Evolution, Ethics, Hope, and Religion

Trees and Bushes

There are many issues surrounding the connection between evolution and: progress, ethics, hope, or religion. For instance, some Darwinists and philosophers think of the evolution of species as progressive, that some animals have increased in complexity over time thus resulting in, for instance, bigger brains. But Darwin generally used the term “descent with modification” which doesn’t connate progress. And some Darwinists deny that species change is necessarily progressive. In fact, natural selection doesn’t imply that species are better, only that they are better adapted to their environment. More complex species may go extinct while simpler ones may survive. Evolution may not be like a tree sprouting upward, but more like a bush sprouting sideways.

Historical Progress

Turning to progress in human history, Kant, Hegel, Marx and other modern thinkers espoused progressive views of history that echoed the positive interpretations of history found in the Western monotheistic religions. But if we’ve generally lost hope in religious stories of progress, have we not also lost faith in secular progress as well? We may be becoming smarter or more moral, but then again we may not be.

Theism, Darwinism, or Both?

Evolution is so well confirmed that it is essentially a fact in the same way that the earth is round or goes around the sun. (Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or scientifically illiterate.) Still, many religious fundamentalists refuse to accept the science and prefer their creation myths. Somewhat more sophisticated believers suggest that their God didn’t create things literally, but used cosmic evolution to create us. (A strange way for an omnipotent being to proceed—taking about 14 billion years to complete the task!)

Others argue that biological evolution reduces us to being just animals. But Darwin didn’t draw that conclusion. We may be human-animals, but that doesn’t mean that ethical or aesthetic standards no longer apply to us. We are at least a special kind of animal. So even if we aren’t different in kind from our evolutionary ancestors, or there was no exact moment at which we did became different in kind from them, we are still vastly different from them now. So our values as persons needn’t be undermined by considerations of our origins.

Ethical Values and Evolution 

Religious objections to evolution emanate from concerns that evolution implies that values aren’t objective, or life no longer meaningful. But the fact that there are biological underpinnings to human altruism, doesn’t mean that altruism is reducible to biology. Our brain states affect our values, but our values also affect our brain states. So while there are many reasons to doubt the objectivity of ethics, facts about our origins aren’t one of them.  We can still choose our values independent of considerations of our origins, with the caveat that our origins still inform our ethical choices.

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