The Evolution of (Im)morality

A couple of weeks ago I received a request for a post on the evolution of immorality from a frequent reader.

Is there any chance that you will at some point write about the evolution of immorality in your blog? For me, this question is at the front line of my personal battle with these issues as I try to reconcile my Christian faith with my belief in evolution. Genesis 2 says we were good when God created us, and that we chose sin; evolution tells us “sinful” behavior is natural part of our evolutionary heritage (i.e., how we were created). A solution may be straightforward but it has proven elusive to me, whether a refutation of evolutionary theory on this point or a satisfying synthesis of the two. If we answer that immoral behavior (adultery, murder, gluttony, etc.) wasn’t truly immoral until we became fully human, the problem still remains that our evolutionary heritage seems to have predisposed us to such things. How can we then say that God saw us and pronounced us “very good”?

This reader brings up an excellent topic, and one to which I hope to dedicate a number of posts over the next few months. I expect that many have similar questions. This topic isn’t one for which I have an immediate clear answer, and perhaps it is best to begin simply by posing the question.  A few days later the same reader sent a link to a recent Opinionator piece in the NY Times by E. O. Wilson Evolution and Our Inner Conflict. This piece provides an opportunity to begin the conversation. Wilson begins:

Are human beings intrinsically good but corruptible by the forces of evil, or the reverse, innately sinful yet redeemable by the forces of good? Are we built to pledge our lives to a group, even to the risk of death, or the opposite, built to place ourselves and our families above all else? Scientific evidence, a good part of it accumulated during the past 20 years, suggests that we are all of these things simultaneously. Each of us is inherently complicated. We are all genetic chimeras, at once saints and sinners — not because humanity has failed to reach some foreordained religious or ideological ideal — but because of the way our species originated across millions of years of biological evolution.

Morality is a concept that really only has meaning in the context of a group. As individuals self interest rules, but in a group other forces take over. Many scientists will attribute morality and altruism to kin selection, preserving the selfish gene indirectly (as a group your kinfolk carry your genes). Wilson, along with a growing number of other evolutionary biologists, see a more complicated picture. The selfish gene of the individual is not the sole driving force. There is also group selection at play. Most of these people, Wilson included, see nothing of a creator or a purpose in this.  But this is a topic of interest in the discussion of science and the Christian faith.

Is the evolution of morality or immorality a problem for the Christian view of humanity?

How do we (or did we) become moral creatures?

This is a holiday week, in the US at least, and I am not going to try to get to deeply into the topic. I’ll simply highlight a few of Wilson’s comments and conclusions and open it up for comment.

All things being equal (fortunately things are seldom equal, not exactly), people prefer to be with others who look like them, speak the same dialect, and hold the same beliefs An amplification of this evidently inborn predisposition leads with frightening ease to racism and religious bigotry.

This, of course, is not a problem that leads only to racism and religious bigotry. It is also a problem that leads to elitism and the arrogance of academic, scientific, and scholarly circles. Sitting in the middle, as a professor in a secular major research university, and as an evangelical (although not all will have me), the tendency is strikingly uniform across all persuasions and viewpoints. It is equally common in the faculty meeting and the Sunday school class.

But back to to the evolution of morality. Wilson concludes his column:

So it appeared that humans are forever conflicted by their prehistory of multilevel selection. They are suspended in unstable and constantly changing locations between the two extreme forces that created us. We are unlikely to yield completely to either force as an ideal solution to our social and political turmoil. To yield completely to the instinctual urgings born from individual selection would dissolve society. To surrender to the urgings from group selection would turn us into angelic robots — students of insects call them ants.

The eternal conflict is not God’s test of humanity. It is not a machination of Satan. It is just the way things worked out. It might be the only way in the entire universe that human-level intelligence and social organization can evolve. We will find a way eventually to live with our inborn turmoil, and perhaps find pleasure in viewing it as a primary source of our creativity.

I find Wilson’s observation that morality focused too much on the group and too little on the individual would turn us into angelic robots, something like the ants intriguing. Wilson, of course, sees nothing of God in the evolution of morality, but we are not compelled  to agree with his conclusion. This leads to a number of questions, though, all worth some reflection and discussion.

Is such a unity of opinion and action what God intended when he declared creation good?

Were we meant to be angelic robots – similar to the ants?

When is selfish interest not immoral (by Christian standards)?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If you would like to comment on this post please see The Evolution of Immorality on Jesus Creed.

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