Blaming Evolution for Tragedy

Blaming Evolution for Tragedy July 21, 2012

I am very disappointed that Rick Warren would use the occasion of the horrible tragedy in Aurora, Colorado to make an inane, stupid swipe at evolution. This poster with his tweet in the middle makes the point well:

Humans are observably like other animals on this planet: we are based on the same genetic code, we eat, we procreate, we breathe, and so on and so on.
But humans are also observably unique among animals on this planet: we are capable of writing blog posts and tweets, studying our origins and the deep history of our universe, and unfortunately also of concocting ways of constructing weapons that do great harm, and making laws that fail to address their widespread use in our society, and all of that (and much else besides) illustrates the extent to which we stand apart, unique among the living things on this planet. That some people like Rick Warren think that evolution denies this show just how poorly science is understood by many in our society.
When human beings use wisdom and express compassion, our distinctive characteristics become clear, and knowing the details of how our species got this way does not detract from them.
And when, on the other hand, human beings are mean and use a tragic occurrence as an occasion for trying to score points against those they disagree with, that reminds us just how much like other animals we truly are.



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  • Lunchtime at the PETA Café, where animals are people too.

    “I’ll have a tuna and egg sandwich please. Oh, is that tuna, Rick Warren free?”

  • On Reddit, someone left a nice comeback one-liner: “When kids are taught people are dirt they treat them like it.”

  • Straw Man

    Note that there have been chimpanzee serial killers (of other chimpanzees), and what appear to be “thrill killing” mobs. The frequency of this is unknown for sure; it doesn’t make the front page for some reason. Obviously they have no semiautomatic weapons, though they do use blunt instruments as weapons.

    On the positive side, chimpanzees, like humans, appear not to be wired for murder, and do it relatively rarely. Chimps, like humans, are known to become traumatized by so much as witnessing the killing of their own kind. That’s good news for us, unless we’re Calvinists, in which case it’s a theological slap in the face.

  • Joanne K McPortland

    I would agree with you, if that is indeed what Rick Warren had done. His tweet is dated July 12. Unless he has more prescience than either you or I would give him credit for, he did not use the occasion of yesterday’s tragedy to take a swipe at evolution. Whoever generated the Facebook poster, however, did take advantage of the tragedy to take a swipe at Warren. Fair game, but let’s be clear.

    • Ah, I see what happened. And after you posted this, I looked and thought it was July 12th too. I really wish America could just use the same order, day-month-year, as the rest of the world! 🙂

      • finette

        But…that’s exactly what it is. 20 Jul 12.

        • Right, and not all Americans look at that and immediately get it!

  • Joanne K McPortland

    Whoops, my bad. I read the date wrong. OK, as you were.

  • spinkham

    What everybody seems to miss is out in these discussions is that out of ~311,000,000 people in our country, 310,999,999 of them don’t act like this.

    If the moralizers were right I would expect things like this to be happening tens of thousands of times a year, and I’d be living somewhere else.

    If you really want evidence that we’re bad as a species, just look at how we treat homeless people, people without health insurance, people in other countries, etc.

    Those things show how animal like we truly are and yet megachurch pastors don’t want to talk about them for some reason.

  • Michael Wilson

    Never waste as good tragedy. It is tiresomeevery time somelthing like this happens to see fingers pointing every where. Crazy people do crazy things. The easy access to firearms probably helps, but even then I don’t support people like Bloomburg wanting to use the moment for proposing legilslation. Warren has a point though, if it were not for evolution we would not have the opposable thumb needed for shooting. Ever see a cat try to handle an AK?

    • Gary

      Don’t need a thumb to shoot. I can shoot an AR-15, or a S&W 27 (double action) with no thumb. You use your index finger. Pistol grip works fine without thumbs. Bloomburg is right. Motherhood and apple pie about how tragic it is, is rather useless. How to get elected, not how to solve problems.

  • Hellboy

    The man is an attention whore, that is all.

  • Some possible replies to Warren:

    “When people are taught that there are fundamental and cosmic non-physical differences between people groups, they regularly commit heinous acts of violence (e.g. Judeo-Islamic-Christian history)”


    “When believers do not understand evolution or take the time to think about how it could offer a better explanation than their theistic worldview, they say stupid things about it on twitter.”

  • Rev. Warren has responded to my follow up post in a comment there. And so I have shared his comment, and my own thoughts about it, on my blog here:

  • SchrodingersTherapist

    Here in the Arid Zone, Russell Pearce – the extreme-right architect of the racist SB-1070 and de-facto governor – is blaming the Aurora victims for being shot. Apparently it’s their fault for not packing heat, or something.

  • MaximumOvertroll

    Live in country with strict gun laws.
    Still rack up the High Score.
    Outlaw all weapons and we’ll beat eachother to death with our fists.
    Will it make murder harder? Yes. Will it stop it? No. It’ll just make it slower and more painful.

    BTW, Evolution is not a theory, it’s a fact of life.

  • mothernatureseven

    rick warren is a supreme jackoffbozo

  • Breen

    I usually like reading James Mcgrath’s posts but I have to say that I think he’s simply wrong here. His basic response is that since evolution tells us so many great things about how to live life, the implicit amoral suggestions it feed us are really just covered up by its goodness. That’s kind of like saying since Pablo Escobar did so many great things for his community and built so many soccer stadiums, his killing thousands of people really wasn’t that bad because, “he taught us to love, to enjoy life, and use our skills to the utmost to experience the fullness of life.” Also, how does being unique mean moral law codes all of a sudden apply? Just because we CAN act morally means we should? Heck, I CAN eat 3 watermelons in one sitting but that doesn’t mean I should. Dr. Mcgrath, please stick with NT studies where your erudition shines, not moral philosophy.

    • James F. McGrath

      Breen, I must admit that I don’t get your objection. Evolution doesn’t tell us how to live our lives. It provides useful information about our history, and about many of the instincts that are hardwired into us. But one of the distinctive aspects of being human is our ability to resist our instincts, to train ourselves to do otherwise than comes naturally, for the benefit not only of ourselves but also of others. And so I really don’t understand how you got what you did from my post, nor did I really follow your argument as a response to it. Can you please help me to understand what you thought I meant, so that perhaps next time I can be clearer? Or did you understand what I meant, and I am just not following your response? Either way, I would appreciate your help!

      • Breen

        Dr. McGrath, I suppose what I was trying to say is that the simple capacity to exhibit moral restraint is not a good enough reason to actually practice moral restraint. For example, I could perhaps switch careers and abandon philosophy for agriculture but my simple ABILITY to do so wouldn’t make such a switch obligatory. Similarly, simply because humans have the capacity to not steal or act affectionately does not obligate them to do so. (Incidentally, I too think it’s naively presumptuous to blame evolution for this disgusting act of violence (although I see now that Pastor Warren has explained the context of his comments))

        • And I do not disagree, but I am still wondering what these hopefully uncontentious points are part of an argument towards. Is your point that neither teaching that we are animals, not teaching that we are not animals, necessarily leads to ethical behavior?