Ethics, philosophy

Problems With Evolutionary Morality

Recently, i discussed the problems atheism has with establishing a base for moral discussions (see here). Now it is time to delve into the problems with one of the most commonly used ethical theories of non-theists–evolutionary morality (or, to use a phrase coined by Koukl, “monkey morality”).

Evolutionary Morality generally argues that our moral beliefs arose by some kind of naturally-selected process. Notably, ethical judgments which benefited the survival of the species tended to be favored (thus, murder was frowned upon), while those judgments which prevented the spread of one’s genes tended to be disfavored (hence the reason rape is not permitted, for now it makes one stigmatized socially, thus leading to difficulties propagating genes).

Without much further ado, I find numerous problems with this ethical theory. Here, I shall present only a few.

1) How can we get an “ought” from matter in motion? Ultimately, evolutionary moralists assert that all there is in the universe is the physical realm. As such, a “person” is reducible to matter in motion. But then how exactly is it that there can be a moral “ought” if everything is matter in motion. Evolutionary morality reduces ethical decisions to the point of being mere wishes at best. There is no “ought” or “should” in evolutionary morality, for there cannot be. Ought’s can only be issued from sources to which one has obligations. It is hard to see how a person owes obligation to one’s species or matter.

2) Evolutionary Morality assumes that what is best for a being is the survival of the species. How is it that we can say what is best for an individual being is to insure survival of the species? What is it that makes it “good” or “right” to propagate genes? Furthermore, what if an individual does not wish to help insure survival of his/her species. Suppose there is a species of sentient beings, the Plargons, who are in all ways horrible. They travel the galaxies, taking over lush worlds, burning them to the ground and using every available resource until it is depleted, and then move to the next planet. Suppose now that Judy, a Plargon woman, decides it would be better for her species to be eradicated from the galaxy, for they are without capacity for reform. She therefore manages to destroy all other Plargons, and then retires to a corner of the galaxy alone until she dies, exterminating the Plargon race. Would this be a good or bad thing? Such a hard question should take much consideration from any thinking person, but evolutionary morality circumvents the hard question and simply delcares that Judy has done the greatest evil imaginable, for she has gone against the survival of her own species.

3) Evolutionary Morality assumes that all beings “should” desire the continuity of the species, yet this assumes a higher morality. Again, what makes it “good” or “right” to do things for the survival of our species. Humanism suffers from this glaring problem. It’s all well and good to say that what is good for humanity is what we should strive for. But whence does this “should” come?

4) Evolutionary Morality destroys altruism. Altruism, on evolutionary morality, is generally stupid. For to sacrifice oneself to save another (or several others) is to destroy one’s own place in the gene pool, thus eradicating one’s very reason for existence. Yet it seems intuitively as though altruism is a great good. Evolutionary morality therefore goes against our common sense notions of morality.

5) Evolutionary Morality is arbitrary. That which is good for the species may change over time. Recall the case of rape. I have heard it said that at one time rape was considered “okay” or “good” because it was one way to ensure the survival of the human race. Now, however, due to societal constraints, rape is “bad” or at least “stigmatized” and therefore is viewed negatively. But it seems intuitively that rape is a great horror, no matter what the circumstances! This is another case of Evolutionary Morality violating our moral senses. Furthermore, suppose the nuclear apocalypse happens, leaving only a few hundred humans alive. Evolutionary Morality could allow for rape to once more be a great good, for after all, we would need to repopulate the earth! Why should the feelings of some women or men get in the way of the survival of the species!? Again, the bankruptcy of Evolutionary Morality shines through.

It seems to me that the problems with moral systems which do not include God are endless. Without a lawgiver, anything can be right. Without a lawgiver, there are no “oughts”. Morality therefore dies.


The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.


About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.


15 thoughts on “Problems With Evolutionary Morality

  1. If the survival of species is the utmost goal, then all men should be free to rape (without contraceptive protection) any woman we want under the pretense that we’re just trying to make sure our species survives.

    I wonder what time period rape was considered “good.” If there is any possibility that the Biblical account is correct, then rape has been bad as far back as when Simeon and Levi wiped out a whole town in revenge for the rape of their sister Dinah. At very least, rape was considered wrong by whoever wrote Genesis, fictitious or not, so at that time period rape was already wrong, even in what can be considered a male-dominated Middle East culture.

    Good post, J.W. 🙂

    Posted by sabepashubbo | September 9, 2010, 2:23 PM
    • Rape is approved by [YHWH]:

      Murder, rape, and pillage at Jabesh-gilead (Judges 21:10-24 NLT)

      Murder, rape and pillage of the Midianites (Numbers 31:7-18 NLT)

      Posted by Don Severs | September 9, 2010, 4:04 PM
      • Judges 21:10-24– note that the evil Bible site, as usual, doesn’t take any of the context into account. Nowhere in that section does God command this action. Furthermore, I must absolutely point out the subversion “evil Bible” continually uses. Verse 25, explicitly omitted by Evil Bible: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”, which explicitly points out that these actions were done against God’s will. There was no king, and so they did what they wanted! Evil Bible, of course, does not want to do anything but mislead people about Scripture. Perhaps it is not the Bible that is evil, but those who subversively use the text, and intentionally mislead people about its content.

        Numbers 31:7-18–Once again, “Evil Bible” completely leaves out the context which shows that God does not approve of the action of the Israelites in their raping of the women. Verses 19ff demand that these people purify themselves because of their “treachery” (v. 16) against the LORD. The command was given to kill the Midianites, raping was not commanded. The justice of the command to kill is a subject for a different day. The point is these verses do not show God commanding rape. Once again, the commentators “Evil Bible” show their dedication to subversion of the text as they explicitly omit any kind of explanation or context for the actions (for context see the previous discussions of how the Midianites mislead Israel–Numbers 25 is but one example).

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 9, 2010, 4:28 PM
      • Umm, in neither instance is there any act of rape committed.

        Judges 21:23 – The elders say to take these women as wives. It was not customary under Jewish law to rape your wife, as far as I know. Do you have evidence to the contrary? If so, I’d like to see it, particularly since you made a truth claim in your comment and have therefore placed a burden of proof on yourself to prove the claim, which you have not done here.

        Numbers 31:18 – God says nowhere to rape these women. It just simply doesn’t say that. The men are to take ownership of these women and can either marry them or never touch them in this manner (see Leviticus). God only allowed those that were still pure (see Passover and death of Jesus for God’s require of purity) to live. So in your mind He would then allow them to be raped, but not to put that part in the Bible? That takes more faith than it does to believe in God or atheism, but any historian or literature expert would laugh you out of a building.

        I suggest you read the text for yourself before making such outlandish claims.

        Posted by sabepashubbo | September 9, 2010, 4:50 PM
  2. >How can we get an “ought” from matter in motion?

    Good question, but not knowing how doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Moralities abound, so we know moralities are possible. The question is whether we need supernaturalism to explain them.

    >It is hard to see how a person owes obligation to one’s species or matter.

    The unit of evolution isn’t the person, it is the gene. Genes don’t want anything. It is simply a fact that some genes make more copies than other genes. Successful replication may be enhanced by any number of higher-level traits in the organism. Sometimes, rape is a benefit, sometimes it’s not. There’s no morality in genetics.

    Humanist morality comes not from genetic evolution but from tribal and cultural evolution. Yes, it is malleable. Is it pedophilia for a Cro-Magnon to mount a 13 year old? I don’t know. The question may be irrelevant, like asking if not killing invading infidels is a sin for a Christian.

    >What is it that makes it “good” or “right” to propagate genes?

    Nothing. This is a wrong-headed question based on not understanding that the unit of replication is the gene, not the organism.

    Your Plargon example reminds me of Yahweh and the Flood. Can you hear the gurgles and snorts as the lungs of millions of children fill with mud and rainwater? Oh, yea, if YWHW does it, it’s not immoral.

    3) Evolutionary Morality assumes that all beings “should” desire the continuity of the species,

    Same fallacy as before. The organisms aren’t in charge, the genes are. We do what we do because the genes program us that way so that they can make copies of themselves. There’s no purpose or intention to it. It’s blind differential replication.

    Human morality comes when consciousness begins to push back against genetic traits. There is the hope that “we”, the emergent sense of “I” that we all have, can figure out this game and overcome our programming. This seems to be happening. We don’t kill and rape as much as we used to.

    Humanism says that consciousness deserves respect. We all act this way. It is not a moral question for most of us to swat a mosquito or step on a cockroach. Concern for consciousness is absent from genetic evolution, but is in the forefront of cultural evolution.

    >What makes it “good” or “right” to do things for the survival of our species. Humanism suffers from this glaring problem. It’s all well and good to say that what is good for humanity is what we should strive for. But whence does this “should” come?

    Physicalists have to accept relative morality. Not everyone can tolerate that, but they have to fend off a lot of facts to keep it away. Faith helps a lot here.

    4) Evolutionary Morality destroys altruism.

    Bunk. Kin selection explains altruism. We share most of our genes with our close relatives. From the genes’ perspective, it makes sense for us to help each other.

    5) Evolutionary Morality is arbitrary.

    True, but we have to accept it, like any other fact in nature. The alternative is trying to figure out which absolute morality is the correct one. The correct one may belong to a future religion. There is no reliable way to adjudicate between faith claims.

    >It seems to me that the problems with moral systems which do not include God are endless.

    The problem here is “Which God?” It solves nothing to say morality must come from a god.

    Posted by Don Severs | September 9, 2010, 2:33 PM
    • @DonSevers
      “Kin selection explains altruism… From the genes’ perspective, it makes sense for us to help each other.”

      Are you even vaguely familiar with the theory of natural selection? Or genetics, for that matter?

      Because it really doesn’t look like it.

      You’re doing two things here:

      1. You’re ascribing rational decision-making capability to DNA (“From the genes’ perspective, it makes sense”), which is ludicrous. And I’m not picking on a sloppy metaphor, this is actually the line of thinking that underpins the whole genetic argument.

      2. You’re also trying to argue from group selection, which has no biological rationale. Essentially, you (or whoever you borrowed your explanation from) are starting from an assumption of “Morality must be explicable through evolutionary theory”, and then trying to make up a mechanism to justify your conclusion.

      Sorry, that’s not how science works.

      Posted by Sentinel | September 12, 2010, 7:45 AM
      • @Sentinel:

        I agree a bit with your point 2 against Don Severs, but I’m afraid not at all with your point 1.

        On your point 2 (kin selection/altruism): Kin selection is a theory to explain kin-directed altruism, but not altruism across a species. So yes if we try to explain overall altruism by kin selection then we are moving to something like group selection, which I agree is biologically unsound. But there are sound theories addressing reciprocal altruism which do not rely on either kin selection or group selection – Robert Trivers for example.

        On your point 1 (also kin selection/altruism): to say eg From the genes’ perspective, it makes sense is neither ludicrous nor ascribing rational decision-making capability to DNA. Yes it’s a metaphor, but not a particularly sloppy one. The decision-making metaphor does not ‘underpin the whole genetic argument’. This reminds me of Mary Midgley’s long-standing gripe against Dawkins’ use of ‘selfish’ in ‘selfish gene’. She claimed he was ascribing real human-type intentional selfishness to chemical fragments, when he was doing nothing of the kind.

        In evolutionary theory the proposed explanations of why x or y evolved stand or fall purely in terms of natural selection and survival. The metaphorical language can be removed completely. It is only there to aid understanding and communication. (Alas sometimes it fails this objective completely!)

        A good example is in the evolutionary explanation of exorbitant and debilitating sexual displays in peacocks & other male birds, which are difficult to see as survival aids when considering the species or the individual. But when ‘looked at from the gene’s perspective’, in the context of sexual selection, they do ‘make sense’.

        The ascription of ‘intention’ to the genes for male peacock tail feathers (or indeed to the genes for the female peacock response to male peacock tail feathers) is purely metaphorical. The sexual selection theory stands or falls without the intention metaphor.

        Posted by Chris Lawrence | September 16, 2010, 12:02 AM
      • Sure, I’m not bothered by the use of the metaphor in the context of sexual selection. But it’s a huge leap to go from attributes which assist in mating but impede survivability (such as peacocks tails) to arguing for group selection.

        For a group selection hypothesis, we’d need to have a peacock which evolved a problematic tail so that all the other peacocks in his family were more reproductively successful, even those who don’t have his tail. And we have to then evolve this altruistic tail into the entire group without it being competitively advantageous to the individual (otherwise it’s just regular individual selection).

        Without an a priori commitment to explain away human morailty as a purely natural selection/evolution byproduct, I don’t think group selection is a reasonable angle to take here.

        Posted by Sentinel | September 16, 2010, 9:25 AM
      • Thanks Sentinel [Sure, I’m not bothered by the use of the metaphor… etc], but I don’t quite understand your response.

        I was agreeing with you that group selection is an unsound theory. It has been discredited for years. I was suggesting that theories about the evolution of reciprocal altruism were more fruitful as possible explanations for the development of moral behaviour. Theories about reciprocal altruism do not depend on the idea of group selection.

        The separate peacock tail example was to support the argument that metaphorical ascription of intention to genes does not imply or require literal ascription of intention to genes. It was nothing to do with group selection.

        You made two separate points, and I was responding to each one separately. What am I missing?

        Posted by Chris Lawrence | September 17, 2010, 12:19 AM
      • Hi Chris,

        My previous comment was clarifying my objections to group selection – I wasn’t sure from your comment whether you considered it a valid argument.

        This whole line of conversation started in response to the suggestion that morality is an evolutionary product. Given that we agree that group selection is invalid, I’m curious then, how you think reciprocal altruism could have evolved?

        The starting point seems problematic: altruism from one individual in a selfish society would seem to be disadvantageous, and I’m not sure how the genes would propogate and spread throughout the society if survival and/or reproductive success was reduced in the holder.

        I may still be misreading you: your theories about the “evolution of reciprocal altruism” may not involve genetics. But if that’s the case, I’m not sure why we’re using the term “evolution”.

        Posted by Sentinel | September 17, 2010, 10:42 PM
      • Thanks Sentinel [Hi Chris, My previous comment was clarifying my objections…].

        No I don’t think group selection is a sound theory […So yes if we try to explain overall altruism by kin selection then we are moving to something like group selection, which I agree is biologically unsound…].

        The theories about evolution of reciprocal altruism are not my own. As far as I know the classic work was Robert Trivers’ 1971 paper The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Perhaps more accessible is his 2005 chapter Reciprocal altruism: 30 years later, available from his Rutgers University page.

        Hope all the links work OK!

        Posted by Chris Lawrence | September 18, 2010, 3:00 AM
  3. I read this post with great interest. ‘Evolutionary Morality’ can refer to at least three things which it is important to keep very distinct.

    One is the view that the moral behaviour, judgments and attitudes human beings have are open to an evolutionary explanation. The view would be that if we can explain why people have legs and birds have wings by giving accounts in terms of evolution by natural selection, perhaps we can do the same for why social animals like humans have moral behaviour and relate to each other as moral agents. This makes no ethical judgments about the actual values humans express, or about the kinds of choices they might make. But it would make the claim that at least one of the reasons why humans have a moral sense is because they have evolved as rational, self-conscious social beings.

    Another possible meaning of ‘Evolutionary Morality’ is related to the classic ‘evolutionary ethics’ position. One flavour of this is the one associated with Herbert Spencer, for whom evolution was part and parcel of a ‘universal natural law of progress’, applicable not only in biology, but also in the physical and cosmological sciences, psychology, language, art, music, religion, politics, economic activity and many other aspects of reality. On this view ‘progress’ is good; biological evolution is one of the things which manifests progress; and therefore the direction evolution proceeds in is good. A slightly different flavour of ‘evolutionary ethics’ removes or downgrades the concept of progress. On this view what is ‘good’ is what survives, or what contributes to the survival of a particular species.

    The third possible meaning of ‘Evolutionary Morality’ is the view that humans happen to see as ‘good’ those things which support survival. So for example sex is good because it effects reproduction, and so is child care because it promotes the survival of offspring to adulthood. Again one variant of this would see ‘what humans see as good because it supports survival’ as itself subject to ethical judgment. So in your example, rape might be judged as wrong even though there may be some humans who regard it as good (where for example those humans regard it as good because it promotes genetic survival). Another variant would be the view that survival is literally all there is to ethics, and to ask whether survival is itself a moral good is meaningless.

    My point in all this meander is to say that holding one of the views above does not commit one to holding any or all of the other views.

    In particular, one could be of the view that the moral behaviour, judgments and attitudes human beings have are open to explanation in terms of how humans have evolved as rational, self-conscious social beings, but reject all the other views above. This view would therefore be that we have evolved to be able to (and to need to) make moral choices, and also to feel moral emotions like guilt, shame and empathy. But that nothing in evolutionary science will tell us what is good or what is bad.

    Posted by Chris Lawrence | September 10, 2010, 8:37 AM
  4. Dropping the rape charge does little to rescue Yahweh’s reputation. He drowned children. He plans to punish many of us eternally for the crime of rejecting his message. These are immoral acts by any modern standard.

    I don’t know about you, but it is my duty to fight injustice. Hell is unjust. The Flood, myth or not, was unjust.

    Christians should be worried about justice. If Islam is correct, Christians are going to Hell. See you there. We’re all in this together!

    Posted by Don Severs | September 10, 2010, 8:39 AM


  1. Pingback: Evolutionary morality « thinking makes it so - September 10, 2010

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