“My Genes Made Me Do It”: Is Ethics Based on Biological Evolution?

By Paul Copan

What the Naturalists Are Saying

It is quite common to read in the philosophical and scientific literature that ethics is nothing more than the result of biological processes and social forces. Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell asserted that “the whole subject of ethics arises from the pressure of the community on the individual.”1

Philosopher James Rachels says something similar: “Man is a moral (altruistic) being, not because he intuits the rightness of loving his neighbor, or because he responds to some noble ideal, but because his behavior is comprised of tendencies which natural selection has favored.”2

Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson says, “Precepts and religious faith are entirely material products of the mind.” He claims moral feeling is rooted in “the hypothalamus and the limbic system” and is a “device of survival in social organisms.”3

Science philosopher Michael Ruse maintains that morality is simply the “ephemeral product of the evolutionary process, just as are our other adaptations,” such as our hands and feet and teeth. “Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, and has no being beyond this.”4

Ruse writes with E.O Wilson: “Human beings function better if they are deceived by their genes into thinking that there is a disinterested objective morality binding upon them, which all should obey. We help others because it is ‘right to help them and because we know that they are inwardly compelled to reciprocate in equal measure. What Darwinian evolutionary theory shows is that this sense of ‘right’ and the corresponding sense of ‘wrong,’ feelings we take to be above individual desire and in some fashion outside biology, are in fact brought about by ultimate biological processes.”5

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We could pile up lots of other quotations like these, but you get the idea.

We shouldn’t be surprised at this viewpoint if the physical world is all the reality there is. This outlook undermines such objective moral values as, “Torturing babies for fun is wrong,” and, “Kindness is a virtue rather than a vice.” In addition, the stark worldview known as naturalism ultimately undercuts any sense of objective purpose or meaning in life.

The outspoken atheist zoologist Richard Dawkins puts it this way: “… if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies … are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention …. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference …. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”6

In this brief series, we have examined certain ethical perspectives. We have attempted to show that if these ethical perspectives fail to include an intrinsically good God as the source of objective moral values and the Creator of humans in His image, then systems will be woefully inadequate. This certainly applies to naturalistic evolutionary ethics, as we’ll see…

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“My Genes Made Me Do It”: Is Ethics Based on Biological Evolution?