Naturalistic Traditions: Evolution and the Way to Live

Portrait of Charles Darwin, by Deevad, CC license
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Most ancient peoples had some notion of how life came to be, quite sophisticated in some cases, and such ideas shaped conceptions of how to live.  What is peculiar, historically speaking, is that modern Western people generally don’t draw such conclusions based on evolution.  Values cannot be derived from facts, so they say.  By contrast, ancient peoples had few such reservations, and generally built their values upon how they understood the facts of their world.

This difference will be pertinent in our investigation into ancient naturalism, so it will pay to spend some time on it.  It will help elucidate our modern preconceptions, the better to avoid projecting them onto ancient peoples.

This post is part of Naturalistic Traditions, a column exploring naturalism in Pagan ways.  The present series explores the historical roots of naturalistic ways in order to gain an expanded sense of the historicity of the diverse styles of belief common in Paganism today.  For previous posts in this series, see the index at the bottom.

Modern evolutionary theory

Although evolutionary theorizing dates as far back as the 6th-century B.C.E. in Greece, it is of course best known for the modern theories of natural selection discovered independently by Darwin and Wallace, supplemented by Mendelian genetics and DNA.  While controversial in the popular sphere, in the academic sphere evolution is accepted as fact by nearly all scientists.  Recently, it has even been transforming such diverse fields as economics, psychology, anthropology, ethics, the arts, and religious studies.

Despite the complexity of evolutionary theory, we can forgo all but the barest details in order to concentrate on their implications for ethics.  For our purposes, we need only emphasize a few qualities characterizing evolutionary theory: it’s grounding in empirical evidence and impersonal physical laws.

First, evolution relies on empirical evidence.  Darwinian theory was criticized for many decades for lack of a physical mechanism underlying natural selection, which was not finally supplied until the discovery of DNA.  Today, evolution is supported by dozens of independent lines of empirical evidence, from fossil records to genetic sequences of DNA.  This separates it from some other competing theories of human and animal origins, and propels it from theory to fact.

Second, evolution is grounded in impersonal physical laws:

  • Impersonal, as described last time with regard to modern cosmology, means without personality or intention.  Natural selection emerges from the interaction of organisms and their environment.  Whatever genes produce traits unfit for the environment fail to reproduce themselves and are eliminated, while those advantageous tend to spread.  Most importantly, evolution is always in relation to current environmental conditions, which can change, so there can be no overall “progress” in evolution.  No form is “superior” to or “more evolved” than another.  Evolution is without intent or purpose.
  • Physical means consisting at base of the one essential substance of matter-energy, however bizarre that substance may turn out to be in modern physics.  Although evolution describes the emergence of creatures with mental qualities, at root it is about biochemical interactions.  No mind or soul is required which does not arise from basic physical processes.
  • Laws means a predictable order that is at is whether we like it or not.  As complex as evolution may be, it displays predictable statistical dynamics unresponsive to our wishes and desires.  We cannot evolve in a certain direction by an act of will or entreaty; we can at best work within known laws to influence results.

These qualities are consistent with modern cosmology and naturalism.  They are also consistent with the ideas of some ancient peoples, many of which considered them to imply a way to live.

The ancient integration of facts and values

In ancient times, values regarding how to live were frequently grounded in what were taken as facts about the world.  Jennifer Michael Hecht identifies two such approaches that have persisted throughout history, which can be paraphrased as personalizing the universe, and universalizing the person.

  • Personalizing the universe sees one or more anthropomorphic personalities controlling events, and concludes the way to live is to cultivate relationship with them.  An example is archaic Greek religion as depicted in Homer, where people attempt to influence events in their favor by making offerings to deities, risking tragedy if they do not.
  • Universalizing the person sees an impersonal order at work, and concludes we ought to identify ourselves with that order.  An example is early Buddhism, which understood phenomena as co-arising due to impersonal karmic forces, with followers attempting to identify with that essentially ego-less process.

These are broad-stroke examples.  They don’t capture the nuance of archaic Greek religion or early Buddhism, both of which included both personal and impersonal elements, and Hecht acknowledges that most religious virtuosos throughout history have combined both approaches to some degree.  For now, they illustrate the two approaches well enough to proceed.

In both cases, values are derived straight from perceived facts.  If ultimate reality is person-like, try to persuade it.  If not, persuasion is hopeless; better to work within its limits instead.

Looking at the two approaches, which fits best with modern evolutionary theory?  Clearly, the second one does.  As an impersonal process without intention, evolution is something we can only hope to work within, not persuade.  So why hasn’t modern evolutionary theory spawned an overt religion or philosophy aiming to universalize the person?

The modern objection

Since Hume and Moore, most philosophers have recognized that you can’t derive ought from is.  In other words, facts about the natural world can’t tell us what our values should be.  Just because male and female organs fit together to reproduce the species, for example, doesn’t mean we ought to use them as such, or that it is unethical to use them otherwise.

The objection, often called the is-ought problem or the naturalistic fallacy, is historically important.  Past eras have misused evolution to promote such programs as eugenics.  A more accurate understanding of evolution would surely prize the preservation of biodiversity above elimination of the so-called unfit, yet the point remains well-taken: moving from facts of evolution to conclusions about how we ought to live is fraught with difficulties.  Science is not seen as capable of defining values.

In contrast, religion has usually been given a pass in this regard.  For example, Stephen Jay Gould’s hypothesis of Non-Overlapping Magisteria grants religion and philosophy full reign over values, while giving science the domain of facts.  A 2011 study found this attitude relatively prevalent among today’s scientists, 70% of whom said science and religion only sometimes conflict, with 15% saying they never conflict.  One common reason given was this notion of separate domains.

The trouble is, today’s religions often derive values from perceived facts no less than ancient peoples did.  Typical reasoning might proceed as follows: if a creator deity made us for a purpose (perceived fact), we ought to fulfill that purpose (value).  But the fallacy can be seen by supposing the creator were secretly evil: would it still be ethical to fulfill its intended purpose?  Clearly the fact of the creator’s purpose cannot provide the values we need to decide how to live.  Religions and philosophies appear to be just as subject to the naturalistic fallacy as science.

Evolution and the way to live

It would seem that the problem of the naturalistic fallacy is either more extensive than usually thought, or not much of a problem at all.

Some have proposed roles for evolution in enlightening ethics (e.g. Casebeer, 2003; Hinde, 2002; Teehan, 2004) or framing the basis of ethics in evolved impulses toward cooperation (e.g. Curry, 2006).

Yet, these attempts remain relatively hesitant and marginal to date.  It remains to be seen whether they will succeed in bridging the gap between evolutionary facts and values.

So, where do our values come from, if not from religion, philosophy, or science?

We would do well to keep this question in mind as we look at ancient peoples and their views, naturalistic or otherwise.  We must keep modern evolutionary views in their era, and ancient ones in theirs.  Meanwhile, as we look at ancient naturalistic ways, we might learn something about ethics for our own time.

Next time, we’ll dive into ancient history with a look at the possibility of naturalistic ideas among hunter-gatherer peoples.


Casebeer, W. D.  (2003).  Natural Ethical Facts: Evolution, Connectionism, and Moral Cognition.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Curry, O.  (2006).  “Who’s Afraid of the Naturalistic Fallacy?”  Evolutionary Psychology, 4, pp. 234-247.

Dawkins, R.  (1976).  The Selfish Gene.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ecklund, E. H., Park, J. Z., Sorrell, K. L.  (2011).  “Scientists Negotiate Boundaries Between Science and Religion.”  Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 50(3), pp. 552-569.

Gould, S. J.  (1999).  Rocks of Ages.  New York: Ballantine Publishing Group.

Hecht, J. M.  (2003).  Doubt: A History.  New York: HarperCollins.

Hinde, R. A.  (2002).  Why Good is Good: The Sources of Morality.  London: Routledge.

Teehan, J.  (2004).  “On the Naturalistic Fallacy: A Conceptual Basis for Evolutionary Ethics.”  Evolutionary Psychology, 2, pp. 32-46.

Previous posts in this series

  1. Exploring the historical roots of Naturalistic Paganism
  2. Modern cosmology

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