Evolutionary psychologists are society's new prophets, says CHRISTIANITY TODAY's editor at large, Philip Yancey, in the following article condensed from BOOKS & CULTURE, a sister publication of CT. While their message would reduce us to mere survival machines, Yancey points out, their logic contains fatal flaws. Yancey's most recent books are Church: Why Bother? and What's So Amazing About Grace? (Zondervan).
The new science of evolutionary psychology attempts to explain all human thought and behavior as the unguided result of natural selection. As products of blind evolution, say these thinkers, we deceive ourselves by searching for any teleology other than that scripted in our DNA. We must look down, not up: to nature, not its Creator.
The hubris of this new science is breathtaking. Predicts Robert Trivers of Harvard, "Sooner or later, political science, law, economics, psychology, psychiatry and anthropology will all be branches of sociobiology." He might have added ethics to the list.
Writers on evolutionary psychology are talented and entertaining, and they fill their works with vivid descriptions of birds, bees, and chimpanzees. They explain courtship displays, infidelity, maternal instincts, gossip, and social organization in arresting ways. Newsmagazines like Time hire these writers to interpret gang behavior in the inner cities or sexual indiscretions in the capital city, and the results are so winsome that evolutionary psychologists have become the new cosmologists, helping us make sense of ourselves and our role in the universe.
Philosophers are just now beginning to scrutinize the assumptions of evolutionary psychology, and I suspect they will have a field day with its epistemology. I am more concerned with its implications for what I have called "the crisis of unmorality." As if in direct fulfillment of the apostle Paul's predictions in Romans 1, scientists have relocated our primary source for morality and meaning in the beasts.
1. Evolutionary psychology relies on one principle—that of the selfish gene—to decipher behavior. I do what I do, always, to advance the likelihood of my genetic material perpetuating itself. Even if an individual act does not benefit me personally, it does benefit the "gene pool" I am contributing to. Evolutionary theorists herald it as the most important single advance in their theory since Darwin.
By their own admission, the new scientists propose a wholly deterministic understanding of the human species. As Richard Dawkins puts it, "We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment. Though I have known it for years, I never seem to get fully used to it."
Critics propose many anecdotal exceptions to the selfish-gene theory. What about gay people, or childless couples, who do not plan to perpetuate their genes—how to explain their behavior? Or consider Mother Teresa, who early in her life committed to a vow of chastity. On what basis can we account for such altruistic behavior? As if explaining algebra to a child, the evolutionary psychologists take up such thorny problems one by one and explicate them in terms of the selfish gene.
Like all monistic explanations of human behavior, evolutionary psychology has both the virtue and the defect of simplicity. When Robertson McQuilkin, who left a college presidency to stay by his Alzheimer's-afflicted wife (CT, Feb. 5, 1995, p. 32), contends that he stands by his wife out of his love for her and because of his commitment to biblical standards of fidelity—why, of course he would argue that. He makes his living as a Christian writer and speaker, does he not? He is finding a way to propagate the ideas that have served him so well.
Robert Wright, one of the best expositors of evolutionary psychology to the general public, articulates the tautology: "We believe the things—about morality, personal worth, even objective truth—that lead to behaviors that get our genes into the next generation. … What is in our genes' interests is what seems 'right'—morally right, objectively right, whatever sort of rightness is in order."
Carry the logic far enough, and any notion of good and evil disappears. In essence, the evolutionary psychologists have devised a unified theory of human depravity that would make John Calvin blush. Hard-wired for selfishness, we have no potential for anything else.
2. Morality springs entirely from our genes. Most evolutionary psychologists take their turn at accounting for the origin of morality. The sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson proposes that, over the course of thousands of generations, natural selection wired in certain tendencies that are "largely unconscious and irrational," on the level of "gut feelings." Morality must, of course, serve the monistic selfish-gene principle: "Human behavior—like the deepest capacities for emotional response which drive and guide it—is the circuitous technique by which human genetic material has been and will be kept intact. Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function."
This, of course, raises important questions about human freedom and moral responsibility. Western jurisprudence assumes the right to judge a person guilty of criminal behavior if he or she (1) can discern the difference between good and evil and (2) was mentally competent to make a free decision when committing the crime. Sirhan Sirhan was sent to prison and John Hinckley to a mental institution over just this legal distinction. Evolutionary psychology appears to call both principles into question by claiming that none of our actions are free, and that the difference between good and evil is a social construct.
Robert Wright points to lust as a clear example of the selfish-gene principle at work. Lust developed as nature's way of "getting us to act as if we wanted lots of offspring and knew how to get them, whether or not we actually do." Following this line of reasoning leads Wright tentatively to endorse polygamy. After all, the practice addresses the basic sexual imbalance between what men and women want. If a man grows restless after a woman gives him a few children, why shouldn't he "fall in love" and begin another family line without divorcing his first wife?
Lyall Watson takes on the case of Susan Smith, who rolled a Mazda containing her two infant sons, nicknamed "Precious" and "Sugarfoot," into a lake. Infanticide is nothing new, says Watson, citing the statistic that in the U.S. alone, 1,300 children are killed each year by parents or close relatives. In a statement that could stand as a parody of the morally neutral stance of evolutionary psychology, Watson observes: "We have to be careful not to confuse the interests of parents and offspring, which often conflict where optimal fitness is concerned. Children nearly always want more than their parents can provide, and nice judgment is required to reconcile such disparity. In many situations, unconscious calculations are clearly being made, with every evidence of an evolutionary perspective coming into play."
Trapped in philosophical naturalism, evolutionary biologists cannot embrace any external code, such as the Tao described by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. The Tao represents objective truth, the first principle beyond which we cannot argue; it allows us to make judgments; we cannot judge it. Without such a standard, modern science must constantly teeter on the edge of self-contradiction. Why choose one set of values over another, especially when you do not believe in free choice?
Some evolutionary biologists cheerfully acknowledge the problem. Concludes Robert Wright: "Thus the difficult question of whether the human animal can be a moral animal—the question that modern cynicism tends to greet with despair—may seem increasingly quaint. The question may be whether, after the new Darwinism takes root, the word moral can be anything but a joke."
3. Nature gives mixed messages about morality. After demonstrating that we can look to the primates for early examples of sympathy, empathy, and justice, Frans de Waal writes, "We seem to be reaching a point at which science can wrest morality from the hands of the philosophers." Examples of "ethical" behavior abound in nature: whales and dolphins risking their lives to save injured companions, chimpanzees coming to the aid of the wounded, elephants refusing to abandon slain comrades.
Well, yes, but it all depends on where you point your field binoculars. Where do you learn about proper behavior between the sexes, for example? Nature offers very few examples of monogamy and none of egalitarianism. Should our females, like the praying mantises, devour the males who are mating with them? Should our neighborhoods resolve their disputes as do the bonobo chimpanzees by engaging in a quick orgy in which they all have sex with one another? Should human males mimic the scorpion-fly by lying in wait to take the nearest female by force?
Mark Ridley sees sexual jealousy as a Darwinian adaptation for humans that enabled our ancestors to outreproduce their more relaxed contemporaries. But he quickly adds that he can "imagine a society in which people are conditioned to enjoy the thought of their spouse's being unfaithful." In his discussion, the morality of sexual fidelity is a value-neutral adaptation to social circumstances.
Or, consider violence. Lyall Watson admits he finds it "disturbing" that hyena cubs seem genetically programmed to attack and kill their siblings on sight almost from birth. Researchers such as Frans de Waal and Jane Goodall likewise react in revulsion and dismay when primates they have grown to love are murdered by others of their species. On what grounds? The animals themselves seem undismayed; they are acting "naturally," in response to genetic messages. What gives an evolutionist the right to step outside of nature, endorse a moral concept of nonviolence, then apply it back to nature, of which we are all a part?
The alternative is not just jarring but appalling. Some evolutionary psychologists, showing more consistency, look to nature to explain, and even justify, the most egregious human behavior. Lyall Watson, for example, though mysteriously disturbed by fratricide among hyenas, admits that he could not easily condemn headhunting, because such a practice keeps certain tribes in ecological balance.
In response to their critics, evolutionary psychologists are quick to argue, "Don't go from is to ought. We examine nature to see what is, to learn why we behave the way we do. It does not necessarily follow that we ought to do what other species do." Fair enough; but where do we go to get the ought? And another question: Where did this whole notion of ought come from, anyway?
4. A morality based in nature is vulnerable to large-scale abuse. Julian Huxley declared in 1963,
The population explosion is making us ask … What are people for? Whatever the answer … it is clear that the general quality of the world's population is not very high, is beginning to deteriorate, and should and could be improved. It is deteriorating thanks to genetic defectives who would otherwise have died being kept alive, and thanks to the crop of new mutations due to fallout. In modern man, the direction of genetic evolution has started to change its sign, from positive to negative, from advance to retreat: we must manage to put it back on its age-old course of positive improvement.
The Western intellectual community, in the wake of Hitler, today finds eugenics repulsive and roundly condemns racism based on Social Darwinism. Yet its allegiance to philosophical naturalism leaves it vulnerable to abuse, especially now that advances in gene research allow for genetic "improvement."
Any time a leading thinker uses phrases like "general quality of the world's population" and "genetic defectives," the rest of us should invest in home security systems. An engineered society or engineered individual must conform to some standard of correctness or normalcy, and here is where evolutionary psychology and social engineering break down. Who decides the standard or norm? Julian Huxley or Martin Heidegger? Bill Clinton or Pol Pot? I am still trying to think of a large-scale attempt to improve human society that has not led to catastrophe.
Trust us, say the new behaviorists. We're kinder and gentler. We have your best interests—the best interests of the whole species—at heart. Oh? And what historical examples can you point to in which behavioral conditioning was used for benevolent purposes? Must we repeat history?
From a Christian perspective, the new science of evolutionary psychology founders on its anthropology, its basic understanding of the nature of humanity. The "trousered ape," C. S. Lewis satirically called us in The Abolition of Man. Perhaps that should be updated to "untrousered ape." Scientists are finding it increasingly difficult to claim any distinctiveness about being human. Stephen Jay Gould faults the view that places humanity at the top, as the pinnacle of evolutionary progress. We are instead, he says, "a cosmic accident that would never arise again if the tree of life could be replanted."
Animal-rights activists seize upon the new paradigm as an endorsement of their campaign against "speciesism." Animals, being no different from people, should be treated accordingly. "There really is no rational reason for saying a human being has special rights," says Ingrid Newkirk, cofounder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy."
Evelyn Pluhar takes that logic further down the same road, arguing that in certain cases, an animal's rights should take precedence over a human's. For example, as one reviewer of the book suggested, "Compare a normal chimpanzee to a severely retarded human child unable to take care of itself or to speak or to reason. Given that neither qualifies as a rational moral being, capable of asserting its rights, why do we allow vivisection of the chimp but not of the child? Surely, if moral significance attaches only to full persons, then the child should be granted no more protection than the chimp, or the pig awaiting slaughter."
It takes an honest scientist indeed to acknowledge that all discussion about rights is irrelevant. Rights are, by definition, granted. As zoologist Paul Shepard admits, " 'Rights' implies some kind of cosmic rule prior to any contracts among users, legislation for protection, or decisions to liberate. It refers to something intrinsic or given by God or Nature. … Wild animals do not have rights; they have a natural history."
At least Shepard is honest about the moral vacuum at the center of evolutionary psychology. Books in this field by evolutionary psychologists tend to contain glaring contradictions. They call on us to respect the rights of animals without giving us a rationale for those rights. They inform us we have no claim to superiority over other species—though so far as I know, only humans will be reading their elegant arguments. After describing nature's examples of gang rape, murder, and cannibalism, they urge us to rise above our genetic scripting. They call us to "higher" values of nonviolence and mutual respect, even though there is no "higher" and "lower," and apparently we have no freedom to act anyway. They urge us to transcend the destiny of natural selection, to combat the cosmic process. Yet by binding us within that cosmic process, and by insisting that we have no other fate but natural selection, they deny our ability to act on such noble instincts.
I have met a few evolutionary psychologists, and they seem like cultured, well-mannered individuals who do not beat their children or murder their undesirable cousins. Yet the doctrine they promulgate, by undercutting any transcendent basis for morality, destroys our very ability to judge such behavior "bad" or "evil." I do not worry about the morality of individual evolutionists, but I do worry about the morality of those who follow their doctrines to their logical ends. "We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise," wrote C. S. Lewis.
Meanwhile, the leaders of the movement are cranking out books, writing cover stories for newsmagazines, and being feted at major universities. For the moment, at least, they hold the spotlight, and it illuminates a benign and knowing smile. At last we understand human behavior. At last we understand ourselves.
More than three centuries ago another scientist, Blaise Pascal, considered a premodern version of the loss of faith. This was his conclusion:
Now, what do we gain by hearing it said of a man that he has now thrown off the yoke, that he does not believe there is a God who watches our actions, that he considers himself the sole master of his conduct. … Do they profess to have delighted us by telling us that they hold our soul to be only a little wind and smoke, especially by telling us this in a haughty and self-satisfied tone of voice? Is this a thing to say gaily? Is it not, on the contrary, a thing to say sadly, as the saddest thing in the world?
To subscribe to BOOKS & CULTURE: A Christian Review, call 1-800-523-7964.
Copyright © 1998 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more