Four Problems with Evolutionary Morality

Author Tim Barnett Published on 01/09/2017

Evolution and morality don’t mix.1 That was the conclusion I arrived at in a recent research paper I wrote for my master’s degree. Yet, many evolutionary naturalists do not want to give up morality. Instead, they attempt to ground morality in naturalistic evolution. This is fraught with serious difficulties. Taken altogether, these form an insurmountable case against evolution as the foundation of morality.

Evolutionary Naturalism Cannot Get an “Ought” from an “Is”

Science describes the way the natural world is, it doesn’t tell us how it ought to be. This is where evolutionary morality faces a widely recognized problem. Namely, it cannot produce an “ought” from an “is.” Normative rules cannot be derived from empirical facts. In fact, Nobel Prize winning biochemist Jacques Monod writes,

One of the greatest problems of philosophy is the relationship between the realm of knowledge and the realm of values. Knowledge is what “is” and values are what “ought” to be. I would say that all traditional philosophies up to and including communism have tried to derive the “ought” from the “is.” This is impossible. If it is true that there is no purpose in the universe, that man is a pure accident, you cannot derive any ought from is.2

The problem stems from trying to deduce a moral duty from a scientific description. Darwinian evolution may be able to describe past behavior, but it lacks the resources to prescribe future behavior. As Greg Koukl puts it, “One question can never be answered by any evolutionary assessment of ethics: Why ought I be moral tomorrow?”3 Any response assumes an objective standard beyond the natural world.

Evolutionary Morality Keeps Evolving

Evolution is arbitrary and could have evolved differently; therefore, the same is true of evolutionary morality.4 In fact, it is possible that morality could have evolved in the opposite direction. Consequently, those behaviors that are praised as virtuous would be immoral, and those that are vices would be moral.

Philosopher Michael Ruse and biologist E. O. Wilson describe how things could have evolved differently.

Suppose that, instead of evolving from savannah-dwelling primates, we had evolved in a very different way. If, like the termites, we needed to dwell in darkness, eat each other’s faeces [sic] and cannibalize the dead, our epigenetic rules...would be very different from what they are now. Our minds would be strongly prone to extol such acts as beautiful and moral. And we would find it morally disgusting to live in the open air, dispose of body waste, and bury the dead.5

Furthermore, evolution does not provide a stable foundation for morality in the future. Since evolution is a process of change, morality must also change. 6 Apologist Frank Turek asks, “If evolution is the source of morality, then what’s to stop morals from evolving (changing) to the point that one day rape, theft, and murder are considered moral?”7

This reveals the absurdity of trying to ground morality in naturalistic evolution. What is morally prohibited today could be morally obligatory tomorrow. And this evolution wouldn’t be morally better or worse, it would only be morally different. For example, in the distant future, slavery may function well in the perpetuation of the human species in the struggle for survival. As a result, enslaving other human beings may become moral. To avoid this conclusion, one must smuggle in a transcendent moral standard that evolution just doesn’t provide.

Evolutionary Naturalism Explains Morality Away

Evolution is all about survival of species. This means, on an evolutionary view, moral beliefs are fitness directed, not truth directed. That is, we come to hold moral beliefs based on what confers a survival advantage and not on what corresponds to reality.

Given that evolutionary morality is fitness-oriented, not truth-oriented, many naturalists have questioned the existence of morality. Moral realism is the view that there are objective, mind-independent moral facts. Unfortunately, Darwinism does not explain how there could be moral facts; rather, it attempts to explain how humanity has come to mistakenly believe in moral facts.

Michael Ruse and E. O. Wilson understand this. They state, “Ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. It is without external grounding.”8 Ruse and Wilson continue, “Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends.... Ethics is produced by evolution but not justified by it, because, like Macbeth’s dagger, it serves a powerful purpose without existing in substance.”9 (Emphasis added.)

Ruse and Wilson do not believe this is a problem for their view. They state,

“The way our biology enforces its ends is by making us think that there is an objective higher code, to which we are all subject.... Because we think that ethics is objectively based, we are inclined to obey moral rules.”10 (Emphasis added.)

Naturalistic evolution acts as a con artist tricking people into thinking that morality is real. So the act of rape itself isn’t morally wrong. Rather, our genes have tricked us into thinking rape is wrong.

Therefore, evolutionary naturalism does not explain the existence of morality. Rather, it explains why we think morality exists when it actually doesn’t. So the evolutionary approach is not really an explanation of morality; it is a denial of morality. It only explains the illusion of morality.

Evolutionary Naturalism Undermines All Moral Beliefs

Charles Darwin was rightly skeptical about the possibility of rationality given naturalistic evolution. He writes, “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”11 Of course, this would include moral convictions.

On an evolutionary view, there is no reason to trust our moral convictions. After all, if we hold our moral beliefs because of the fitness conferred by the resulting behavior, then it appears that we would have had those beliefs whether or not they were true.12 Minimally, this means we could never know whether our moral beliefs correspond to moral facts. Given the genesis of our moral convictions, we are left with moral skepticism.

For the naturalist, each of these problems poses a serious challenge. However, taken together, this case is unassailable. Rather than deny morality, the naturalist should deny naturalism. The theistic worldview makes sense of transcendent morality and avoids the problems we have discussed.