Response to the First Deadly Question

Trembling as I face my own accountability as an atheist, I approach the first of the four questions atheists will not address.

“If rationality and goodness is instilled in people based on evolution, then why do people go against the very survival-striving instincts we have and behave the opposite (both as individuals and regarding humanity as a whole). I’ve yet to meet anyone who has successfully lived up to THEIR OWN standard of goodness.”

First, just to see how hard it would be to find an answer to this question by himself, without carting it around to atheists, I went through the excruciating effort of typing it into google and hitting enter.  I timed myself.  In 97 seconds I came across the wikipedia entry on Control Theory.  Note to all Christians out there who want to ask me questions: please try to find an answer on your own before asking me.

Second, why is this relevant?  Even if I had no idea whatsoever how to answer this question, that would prove what, exactly?  How is this at all relevant to the existence of god?  If it’s not relevant to the existence of god, why pointedly ask why atheists never tackle it?  You may as well ask why atheists never tackle the problem of why tacos are delicious.

Third, have you ever taken this question to a biologist or a neuroscientist?  Most people, not just atheists, have not tackled this question because most people are uninterested in the answer.  People note that they and their neighbors have varying moral codes that change based upon the experience gained from past moral choices and that is sufficient for them.  Experts in relevant fields have a chance of answering these questions, yet I suspect you are in the habit of submitting them to music majors like me.  This tells me quite a bit about how genuinely you want an answer.

To answer your question, so far as a non-expert can (which shouldn’t dissapoint you if you’re really seeking an answer, because that’s who you asked), it starts by examining our desires.  Our desires evolved at a time when circumstances were different than they are at present.  For instance, there was a time when eating anything that tasted sweet was a pretty smart idea, since sugars were in short supply.  Though natural selection understandably provided us with that trait, today it works against us.  Because our environment is in flux, having desires that sometimes conflict with our good senses is what we would expect to see if evolution were responsible for the diversity of life on our planet, but not at all what we’d expect if a god designed anything (unless that god was a real jerk).

This means that while it may make perfect moral sense (in that it will make us happier) to eat healthy, sometimes our brain is running a pre-programmed script built into our DNA that is at odds with reason.  This means we are sometimes faced with both the desire to do what is rational as well as the desire to succumb to the irrational impulse.  Sometimes we abide by the wrong one.

The same can be said of something like stealing.  Compassion is an established quality in countless species that share an insanely high percentage of their DNA with us, and it makes perfect sense as a selectable trait via natural selection (groups that do not kill, maim, or steal from each other would necessarily survive better).  However, we also have other desires that can conflict with it.  If somebody has plenty of food while you and your family are in danger of starvation, you may very well steal, even though you probably wouldn’t do that if your physiological needs were being met.

This answer is based on a layman’s understanding of evolution and two seconds of observation.  Yet it is based on far more evidence and has far more explanatory power than the notion that a god who wanted us to behave a certain way created us with the impulse to act otherwise such that, by your own admission, nobody has ‘successfully lived up to THEIR OWN standard of goodness’ (even if their own standards are taken from an ancient book).

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Ubi Dubium

    Here’s my answer to this:

    Humans are aggressive creatures, looking out for their own self-interests. Humans are also social creatures, dependent for their survival on their ability to cooperate with a community of other humans. In order to succeed in surviving and reproducing, each human must find a workable balance of these two traits.

    There is no one perfect balance between these two. Evolution does not produce perfect results, only results that are good enough for the time being. We are able to adjust each trait to some degree, to suit the physical and social environment we find ourselves in. This gives us the strength and adaptability to be able to adjust to many different sorts of environments and societies. It also gives us the weakness of sometimes screwing it up.

    • JT Eberhard

      Love this. Well put.

    • Daniel Schealler

      Even more – the ability of the same individual to behave either altruistically or selfishly depending on circumstance could arguably be viewed as ‘perfect’ in the sense of being a stable evolutionary strategy for the particular allells involved in those behaviors.

  • kirk

    I’ll take a stab at it.

    Tacos are delicious because of the cumin seed. Fresh crushed cumin seed provides the distinctive smell and taste profile of properly seasoned taco meat. It should provide the base for your spice mixture, while other elements round out the flavor and allow you to adjust for the spicy heat of the dish.

    Because cumin is such an important element in tacos, I would say that it is the main reason why tacos are delicious.

    • Tara

      I couldn’t have said it better myself. The true secret is obviously the magical cumin!

    • jimmiraybob

      Oh yeah? Then why are there still grilled-cheese sandwiches? (“Sammiches” if my neighbors are looking in.)

      - A Reformed Neo-cheesesammichist

  • The Lorax

    You hit it spot on, Ubi.

    I would turn to Richard Dawkins for a more biological answer, and I would find the evolutionary arms race. In his book, “The Greatest Show On Earth”, Dawkins talks at length about a cheetah and a gazelle. He notes that they are both on an evolutionary path toward outrunning each other in order to better survive. However, there is a plateau which must eventually be reached where the trade offs become non-negligible and, indeed, become detrimental. In order to run faster, they could shed some calcium from their bones, to make them lighter. This, of course, weakens their bone structure, making it more likely for them to break, and become an easy meal (gazelle for the cheetah, or cheetah for the patient scavengers).

    Evolution answers the question of why humans don’t always live up to their own “goodness”: encoded in our DNA is the gene for being selfish. We, as a whole, will tend to put our survival above that of others. For some people, this manifests in rampant selfishness and assholery. For others, it does not manifest as much, and we find someone who is putting more into the survival of his or her community, or species as a whole. But in the end, we are still animals, and we are always trying to adapt and out-perform.

    I confess that I do not fully live up to the ethical and moral standards that I place upon myself. I’m apologize. I’m only human.

    • Ubi Dubium

      I’d modify your answer a bit: I don’t think there is a single gene for being “selfish”, rather all genes are selfish in that their “goal” (if you will) is to get more copies of themselves into the gene pool.

      Otherwise I’m right with you on evolutionary trade-offs.

      • The Lorax

        Yes, I was aware of that, I was just trying to toss out a slight pun on another one of Dawkins’ books, “The Selfish Gene”. :P Guess I should stick to making nerdy Yo Mama jokes…

  • Tara

    Once again, JT, you have nailed it with research and analysis. Great job!

  • Another Scott

    The reason the Scott of the Blog framed this question as he did is to bring us poor heathen atheists to the point where we admit we’re all worthless, sniveling, lousy, wretched sinners – that no matter how we look at it we cannot live up to god’s perfect standards. (“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of god. . .”)

    That is a standard evangelistic maneuver to try to make the doctrine of original sin look reasonable and the Christians not look so sadly superstitious.

    The point is that “We are sinners” or “We are rebellious against god” is no explanation for human behavior. There are infinitely better more comprehensive and predictive explanations of human behavior than the ancient, outdated theology of Christianity. Those answers are incomplete at best but they are still light years more adequate for dealing with humanity’s problems than the evangelical solution of “REPENT, ye sinners! Or perish!!”

    • Another Scott

      . . . and I would say the reason we defy our own standards is that biology is the number one contender against reason. We have emotional, biological and economic/social needs all pressing in upon us.

      And human standards (that’s all there are is human standards) are notoriously incomplete and based on mental processes often ignorant of what really makes us tick.

      So it is no surprise that we are at odds with our own standards. Our standards come from “ignurnt” people who didn’t know much and still don’t know all that much about what is good for humanity. However, we are getting better at it.

  • Finney

    You didn’t really answer the question of rationality.

  • Finney

    Further, what is the “good”, in the evolutionary story? (Killing many people isn’t actually a threat to the survival species, and thorough-going selfishness seems conducive to individual survival.)

    The question is flawed in that it ignores that we carry many recessive genetic traits don’t serve an evolutionary benefit, or may run a risk to our survival. But there are important issues that it raises – what is rationality?

    Your response that his questions have nothing to do with the existence of God is irrelevant: Most of what you’ve written isn’t about the existence of God but inconsistent and fundamentalist religious people.

    • Drakk

      “…Killing many people isn’t actually a threat to the survival [of the] species…”

      I’m sure the Dodos have something to say about that.

      • lmlk813

        Not anymore.

    • Stacy Kennedy

      thorough-going selfishness seems conducive to individual survival

      Life on earth demonstrates many different strategies for survival. An individual member of a social species can stand a very good shot at surviving long enough to pass along hir genes. And “thorough-going selfishness” is not conducive to individual survival in a social species.

      Humans are clearly among the most social of animals. Good thing, too–we’re not particularly strong or fast, but we are smart and highly cooperative.

  • Cwayne

    “If rationality and goodness is instilled in people based on evolution”
    Where is he even getting this from? (yeah I know.. control theory yada yada)
    The rest of the question is so terrible as to be meaningless.

  • jimmiraybob

    If rationality and goodness is instilled in people based on evolution…

    What the…….? Instilled? At the evolution factory? Without clicking through, who makes this claim?

    If there is such a niche that rationality and goodness provides the only human survival strategy then I’m booking a flight. Any clues?

  • Makoto

    Seems to me like we have a pair of competing ideas:
    People are good because religion tells them to be good
    People can be good because they can be

    We know that religious people can be bad. I don’t think anyone would dispute this, and if they do, I can point to dozens, hundreds of examples of where religious people were not “good” (priest pedophilia, inquisition, crusades, coveting thy neighbor’s goods, lust, judge others, bombings, etc, etc, etc).

    We know that non-religious people can be good. Just point to any atheist that happens to do “good” (not murder, help those in need, give food to the hungry, etc, etc, etc).

    So, I think a better question is – how is it you think religion makes people live up to standards of goodness better than non-religion? If it doesn’t, why is religiousness better than non-religiousness in terms of living a “good” life?

    Of course, there’s also self vs community needs, short term vs long term needs, and so on, which can also be competing issues.

  • Lana C

    “If rationality and goodness is instilled in people based on evolution, then why do people go against the very survival-striving instincts we have and behave the opposite (both as individuals and regarding humanity as a whole). I’ve yet to meet anyone who has successfully lived up to THEIR OWN standard of goodness.”

    First off, rationality and goodness are constructs, Ideas, that humanity has come up with, and are subject to difference in definition according to culture and time period. What was rational in the 1400s is not at all rational now. (the earth is round and moves around the sun.) And what was good in the 1400′s is not necessarily good now. (assassinate him in the name of God???) Although there were biblical scholars then, and are still around now, they do not agree with the ideas of their predecessors. If your argument is that evolution doesn’t create rational and good people, then I argue that neither does the Bible, and in fact has not done so historically, and has hindered rationality and goodness. In contrast, evolution and genetics argue that people are not rational, and there are genes which cause the superstitions and irrational thoughts that go along with religion. But just because our brains try to identify the rustling in the dark and attribute it to demons/elves/goblins, doesn’t make it so. It is only once we have shed our beliefs in god or devils or goblins that we can start to really think rationally about issues, and ponder goodness for goodness sake, and not for the Glory Of Gawd. The difference between simply letting God take all the credit for goodness and rationality, and being able to ponder these subjects for one’s self, is the benefits of evolution, which created the human brains that can grasp the complex concepts herein.
    Another problem with the sheer phrasing of this question is that it takes two distinct concepts and lumps them together. Rationalization is sometimes in conflict with Goodness. I may want to contribute a part of my money to a charity, but I have college bills to pay of my own, and I really shouldn’t. Is the question of rationality meant to be one with goodness? If, perhaps, the question is divided into the two separate questions of which it is truly made, it can be answered simply, as above. I’m not sure if I have refuted anything here, but I felt that the question itself was flawed and wanted to put my own slant on it.

  • Art

    On this sort of question I’ve found it helpful to look at other species, specifically birds. Quite a few species of birds tend to set out observer birds that keep a watch out for predators. The majority of the flock feeds happily knowing that if a predator shows up the alarm will be raised and they will have adequate time to get away.

    This is a very helpful behavioral system but it raises the question of how the watch bird/s get fed. Answer is that the watch birds gain an advantage because they can falsely raise the alarm, swoop in, and have the food to itself, for a time.

    The key is to maintain a balance between accurate and false reporting. If the watch bird is too honest it goes hungry. If not honest enough the flock suffers.

    Self-sacrifice for others is an ideal but it is easy to get taken advantage of and can drift into masochism and gross exploitation. Cross-holding and flag waving to get other people’s kids to fight your war is a recurring theme. On the other hand a certain individual willingness to sacrifice is quite helpful to the overall society.

    We think of ‘goodness’ as an absolute but evolutionary goodness for humans is very much a sliding scale of balancing the needs of society against the needs of the individual. Determining the proper balance point between parties is an ongoing process.

  • Dan L.

    Further, what is the “good”, in the evolutionary story? (Killing many people isn’t actually a threat to the survival species, and thorough-going selfishness seems conducive to individual survival.)

    The point of “the evolutionary story” is that it takes value judgments like “good” and “bad” right out. There is no metaphysical chooser deciding what is good and bad. There is only what actually happens. Human beings can have opinions about what actually happens, and those opinions are “good” when what happens makes human happy and “bad” otherwise. Why would you expect there to be any other kind of “good” other than an opinion?

    The question is flawed in that it ignores that we carry many recessive genetic traits don’t serve an evolutionary benefit, or may run a risk to our survival. But there are important issues that it raises – what is rationality?

    Usually I answer this question by saying that as a keen observer of human nature, I have seen very little of this vaunted “rationality.” But I will take you a little more seriously. But I need to ask: what do you mean by “rationality”? Is rationality the tendency for human beings to move towards safe, comfortable situations and away from uncertain, dangerous situations? Because evolution does actually explain that rather tidily.

    If not, then I guess you’re probably asking why we’re so gosh-darned smart. Well, we’re not really. Behavioral scientists are constantly finding ways in which humans fall well short of rationality in all kinds of interesting ways — ways in which our number sense fails us, ways in which our moral sense fails us. Worst of all, human beings have a natural tendency towards overconfidence, of thinking we know more than we do, that we can handle more than we actually can.

    Basically, you need to be able to answer “what is rationality?” before you can answer “how did rationality come to be?”

  • GaryU

    I have to admit that I didn’t make it past paragraph 3 before scrolling to the comments to see why tacos are delicious.
    [Yeah, yeah, I'm scrolling back up]

  • GaryU

    Dammit… I scrolled back up and read the whole thing. Now I want ice cream.