The year 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. 2010 marks 400 years since Galileo published The Starry Messenger, his first public comment on Copernicanism and the first popular argument for the revolutionary concept that the earth goes around the sun (rather than vice versa). In the two centuries between these two events, science had contributed to the rise of a rational humanist perspective largely eclipsed in the Western world since the gradual decline of ancient Greek natural philosophy over 1000 years earlier.
In the popular Western mind, Galileo moved humans from the center of the cosmos—and thus from the focal point of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic drama of divine creation and human morality—to its periphery. Further developments in modern astronomy and physics would demote humanity’s green abode to an insignificant speck in a vast and seemingly meaningless cosmos of strings and quarks that came from nothingness and appeared destined to return there. Darwin further displaced humans from the exalted place of being specially created by God in His image and destined for eternity to being the product of a blind, random, and purposeless evolutionary process that has proceeded for eons and is destined to continue with or without them so long as the cosmos continues.
Except for the specifics, nothing in these developments should have particularly surprised the ancient Greek natural philosophers, who had anticipated and debated all of these as general concepts without converting a substantial portion of the ancient Greek people from their traditional religious views. At bottom then and now was the question: What does this mean for human morality? It led to a rich dialogue then as it does now.
In Search of Secular Wisdom: A Greek Drama
For example, nearly 2500 years ago, Aristophanes wrote a popular and enduring comic dialogue, The Clouds, discussing the tensions between naturalistic science and traditional religion that raises many of the issues still informing this debate. In it, an old farmer named Strepsiades has sunk deep in debt due to his son’s passion for horse racing and seeks the secular wisdom for Socrates.
Their exchange begins:
Strepsiades: Throw open the Thinkery! Unbold the door and let me see this wizard Sokrates in person. Open up! I’m MAD for education! […]
Strepsiades catches sight of Sokrates dangling in a basket overhead and calls up to him:
Strepsiades: Yoohoo, Sokrates!… What in the world are you doing up there?
Sokrates: Ah, sir, I walk upon the air and look down upon the sun from a superior standpoint.
Strepsiades: Well, I suppose it’s better that you sneer at the gods from a basket up in the air than do it down here on the ground.
Sokrates: Precisely. You see, only by being suspended aloft, by dangling my mind in the heavens and mingling my rare thought with the ethereal air, could I ever achieve strict scientific accuracy in my survey of the vast empyrean. [...]
Strepsiades: O dear little Sokrates, please come down. Lower away, and teach me what I need to know!
Sokrates is slowly lowered earthwards.
Sokrates: What subject?
Strepsiades: Your course on public speaking and debating techniques. You see, my creditors have become absolutely ferocious. You should see how they’re hounding me. What’s more, Sokrates, they’re about to seize my belongings.
Sokrates: How in the world could you fall so deeply in debt without realizing it?
Strepsiades: How? A great, greedy horse-pox ate me up, that’s how. But that’s why I want instruction in your second Logic, you know the one—the get-away-without paying argument, I’ll pay you any price you ask. I swear it. By the gods.
Sokrates: By the gods? The gods, my dear simple fellow, are a mere expression coined by vulgar superstition. We frown upon such coinage here. Tell me, old man, would you honestly like to learn the truth, the real truth, about the gods?
Strepsiades: By Zeus, I sure would, The real truth. [...]Sokrates: [Physical entities, like clouds,] are the only gods there are. The rest are but figments.
Strepsiades: Holy name of Earth! Olympian Zeus is a figment?
Sokrates: Zeus? What Zeus? Nonsense. There is no Zeus.
Strepsiades: No Zeus? Then who makes it rain? Answer me that.
Sokrates: Why, the Clouds, of course. What’s more, the proof is incontrovertible. For instance, have you ever yet seen rain when you didn’t see a cloud? But if your hypothesis were correct, Zeus could drizzle from an empty sky, while the clouds were on vacation.
Strepsiades: By Apollo, you’re right. A pretty proof.
Like any great literary work, the themes raised by Aristophanes nearly 2500 years ago still resonate today. The playwright has Sokrates, the voice of scientific reason, saying there is no god. The view appealed to Strepsiades, the simple farmer, because he thought that it might free him from the duty to pay gambling debts. Denying god undermines morality, this view suggests, while scientific reason could provide an alternative (and surer), basis for ethics. Sokrates certainly thought so in his day, and many modern philosophers of science believe so today. These issues are as old as ancient Greece, where scientific rationalism first flourished, but revived and became even more pressing with the advent of Darwinism 150 years ago this fall.
“I Had No Intention to Write Atheistically”
In November, 1859, within a week of receiving a pre-publication copy of his former student’s bold new book, On the Origin of Species, the great nineteenth-century Cambridge University geologist and ordained Anglican minister Adam Sedgwick wrote to Charles Darwin,
I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Tis the crown & glory of organic science that it does thro’ final cause, link material to moral… You have ignored this link; &, if I do not mistake your meaning, you have done your best in one of two pregnant cases to break it. Were it possible (which thank God it is not) to break it, humanity in my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalize it.
Origin of Species, of course, was the book that Darwin used to launch his theory of evolution by natural selection—a product of over two decades of painstaking, largely private research, which (in turn) followed in the wake of Darwin’s famous four-year round-the-world voyage as a young naturalist aboard the British survey ship, the H.M.S. Beagle. It was during that voyage that Darwin first took seriously the idea that current plant and animal species evolved from preexisting species rather than each having been specially created by God. As an idea, evolution was as old as science itself, but had never gained widespread acceptance among scientists; at least until Darwin’s day.
Writing to Darwin after he received his advance copy of Origin of Species, Harvard University botanist Asa Gray also expressed concern about the book’s theological implications. “I had no intention to write atheistically,” Darwin replied to Gray.
But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do… evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that the cat should play with the mouse [before killing it].
Alluding to William Paley’s analogy between a crafted telescope and the human eye, which was a key part of the Anglican theologian’s famous proof of an intelligent designer behind organic creation. Darwin then added, “Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressing designed.” Even human nature and mental ability might result from natural processes, he concluded.
The sequence in Darwin’s letter to Gray is telling. It passed quickly from observations of what seemed bad in nature (such as cruel animal behavior, which even devout creationists hesitate to blame on God) to ones about what seemed good in nature (such as the human eye, which Victorians typically credited to God), and then moved on to ponder the origin of what seemed best of all, human morality and mentality, which natural theologians typically hail as the ultimate gift and proof of the divine supernatural. In Origin of Species, Darwin avoided making comments about human evolution, fearing that they would prejudice readers against his general theory, but his private notes, essays, and letters reveal his longstanding fascination with the issue.
Indeed, Darwin’s earliest private notebooks on evolution are peppered with comparisons between the strikingly primitive peoples of Tierra de Fuego, whom he met during his Beagle voyage, and pampered primates in the London zoo, suggesting that humans and human morality were akin to other animals and their behavior. He wrote in 1838, “Let man visit orangutan in domestication, hear expressive whine, see its intelligence, then let him dare to boast of his proud preeminence.” Here Darwin inserted the phrase, “not understanding language of Fuegian[s], puts [them] on par with Monkeys.” In a later entry, he demanded: “Compare, the Fuegian & Orangutan, & dare to say difference so great.” As for the vaunted “mind of man,” Darwin concluded, it “is no more perfect, than instincts of animals.” Human thought itself (like animal instincts) he attributed to brain structure, chiding himself “oh you Materialist!” for thinking so.
While Darwin avoided commenting publically on human evolution, his most visible scientific supporter, the well-connected British comparative anatomist T. H. Huxley, took up the cause and made it his own. In 1863, four years after Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared, Huxley packaged the pieces of his various arguments on the topic into a single popular book, Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature. “Whatever system of organs be studied,” Huxley concluded, “the structural differences that separate Man from the Gorilla and the Chimpanzee are not so great as those which separate the Gorilla from the lower apes.”
The most vexing questions raised by Darwinism concerned the origins of human mental and moral attributes, particularly altruistic behavior or sacrificial love. Could these distinguishing human characteristics have evolved by a naturalistic process, Victorian evolutionists asked, or did God implant them in an evolved human body? Could a self-serving, struggle-for-existence process produce self-sacrificing humans?
Traditionally, Christian theologians had attributed these attributes to an indwelling soul, the existence of which lifted humans above other animals. Scientists generally segregated humans from other animals on this basis as well, from Aristotle’s theory of the rational soul, through the Cartesian dualism splitting physical matter from the human and divine soul, to George Cuvier’s division of humans and primates into separate taxonomic orders. Now Huxley, in Man’s Place in Nature, lumped humans in the same order with other primates and boldly asked,
Is the philanthropist or the saint to give up his endeavours to lead a noble life, because the simplest study of man’s nature reveals, at its foundations, all the selfish passions and fierce appetites of the merest quadruped? Is mother-love vile because a hen shows it, or fidelity base because dogs possess it?
These were the new questions of the Darwinian age.
Differences in Degree Rather than in Kind
After steering clear of the intense public debate over human evolution for over a decade, Darwin finally broke his public silence on the subject in his 1871 book, Descent of Man. “The sole object of this work,” he wrote, “is to consider, firstly, whether man, like every other species, is descended from some preexisting form; secondly, the manner of his development; and thirdly, the value of the differences between the so-called races of man.” In this book, Darwin raised the key issues that would thereafter occupy researchers in the field.
Darwin’s basic case for human evolution consisted of two main parts. First, he presented the by-then well known evidence for the evolution of the human body. In anatomical structure and embryonic development, people resemble other animals, he noted, and the persistence of monkey-like rudimentary features (such as the tailbone) reinforced the conclusion that the human body evolved from lower forms.
The body’s evolution, even if accepted, did not settle the matter because many believed that humans stood apart from animals due to their minds and emotions, not their bodies. Darwin thus extended his naturalistic analysis to include those mental and moral attributes that supposedly uplifted humanity, such as higher reasoning, self-consciousness, religious devotion, and the ability to love. The mental powers and moral feelings of humans differed in degree (rather than in kind) from those of other animals, he asserted, with a progressive gradient linking the lowest beasts to the highest humans.
Darwin highlighted the human-like qualities of higher animals (particularly pet dogs and wild primates) and the animal-like qualities of the “lowest” savages. “Can we feel sure that an old dog with an excellent memory… never reflects on his past pleasures in the chase? and this be a form of self-consciousness,” he wrote in a typical passage. “On the other hand,… how little can the hard-working wife of a degraded Australian savage… reflect on the nature of her own existence!” Similarly, Darwin doubted whether Fuegians felt religious devotion yet saw “some distinct approach to this state of mind in the deep love of a dog for his master.”
Darwin attributed the evolution of even the most ennobling of human traits to the same gradual, naturalistic, survival-of-the-fittest processes that he envisioned as producing all living things. Here was his theory of evolution by natural selection applied to human nature. Long ago in Africa, he suggested, some anthropoidal apes descended from the trees, started walking erect in the open spaces, began using their hands to hold or to hunt, and developed their brains—all in incremental steps that helped to preserve the individual or its group.
The Dissenters: There is a Spiritual Essence Ennobling Humanity
Descent of Man offered the first comprehensive naturalistic theory of the evolution of human moral thought, but it did not change many minds. Europeans and Americans had hotly debated the proposition that humans evolved from beasts ever since the publication of Origin of Species in 1859, but long after the appearance of Descent of Man in 1871, most continued to reject the idea that human mentality and morality evolved by naturalistic processes.
The skeptics included Alfred Russel Wallace, who co-discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection along with Darwin and who remained a staunch Darwinist on other matters, became persuaded that an “Overruling Intelligence” created the first humans by ennobling anthropoidal apes with enlightened minds. “Natural selection could only have endowed the savage with a brain a little superior to that of an ape,” Wallace wrote in 1869 and maintained ever after, “whereas he actually possesses one but very little inferior to that of the average members of our learned societies.” Darwin’s mentor and friend, geologist Charles Lyell, promptly endorsed Wallace’s position, much to Darwin’s dismay. For his part, Asa Gray steadfastly maintained that God supervised the beneficial variations that produced humankind.
Darwin’s view of human origins received even less support from non-scientists. The triumph of evolutionism within the Victorian scientific community during the 1860s did not quickly translate into widespread popular acceptance of the theory, especially with respect to human morality or the spiritual soul. Science did not then dominate how Europeans and North Americans viewed the natural world (much less the supernatural). The matter of human morality was particularly sensitive because it impacted how people viewed themselves, other persons, and God.
Crucially, evolutionary naturalism undermined belief in an indwelling spiritual (as opposed to material) soul, which for many people defined the very essence of humanness. Late in his life, Wallace could claim (with some hyperbole) that “all of the greatest writers and thinkers” agreed “that the higher mental and spiritual nature of man is not the mere animal nature advanced through survival of the fittest.” Novelist Leo Tolstoy proclaimed this viewpoint in Russia, for example, and prominent Congregationalist cleric Henry Ward Beecher did so in the United States. Both embraced evolutionism to a point, but maintained belief in a spiritual essence ennobling humanity as opposed to a materialist view of morals and human behavior then associated with a wide range of European social thinkers from Ernst Haeckel to Karl Marx.
Materialism knew no ideological bounds. From the right wing of the political spectrum, for example, the widely read mid-nineteenth-century English social philosopher Herbert Spencer, already an evolutionist, freely worked Darwinian materialism into his progressivist philosophy of social development, which was dubbed Social Darwinism by its critics. Haeckel carried these ideas to the German-speaking world, with translated editions of his most popular books returning back to Britain to reinforce Social Darwinism in its homeland. As social theorists, Spencer, Haeckel, and Darwin became inexorably linked in the public mind during the late nineteenth century.
Spencer’s many followers, whose numbers comprised a virtual social register of the Anglo-American moneyed elite, typically embraced Darwinism as well. In his Autobiography, for example, Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie recalled the day in the 1870s that his reading of Darwin’s Descent of Man, Haeckel’s History of Creation, and various books by Spencer transformed his life. “I remember that light came as in a flood and all was clear. Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I had found the truth of evolution,” he wrote. “Man was not created with an instinct for his own degradation, but from the lower he had risen to the higher forms.” For people like Carnegie, Darwinism became a religion, or at least an alternative source of human moral or ethical values.
Humans are Survival Machines
In some ways, little has changed in the past century. Many otherwise committed evolutionists draw the line on materialism when it comes to the ascent of man and the foundation for human values. Indeed, even T.H. Huxley sidestepped this delicate issue by stressing that humans, because of their big brains, need not derive their values from nature: People could still favor the Golden Rule over the law of the jungle even if they did not believe that the former came from God. More recently, Oxford University ornithologist David Lack, whose groundbreaking 1947 study of Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands gave wing to the modern neo-Darwinian synthesis, nevertheless said of the higher attributes of humans, “Science has not accounted for morality, truth, beauty, individual responsibility or self-awareness, and many people hold that, from its nature, it can never do so.”
Similarly, the noted American geneticist Francis Collins, who directed the human genome project and now heads the NIH, wrote in 2002, “Science will certainly not shed any light on what in means to love someone, what it means to have a spiritual dimension to our existence, nor will it tell us much about the character of God.” Most scientists no longer think this way, however. Like Darwin, many of them see human mental and moral attributes (including altruistic behavior and belief in God) as the product of natural forces or, as British science writer Richard Dawkins likes to put it, a “blind watchmaker.”
Dawkins’ books have become bestsellers in the United States and Britain, and his vision of human evolution (or more precisely, the vision of it that he popularized from the work of such preeminent late-twentieth-century biologists as William Hamilton and E.O. Wilson) is shared by many evolutionary biologists today. Humans, like all living organisms, “are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes,” Dawkins writes.
The genes themselves cannot plan ahead or respond to their environment, he stresses. They simply reproduce themselves with occasional random mutations that may or may not assist their survival, and we are the astonishing (or astonished) result.
Dawkins finds this view of life exhilarating. For him, it frees humans from the burden of purposeful design in nature, which he identifies as “the most influential of the arguments for the existence of God.” Unlike the controlling purposes of a designing God, Dawkins exalts, “Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin described, and which we now know is the explanation for existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind.”
Adding urgency to the matter for Dawkins is his conviction that the wide-spread acceptance of an evolutionary view of life would free society from the destructive consequences of religion. In the Preface for this latest bestseller, The God Delusion, Dawkins describes the non-so-subtle ad for this popular BBC-TV documentary called “The Root of All Evil.” Over the caption, “Imaging a world without religion,” the ad reprints a picture of the Manhattan skyline with the twin towers still standing. In the book, Dawkins adds, “Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no crusades, no witch-hunts,” and so on: A world without religion, he says, and nothing good is missing.
As Dawkins sees it, belief in God and religion once served a Darwinian purpose by helping to bind small tribes together in opposition to others. Now that those small, competing tribes have become large nations or ethnic groups with access to weapons of mass destruction, however, the persistence of this evolutionary trait has become so destructive that it could potentially destroy human society altogether. Only by understanding—a new meme, Dawkins might say—can humanity overcome its now destructive God gene. Humans should be mature enough to develop and maintain our own ethical code informed by scientific knowledge of its consequences, he argues, rather than rely on an ancient moral code inscribed in scriptural texts of human origin composed in a different era for reasons that no longer apply.
Dawkins finally brings the story to where Rev. Adam Sedgwick feared that it would end 150 years ago when he read this pre-publication copy of Origin of Species. Indeed, from the very outset, what readers generally found most exciting (or frightening) about Darwinism was the prospect that humans evolved from beasts by a naturalistic process that goes back in some material cause-and-effect chain to earliest forms of life. Humans, after all, even those steeped in science or theology, care most about themselves and their own kind.
Dawkins now expresses this view in starkly dogmatic terms but, except for the bit about genes (which were unknown in the 19th century), he does not claim to say anything more than Darwin said in Descent of Man or, for that matter, in Origin of Species. Today, Darwin’s sketchy social theories have matured by way of E.O. Wilson’s sociobiology and modern evolutionary psychology to become foundational for understanding in the social sciences. Through it, human behavior is reduced to the physical and people become merely matter in motion with evolved self consciousness. Meanwhile, the rapid march of neurobiology joins evolutionary psychology in linking human mentality with the Darwinian material.
Meanwhile, back at the Thinkery
As they become popular, these developments might lead a modern day Strepsiades to call on Dawkins for advice once sought from Sokrates:
Strepsiades: Throw open the Thinkery! Unbolt the door and let me see this scientist Dawkins in person. Open up! I’m MAD for education!
Strepsiades catches sight of Dawkins crawling out of the sea like a legged fish and calls to him:
Strepsiades: Yoohoo, Richard! What in the world are you doing down there?
Dawkins: Ah sir, I arise from the sea like all humankind evolved from below. But who are you and why do you call on me?
Strepsiades: I, Strepsiades, do because I hunger after moral truth.
Dawkins: But you are not young! Why should you care about moral truth? Only the young are fool enough to believe in truth. With age we learn to seek what works to bring pleasure and let that suffice for truth.
Strepsiades: But I have lost my pleasurable life: All my investments have become worthless and they say I am to blame. I need a new moral truth to save me from jail!
Dawkins: Who dares call you wrong when there is no wrong or right—only survival.
Strepsiades: The investors who bought my mortgage-backed securities that I created with such skill to enhance my survival, that’s who. They once clamored for my securities and anyone who held them became rich. I was the fittest!
Dawkins: Then you were right!
Strepsiades: But now no one wants them and I cannot survive.
Dawkins: So now you are wrong.
Strepsiades: But how can I be right and wrong doing the same thing?
Dawkins: Conditions change. Just think of the United States. After 9/11 if needed to survive, torture and secret prisons were okay even thought the Geneva Convention and international law called them wrong.
Strepsiades: Good God, how can torture ever be right? Is nothing certain?
A basket descends from the sky carrying Pope Benedict XVI, who cries out:
Benedict: Strepsiades, you called for God? I am God’s agent on earth.
Strepsiades: I did not call for God, I merely cried Good God. But since you are here, let me ask you about torture. Can it ever be right?
Benedict: Never, God’s law forbids torture.
Dawkins: If that is “true,” as you call it, why did the Church torture heretics during the inquisition?
Benedict: That was to glorify God and His truth, not to serve humans and their states.
Dawkins: And who determined this? Who says when torture is right?
Benedict: The Church, God’s agent on Earth. Never the State.
Dawkins: But what if the Church is wrong?
Benedict: Guided by God, the Church can never be wrong: If not guided by God, then it is not the Church, but merely a false pretender to divine authority.
Strepsiades: But what about me; I never tortured anyone. I just sold them securities that have lost all value. Is that okay?
Benedict: Why did you sell them these securities?
Strepsiades: To make money, of course!
Benedict: Then it was not right. You should do everything to glorify God.
Dawkins: Even torture?
Benedict: Yes, even torture.
Dawkins: Even abortion? Is it right to have an abortion to glorify God?
Benedict: No! Never! An abortion only serves humans and violates God’s law.
Dawkins:But what if the woman thought it would glorify God?
Benedict: Then she was wrong; possessed of a demonic delusion, and risks eternal torture in Hell to God’s glory.
Strepsiades: Torture again! This is torture to me. I just wanted to know about my mortgage-backed securities. Were they okay? Will I go to Hell for bilking people?
Dawkins: Don’t let him fool you, there is no Hell, only this life.
Strepsiades: No Hell! Then what if I was never caught? What if house prices kept going up so no one discovered the securities were worthless until after my death.
Dawkins: With your money, did you reproduce, raise children and leave your genes? If so, you were right.
Strepsiades: By God yes I did! Aristotle Onassis could not have spread more sperm.
Benedict: Are you calling me again? If by God you did it, they you did well; If not by God, they you did wrong and even if your sins are discovered only after death, you will be found out. Justice is mine says the Lord.
Dawkins: What justice? Only biology determines justice and a false mimic of truth can be as successful as truth. Consider the butterflies with patterns that mimic those of bitter tasking ones. They survive by fooling predators just like Strepsiades. Stockbrokers deal on the illusion of value and so long as the illusion works it is good and the predators go hungry.
Benedict: No, by God no. God is never fooled. Strepsiades, did you know your securities were worthless?
Strepsiades: I knew they only had value so long as people thought they had value.
Benedict: And you sold them to engorge yourself without concern for others or God?
Strepsiades: Yes, for myself and my family, but I did not want to hurt anyone. And anyway, nothing has value unless people think it has value. Even gold would be worthless if people did not horde it.
Benedict: Honest labor has value if used to create human necessities like bread and shelter, but not your securities. Coveting, blasphemy, envy, gluttony—four mortal sins. You did wrong and you shall pay for it in this life or beyond.
Dawkins: But what if the Church had done it to raise money for its works? Benedict:The Church does not sell worthless securities!
Dawkins: What about indulgences? The Church sold pieces of paper granting forgiveness for sins and pardon from purgatory.
Benedict: But those had value. They gave peace of mind and passage to heaven.
Dawkins: Only so long as people thought they had value. As Strepsiades says, even worthless securities have value so long as people think they have worth.
Strepsiades: Stop! I’m totally confused. Rising from the sea, one tells me my securities were okay so long as they worked but then became wrong: Only results matter. Descending from the sky, another tells me my securities were wrong unless done for the right reason: Only motive matters. What if I do something that has bad results for a good reason: Suppose I help someone across the street into an oncoming truck?
Benedict: They you did right, and even if you die, you live on in Heaven.
Dawkins: They you did wrong, and you die. There is no Heaven.
Strepsiades: So heaven is the goal!
Dawkins: It is the delusion that can drive us to do wrong by thinking it is right, like hijacking an airplane and flying it into the World Trade Center for Allah.
Benedict: It is the truth that can lead us to do right even if it costs us our life, like jumping into a flooded river to save a drowning stranger.
Strepsiades: Well, if it keeps me from jail, I will say that I did it all for God and give a portion of my profits to the Church. Then maybe the judge will be merciful and I can survive.
Dawkins: If that works, then maybe religion is right after all.
Benedict: Ah, God’s truth prevails over Dawkins’ doubts after all. Strepsiades, here is the Church donation box.