Richard Dawkins, the flamboyant British biologist who gave us the phrase "selfish genes," now offers a genetic explanation for President Clinton's alleged foibles with les femmes. Our evolutionary ancestors were harem builders (like seals), Dawkins explains, instead of monogamous (like Canadian geese). Any male monopolizing power and wealth also monopolized the females, thus ensuring the survival of his genes. Clinton's behavior is simply a fossilized remnant from our genetic past.
Well, Dawkins's Just-So story may be good for a chuckle. But reducing human behavior to genetics is serious business these days. The latest fad is an updated version of sociobiology known as evolutionary psychology, which seeks explanations for human behavior in our genes. Surprising numbers of liberals and conservatives are eagerly claiming it as support for their own political philosophies.
Why is evolutionary psychology so popular? It promises to fill a gap in the Darwinist world-view: the need for a workable morality. Ever since Darwin, many have recognized that evolution leads to moral nihilism. For example, Cornell biologist William Provine (himself a loyal Darwinist) acknowledges that Darwinism implies "no free will" and "no ultimate foundation for ethics."
But we all experience the angst of facing moral choices, so evolutionists keep trying new ways to fit morality into the picture. Evolutionary psychology claims that by examining our evolutionary history, we can identify which behaviors have been selected for their adaptive value. These provide the basis for a genuinely scientific morality.
Does this new theory succeed in rescuing evolution from moral nihilism? No. The first problem is that any behavior practiced anywhere can be judged to have survival value—after all, it has survived—including behavior widely considered immoral.
In a recent article in the New York Times, Steven Pinker, a telegenic science popularizer, urges us to "understand" teenage girls who kill their newborns, arguing that "the emotional circuitry of mothers has evolved" by natural selection to include "a capacity for neonaticide." Infanticide is built into our "biological design," and we can't blame people for doing it.
Pinker's article triggered outraged responses, and even he backs away from his own conclusions: In the same article he unexpectedly writes, "Killing a baby is an immoral act." So which is it? Either evolution provides a moral guide or it doesn't.
The same contradiction runs through Dawkins's article, which explains harem building as a product of natural selection. Sensing his readers might take this as justification for immorality, Dawkins confides that he has made the "un-Darwinian personal decision" to be "deliberately monogamous." But if the Darwinian process provides a moral guide, why should anyone need to make "un-Darwinian" decisions? For that matter, how could anyone?
The second problem with evolutionary psychology is its genetic determinism. It claims to base morality on the genes that govern our behavior. But if genes really do that, moral choice is an illusion.
In The Moral Animal, Robert Wright spends hundreds of pages denouncing freedom as an illusion and describing human beings as "robots," "machines," and "puppets" of our genes. Then he turns 180 degrees, arguing that we are free to choose moral ideals contrary to the "values" of natural selection.
These fatal contradictions make hash of every effort to derive morality from biology—and Christians need to press the point in our classrooms and living rooms. Evolutionary psychology is being dished up to an anxious public via magazine and newspaper articles. In an era dogged by declining morality and social decay, it offers the soothing promise of a morality buttressed by the certitude of science.
Make no mistake. The goal of evolutionary psychology is utterly radical: to replace traditional religious morality with a new scientific morality. The strategy is to debunk traditional morality by reducing it to genetic self-interest. Wright is typical: He unmasks all "thoughts and feelings," all "moral values," as "stratagems of the genes." Even Jesus' teachings are nothing but ideologies serving his "evolutionarily ingrained interests." Evolutionary psychology proposes to base morality frankly on "selfish genes."
Some Christians have hoped to make peace with Darwinism as long as it is restricted to biology. But evolutionary psychology demonstrates that there is an inexpungable imperialism in Darwinianism—a compulsion to reduce all society to material mechanisms. Just as Darwinist theory in biology aims to replace divine design with natural processes, so in ethics it aims to replace revealed morality with a naturalistic morality. Sociologist Howard Kaye observes evolutionary psychology is nothing less than a secularized natural theology—an attempt to use nature to justify a secular world-view.
Exactly 100 years ago in his Princeton lectures, Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper argued that Christians are not up against individual theories but comprehensive world-views. The only sure defense is to frame Christianity as an equally comprehensive world-view. Only then will genetic Just-So stories be relegated to the storybooks, where they belong.
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