Changes in genes (mutations) occur randomly, whereas changes in ideas are not random. An apple’s falling from a tree is a random event; Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, inspired from such an event, is itself nonrandom. His ideas on calculus and gravity did not emerge randomly from shapes and figures on a page.
- Genes store information, whereas cultural features may or may not store information. A book is a meme that carries complex, specified information. Blue jeans are a meme, too, but it is hard to say how they carry information. Obviously we can study the jeans and, depending on our current state of knowledge, we might be able to determine where and how they were made, and what materials were used. Whereas the information we gather from blue jeans is subjective (it depends on us), the information in a strand of DNA is objective (it is there regardless of any intelligent observers).
- Genes exist only in the organism, whereas cultural elements may exist outside the human brain. Although Dawkins credits the brain with inventing memes, and although memes can travel directly from brain to brain, they can reside on other media such as books, tapes, or digital media. This means that a tune, say, can be stored on a compact disc before it reaches another human brain. Dawkins likes to talk about memes as a kind of “mind virus” because a virus contains information and can exist outside the cell. However, a virus depends totally on transmission into the cell before copying occurs, whereas someone can make a million copies of a music CD without ever listening to the tunes it carries.
- Cells copy genes exactly, whereas minds copy cultural elements with changes. Whenever a cell undergoes division, it makes a new copy of the entire genetic code, and rarely makes any mistakes. It is the nature of the human mind, however, to filter just about everything it absorbs. We take in very few ideas and repeat them verbatim. Sometimes we don’t even bother to repeat them. Fashions and technologies, by their very nature, change at a much higher rate than the genetic copying mechanisms of living cells.
- Genes are discrete, whereas cultural elements can blend. Through his experiments on peas, Mendel showed that the units of heredity are separate and occur in pairs. This means, for instance, that you could inherit a gene for black hair from your father, and a gene for blonde hair from your mother (assuming, for the sake of simplicity, that there is just one pair of genes for hair color). But your hair is not going to be a mixture of black and white; it may turn gray later on in life, but that is another matter. The actual color will reflect whichever variety of the gene is most dominant (probably black in this case). However, two totally different ideas can come together to form a third. The English language is a hodge-podge of other languages. Weddings, funerals, and holiday activities can be a blend of traditions from both sides of the family.
- Gene copying is Mendelian, whereas transmission of cultural elements is Lamarckian. Darwin’s main competitor was the Chevalier de Lamarck (1744-1829). He advanced a theory of evolution which said that changes acquired during a lifetime will pass to the next generation. If a giraffe strengthens its leg and neck muscles to reach higher branches, then the next generation will inherit these characteristics. If you cut the tail off each generation of rats, eventually rats will be born with no tails. Thanks to Mendel, we know this theory is not true. The traits are passed on in discrete, heritable units we call genes. The offspring will have these traits, not the traits we accumulated during our lifetime. However, Lamarck’s theory is true for ideas. We do acquire ideas during our lifetime, and we do pass them on to our children. If a father acquires a belief in God, he can talk to his children about it, but they cannot inherit this belief genetically.
BACK TO EVOLUTIONARY ETHICS
Dawkins’ unsuccessful analogy highlights the inherent problem in applying biological principles to aspects of human culture. Nonetheless, there is a tremendous push to popularize Darwinism—to take it beyond stuffy labs and dusty fossils—and show everyone that it is not “just another” scientific theory. That is why, I suspect, evolutionists end up meddling in ethics. How did this happen? Sociobiology was supposed to be nothing more than a description of why we value certain behaviors. Dawkins, in particular, has been very emphatic about not wanting to make ought out of is (Miele, 1995; Dawkins, 1989, pp. 2-3).
Nonetheless, these writers really do seem to have a larger “vision” for an evolutionary ethic. Listen to Wilson’s sense of frustration in the following passage: “Scientists and humanists should consider together the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologized” (1980, p. 287). He concludes that a deeper understanding of human biology “will make possible the selection of a more deeply understood and enduring code of moral values” (Wilson, 1978, p. 196). So he seems to have changed his mind: he really does want to do more than describe ethics in biological terms.
To his credit, Richard Dawkins shies away from framing an evolutionary ethic. Like Thomas Huxley, Dawkins believes we should resist evolutionary forces and subvert our genetic heritage (Dawkins, 1989, pp. 200-201). He is keen to explain how evolution molded tree-swinging ancestors into lumbering, humanoid robots, as long as he does not have to live next to them. “My own feeling,” Dawkins cautions, “is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live” (Dawkins, 1989, p. 3). Having said that, I guess we can all breathe a sigh of relief. He goes on to suggest two values: “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to.” In other words, let the robots arise and overthrow their genetic masters! Dawkins does not explain why we should swim against the tide of our survival instincts. Apparently, Dawkins just thinks that a world of generous, selfless people would be a better place in which to live.
ANYTHING BUT GOD
Honestly, Wilson and Dawkins really seem to want as many Christian neighbors as possible. As we have seen already, one of Christ’s most important messages was to put others first; this is the altruism desired by Dawkins. Further, the Bible balances the concerns of groups and individuals that Wilson would like to see within human societies (1978, pp. 196-199). In the New Testament, we find that the church is to form a unified body, while each member plays a crucial role (1 Corinthians 12:27). It sets high standards for husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees, and governments and citizens (1 Peter 2:12-3:7), yet these ties do not come ahead of our personal relationship with God (e.g., Luke 14:25-27; Matthew 22:21).
Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher and fan of Dawkins, has made an interesting comment along these lines. He points out that biblical ethics is a case of going from what the Bible says, to what we should or should not do. Whether you can make this move depends on your view of Scripture. If you claim that the Bible contains wise sayings, but is the product of human hands, then you are on no better ground than an evolutionist who derives his ethical precepts from Darwin’s Origin of Species. “Now,” Dennett points out, “if you believe that the Bible (or some other holy text) is literally the word of God, and that human beings are put here on Earth by God in order to do God’s bidding, so that the Bible is a sort of user’s manual for God’s tools, then you do indeed have grounds for believing that the ethical precepts found in the Bible have a special warrant that no other writings could have” (Dennett, 1995, p. 476, emp. in orig.). In other words, it is reasonable to go from God’s ought (“Thou shalt”) to our ought (“I should”), as long as you believe that God communicated directly to man.
The only valid Christian ethics, then, is a Christian ethics based on accepting the divine inspiration and authority of God’s Word. Espousing a “Christian ethic” without these beliefs will not work any more than espousing an evolutionary ethic based on Darwinism.
What are the alternatives? Obviously, for evolutionists, Christianity is out of the question. This leaves only one live option: secular humanism. Although Wilson, Dawkins, and Dennett would have you believe that they can offer a scientific view of ethics, they all end with the humanist’s plea to fulfill our potential as autonomous, thinking beings (Wilson, 1978, pp. 195-196; Dawkins, 1989, pp. 200-201; Dennett, 1995, pp. 468,476-477,481). The “evolution” in evolutionary ethics seems nothing more than a nod to nature for creating a brain mysteriously capable of moral judgments, and a body predisposed to self-preservation. There really is no basis—no set of facts—from which to defend or justify secular humanism, except the assumption that we must look to ourselves, and ourselves alone, for what is right.
Although these writers offer only a vague outline of evolutionary ethics, and offer no reasonable support, they are most definite about their intense dislike of Christianity. Wilson hopes that scientific materialism—a bringing together of humanism and evolution—will replace religion as “the more powerful mythology” (1978, p. 207). His attack is two-fold (1978, pp. 191-192).
First, he wishes to overcome the seemingly invincible idea of a Creator God by using scientific materialism as his siege machine. He is confident that humanistic scientists will come up with more ideas to explain the origin of life or the Universe without God, and eventually will undermine the foundations of a belief in divine creation. And second, he wishes to explain away religion. If scientific naturalism can “explain traditional religion, its chief competitor, as a wholly material phenomenon,” then theology will not survive as an independent intellectual discipline.
In Dawkins’ opinion, the “God meme” survives because “it provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that the injustices of this world may be rectified in the next. The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor’s placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary” (Dawkins, 1989, p. 193). Responding to the success of religion, he says: “Religion is a terrific meme. That’s right. But that doesn’t make it true and I care about what’s true. Smallpox virus is a terrific virus. It does its job magnificently well. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to see it stamped out” (Miele, 1995). He calls religion a “bore” and God a “naive personification” (Thomas, 1997, p. 11).
Finally, like Wilson, Dennett believes that evolutionists should engineer the extinction of religion as a vital force in society. Darwin’s “dangerous” idea (i.e., Dennett’s view that evolution has implications for every part of our existence) will create a “toxic” cultural environment for fundamentalist religion (1995, p. 515). The only place for religion will be a kind of cultural zoo; churches will become museums. “Save the Baptists! Yes of course,” Dennett says, “but not by all means. Not if it means tolerating the deliberate misinforming of children about the natural world.... Misinforming a child is a terrible offense” (1995, p. 516; emp. in orig.). His “final solution” is a promise to undo a child’s religious training:
If you insist on teaching your children falsehoods—that the Earth is flat, that “Man” is not a product of evolution by natural selection—then you must expect, at the very least, that those of us who have freedom of speech will feel free to describe your teachings as the spreading of falsehoods, and will attempt to demonstrate this to your children at our earliest opportunity (1995, p. 519).
The agenda, then, is quite clear: there is no proven biological basis for an evolutionary ethic; there is no reasonable connection between Darwinism and culture or values; but anything will do as long as it is couched in the language of science or nature, and as long as it can displace religion in general, and Christianity in particular.
Charles Darwin has left a huge legacy for the modern era. Although his theory has difficulties, many people viewed Darwinian evolution as the only reasonable solution that avoided any appeal to a Creator God. It came at a time when people were looking to shed the constraints of church authority and its influence over education and society. The existing powers had a vested interest in maintaining order and the status quo as a matter of divine economy. There was little room within that power structure for talk of change—either in nature or society. Darwin’s theory challenged these conventions by implying that change, not stability, was the usual state of life on Earth. Reformers interpreted this change as progress—specifically, progress toward a freer, stronger, wealthier society. Many of them believed that this could only occur by unconstrained competition, as outlined by Thomas Malthus. Out of these swirling social currents emerged Herbert W. Spencer’s social Darwinism (despite the name, Darwin never endorsed this application of his theory). Spencer’s idea struck a popular nerve by suggesting that social institutions should step aside and allow nature to cull the poor and destitute, thus creating a fitter race of beings.
Eventually, social Darwinism fell out of favor for several reasons: (1) many people did not want, and would not permit, large-scale starvation among the unemployed and working poor; (2) wars and the changing fortunes of industrialized nations destroyed the notion of inevitable progress; and (3) contrary to the prejudiced Victorian outlook, scientists came to realize that neither technology nor material wealth was a good indicator of a given culture’s complexity or survivability.
The latter quarter of the twentieth century has seen a revival of cultural Darwinism, especially in the form of Edward O. Wilson’s sociobiology. Ostensibly, this field of study differs from Spencer’s view in wanting todescribe, rather than prescribe, human behavior. Some of these accounts are proving highly controversial, especially those that attempt to describe adultery, rape, domestic violence, infanticide, and other abhorrent behaviors in terms of evolutionary theory. The usual explanations include motivations of self-preservation and an unstoppable urge to multiply one’s genetic heritage at almost any cost. However, these accounts resemble Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. In fact, there is a great lack, if not an outright absence, of solid evidence showing the causative relationship between genetics and complex human behavior.
Richard Dawkins has taken a different approach by proposing that human culture evolves apart from biology, but still according to Darwinian principles. He has coined the term “meme” to describe units of cultural inheritance, and intends to draw a strong analogy with genes. However, ideas, tunes, fashions, and other so-called memes follow neither Darwinian selection nor Mendelian rules of inheritance and transmission.
Despite the promise of merely describing behavior, the popularizers of Darwinian orthodoxly give the impression that evolution can (and will) point toward a system of ethics based on biology. Certainly this is the case with Wilson. He believes that a greater knowledge of genetics will reveal a moral code more suited to our genetic constitution. Apart from the poor prospects of finding such a connection, there seems to be no adequate justification for going from what is the case in biology, to what ought to be the case in human culture.
Dawkins believes evolution created a brain capable of making moral judgments, but avoids proposing an evolutionary ethic. If anything, Dawkins views our evolutionary heritage as a peculiarly human challenge. We are in a unique position, he believes, to act against our selfish genes.
Although couched in scientific terms, all these writers have a humanistic agenda. Specifically, they envision values and morals having a basis in whatever makes us human (apart from our spiritual self, of course). There is a sense of urgency in their appeals because they wish to bring an end to Judeo-Christian ethics and any other religious influences on society.
Yet, as Dennett points out, if God exists and the Bible is His Word, then a Christian ethic is on the firmest ground of all. God has provided principles and rules by which we are to act, and has promised to enforce those laws. But there is more. The Incarnation brought us a message of purpose, self-discipline, selflessness, and love for all mankind. Dawkins and company want a reason to be good, but it is not to be found in their world view.
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was extracted, and has been significantly revised, from a chapter I wrote for inclusion in Dangerous ’Isms, edited by B.J. Clarke (Southaven, MS: Power Publications, 1997).]
Cowley, Geoffrey (1997), “Viruses of the Mind: How Odd Ideas Survive,” Newsweek, p. 14, April 14.
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