Evolution Isn’t a Moral Theory (Except When It Is)

A Review of When Atheism Becomes Religion, Part I

At the beginning of chapter 2, Chris Hedges says that science is a “morally neutral discipline” (p.45) which offers potential for both good and evil. He goes on to assert:

Evolution is a biological theory that helps us grasp descent, with modification, within living species. It is not a theory about economic systems, government, morality, ethics or the behavior of nations. [p.46]

So far, so good – there’s nothing in that paragraph that I disagree with. But a little later on that very same page, Hedges excoriates people who believe in moral progress as follows:

Darwinism sees our animal natures as intractable. It never attempts to argue that human beings can overcome biological limitations and create a human paradise. It infers the opposite. The belief in collective moral progress is anti-Darwinian. [p.46]

So, evolution isn’t a theory about morality, and yet belief in moral progress is contradicted by evolution. I scarcely need to point out that these statements can’t both be true.

This sloppy, careless self-contradiction reminds me of Francis Collins and John Haught, both of whom said that it’s a misuse of science to make statements about whether the universe has purpose – unless you’re arguing for purpose, in which case appealing to science is totally legitimate. It’s only the conclusions they disagree with that they think science can’t legitimately be used to defend. Hedges is doing the same thing.

So, who are these evil scientists who misuse Darwinism to argue for moral progress? Hedges’ villain of choice is Richard Dawkins, whom he quotes as follows:

He writes that the human species, unlike other animals, can transcend its biological map: “We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

…Wilson and Dawkins build their vision of human perfectibility out of the legitimately scientific theory that human beings are shaped by the laws of heredity and natural selection. They depart from this position when they assert that we can leave that determinism behind. There is nothing in science that implies that our genetic makeup allows us to perfect ourselves. (p.53)

Hedges is sparring with his own fantasies, since none of the atheists he quotes ever use the word “perfect”. That was his choice of words, not theirs. It’s a bad sign when the linchpin of your argument depends on putting words in your opponent’s mouth.

What Dawkins was actually saying, and which should be obvious, is that human beings can evaluate the reasons for or against acting in a certain way and then choose on that basis – even if those choices contradict the instincts instilled in us by our evolutionary past. For example, we can choose to never have children – or adopt and spend our lives caring for a genetic stranger’s children – in spite of the overriding evolutionary imperative to pass on one’s genes. We can choose not to eat sugary and fatty foods, despite our appetite’s subconscious promptings to store up calories for the next dry season. We can choose to suppress territorial and xenophobic urges and settle conflicts peacefully with diplomacy. Atheists’ pointing out these incontrovertible facts of human nature become, to Hedges, further proof of our complete depravity.

The interesting follow-up question this raises is, what does Hedges believe we should do? Later in the chapter, he declares his opposition to “memetic engineering”, which he defines as the process of “disseminating good memes and curtailing bad ones” – i.e., trying to teach people to behave morally. He calls this plan “a new variation of thought control” and fulminates that “it would result in anti-intellectualism, a war on science and democratic freedom, and a silencing of those who fail to conform” (p.66). We should steer clear of it because evolution teaches us that “human nature is fixed and irredeemable” (p.67).

The idea that anything about us is “fixed” is a laughable distortion of evolution, and “irredeemable” is one of those value judgments which Hedges earlier told us has no place in science, though he seems to have forgotten that. But what he’s really saying, it seems, is that people will never be any better than they are now, so we should give up trying. Moral education, in his eyes, is “thought control” and “anti-intellectualism”, and it’s more important that we not silence those who urge us to do evil. Is this man an exemplar whose views we should prefer to those of the New Atheists?

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://reverendredmage.blogspot.com/ Reverend Red Mage

    This whole “Darwinist” thing is really starting to get tiring, and I really can’t believe that creationists are still using it. To me, the fact that he even utilizes that word destroys any credibility he may have in his arguments towards evolution.

    Just because I accept the theory doesn’t mean I worship Darwin. The theory is true regardless of its author. I understand, though, that Hedges comes from a very weak mindset where the person making the argument holds a lot of weight behind its verisimilitude.

    Does Hedges define “Darwinist” in his book or does he just throw it out there, expecting the reader to correlate scientific theory with an ideology? Given the glaring contradiction you pointed out, I’m not entirely sure if he’s differentiating between “evolution” and “Darwinism”.

  • kennypo65

    How is thinking scientifically ideological? When new evidence contradicts a scientific theory, the scientist alters his view, the idealogue just moves the goalposts. An idealogue can never be wrong, a scientific thinker must be willing(even eager) to be wrong, because he/she knows that it’s not about who’s right or wrong, it’s about finding the truth.

  • NoAstronomer

    Physics sees our physical natures as intractable. It never attempts to argue that human beings can overcome biological limitations and create a human paradise.

    Chemistry sees our chemical natures as intractable. It never attempts to argue that human beings can overcome biological limitations and create a human paradise.

    Cosmology sees our cosmological natures as intractable. It never attempts to argue that human beings can overcome biological limitations and create a human paradise.

    Logic sees our logical natures as intractable. It never attempts to argue that human beings can overcome biological limitations and create a human paradise.

    etc etc…

    The reason that religion fails is because it ignores our biological ‘limitations’. Do these people actually graduate from college? No wonder we’re in trouble.

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com/ themann1086

    Red Mage, just so you know, Hedges is not a creationist. He is a Marxist, though, and a very ideologically rigid one at that.

  • Eurekus

    Chris Hedges sounds like some kind of societal anarchist. Even my dog resists his urge to hump me, because he knows I’ll knock him out. Resisting my urge to go out and party has given me qualifications to get a job. Hell, if he really believes what he’s saying, why doesn’t he parade himself naked down the street to advertise himself? This is so funny. Could it be that controlling our evolutionary animal urges actually gives us an advantage? Hell, that sounds like social evolution to me.
    Incidentally, I’m not mean to animals.

  • jack

    I just listened to an interview with Hedges about this book, recorded in 2008, just to try to get some idea of who he is and what he believes (he also has a page on wikipedia). I was not much impressed. Anyone who pronounces “nuclear” the way our 43rd president did instantly drops a notch in my estimation. For some reason it seems even more annoying when “nuculer” is not uttered in a Texas drawl.

    As far as I can tell, Hedges is a political leftie who likes the idea of original sin and believes in some kind of amorphous, nonfundamentalist, noninterventionist, impersonal god who does not answer our prayers… one of those gods who is indistinguishable from a nonexistent god. He says we New Atheists have embraced a “cult of science”, which I assume is his way of accusing us of scientism.

    He seems to love the idea that human nature precludes moral progress, and at one point in the interview quotes some theologian (maybe Niebuhr iirc) that moral progress comes only from the divine. If that’s really what he believes, and his god never intervenes in our universe, then his is a truly dark and miserable view of existence.

    Evolution is a biological theory that helps us grasp descent, with modification, within living species. It is not a theory about economic systems, government, morality, ethics or the behavior of nations. [p.46]

    I don’t completely buy this argument. Morality, ethics and human culture are the products of human brains, and human brains are the products of evolution. Biology explains why we have innate gut feelings about some human behaviors being right or wrong. It also teaches us about the essential nature of homeostasis and equilibrium in the relationship between a species and its environment, and thereby informs us at least about the unsustainability, if not the immorality, of our current way of abusing the global ecosystem.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    I recall a few years ago Hedges starting ranting about the Iraq War during a speech he was giving at a college commencement ceremony, and the students were booing him.

  • jack

    Yes, that incident is briefly described in his Wikipedia entry. He was one of the few journalists who spoke out against invading Iraq at the time. I give him credit for that. He was right about that one and had the guts to buck the herd mentality.

  • Orion

    I don’t see the contradiction. Sciencedoesn’t tell us anything about the content of morality, but given a definition of “moral”, can tell us whether people can be *made* moral.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Later in the chapter, he declares his opposition to “memetic engineering”, which he defines as the process of “disseminating good memes and curtailing bad ones”…

    Wait a minute. He thinks it’s a bad idea to try to disseminate good ideas and oppose bad ones? He thinks it’s a bad idea to try to change people’s minds about stuff?

    Then what on earth is he doing writing a book and trying to disseminate his ideas?

    My head hurts.

  • Chris

    They depart from this position when they assert that we can leave that determinism behind. There is nothing in science that implies that our genetic makeup allows us to perfect ourselves.

    Hedges sort of has a point here, although he expresses it badly. Dawkins’s belief in the power of free will really isn’t that well supported by evidence. (It also isn’t logically necessary to those of his beliefs that are more narrowly scientific rather than philosophical, of course.)

    But this isn’t really a point that helps Hedges, because (1) practically all religions ALSO assume free will, (2) so do most moral systems — it’s hard to judge someone for doing what they were doomed to do, and (3) Dawkins isn’t the only atheist and his views on free will are neither logically required by atheism or some sort of orthodoxy that Dawkins imposes on other atheists.

    The question of free will isn’t a good weapon against Dawkins because it can’t be aimed specifically at him.

  • Snoof

    Then what on earth is he doing writing a book and trying to disseminate his ideas?

    Clearly he doesn’t think they’re _good_ ideas.

  • http://superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    How do people like this get published? I should write some stream of consciousness verbal diarrea with an inconsistant argument. It’d be a best seller!

  • Dark Jaguar

    The big problem here is fundamentally misunderstanding genetics. I’ve read and watched some things by various biologists, Dawkins included, and the big misunderstanding here is that genes continue to monitor and control our thoughts our entire lives. From what I’ve read and seen, genes set the initial state, but they also provide the brain with plasticity. To a certain degree, brains can and will change over time in ways that genes can’t possibly predict or control, and that is overall a beneficial thing (hence why we have genes that provide this plasticity). Some of those changes may be bad for the genes, but they’ve got no way to “see” that or stop it, because the anthropic description of genes as having “purpose” is purely to help describe them, they aren’t actually alive or aware at all.

    In other words, we can both be products of evolution AND have behaviors that are not controlled solely by our evolutionary past. We’re not insects where every single one of our behaviors is pure reflexive pre-programming, we’re learning machines. This shouldn’t be a difficult concept. It would be like someone claiming that glasses are impossible because our genes control our vision and glasses can’t change our genes.