Benjamin Wiker teaches theology and science at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and is a fellow at Seattle's Discovery Institute. His book, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists, was published last summer by InterVarsity Press.
How did this book come about?
I just happened to have been working both on Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher, and Charles Darwin. I suddenly recognized that they looked surprisingly similar in their views. Epicurus is in a way the great-great-great-grandfather of Darwin's account of human nature and cosmology.
What's very surprising for people is that the first account of evolution didn't come in the middle of the 1800s with Darwin. A man named Lucretius, a Roman, wrote about 50 years before the birth of Christ a book called De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). And in it you find this really long evolutionary passage. And you say, "How could this get here? I thought Darwin invented this or discovered this." And he really didn't. It's simply a deduction from materialism itself. If you don't have a God, and you think that matter just bangs around forever and eventually creates things, that view isn't at all modern. It's very ancient. Darwin just picked up on it.
And, as you note in your book, that view has consequences for moral behavior. As you quote Darwin, "Every distinct view of the universe, every theory about nature necessarily entails a view of morality." In your view, the degree to which you embrace materialism is the degree to which your moral behavior will decline.
Exactly. But if you're a materialist, it's not a decline. It's what materialism demands.
A lot of scientists who would consider themselves materialists bridle at that notion. You are suggesting that there is an immoral aspect to being a materialist. That it would inevitably lead to a deficient morality.
Yes. I wrote the book to make sure they understood that I wasn't hemming and hawing, but actually making that charge. Even if that individual scientist holds to some sort of quasi-Christian account of morality, his view of the universe is the materialist view, which has informed the West and defined its moral decline during the last two centuries. If you just historically look back over the last century or century and a half, you can see the Christian moral principles just being shed one after another. That coincides with the embrace of the materialist view of the world. And that's not an accident.
People don't read Charles Darwin's Descent of Man, where he himself draws out all the implications of his view of nature. No Christian can accept those. He's a very outspoken advocate of eugenics. And wouldn't he be? Farmers improve their livestock by better breeding. Darwin said, Why do we take care of our livestock so well, but don't take care of our own breeding so well?
And yet Epicurus, the founder of this school of thought you're talking about, did not live that way you're describing.
There is that surface contradiction between what we think an Epicurean is and what Epicurus himself subscribed to, but if you get past that surface contradiction there is uniformity. He wasn't a scientist. He was trying to found a new philosophy. And he did it in light of what he thought was the worst and most bothersome thing causing human beings trouble: religion. If we could get rid of religion, if we could get rid of these silly Greek and Roman gods, we'd be much more tranquil. So he went shopping for a cosmology of human nature that would support that. He found it in the materialist atomism put forth by a Greek philosopher, Democritus. The whole point was to define everything materially so that human beings had no immaterial, immortal soul.
That meant, of course, that you don't have to worry about heaven and hell since, when you're dead, there's nothing left of you. You just dissipate. Nature itself cannot be acted upon by the gods. Nature is self-subsistent and eternal. We pass away, but the atoms exist eternally.
But he was postulating a theory that he didn't really have any scientific evidence for.
He couldn't possibly have known about something called the eternal, unbreakable atom because there weren't such things as microscopes then.
What are some of the primary differences between the Epicurean worldview and the Christian worldview?
It's almost impossible not to find the difference, because they were created as opposites all the way down the line, both in regard to their view of nature, and in regard to human nature. But let's take some really obvious ones. Epicurus, trying to get rid of the gods, argues that nature is eternal.
Christianity says nature came into being from nothing. You've also got the notion in Epicurus and Lucretius that things may look intelligently designed, but they are really caused by sort of the connection between variations of one kind, material variations, and some aspect of chance.
So what does it matter that Christians and Epicurians disagree on this point?
If you view human beings as you would any other animal, and as having come about by chance, your morality has got to follow suit. Your morality can't be as it were written into your nature, given to you by the gods. Even your nature itself is subject to change.
Now, we saw the fall of Epicureanism within Caesar's time because they chose Stoicism over Epicurean thought.
It was pounded. You find all kinds of acidic remarks and diatribes against Epicureanism as Christianity rises. And at the dawn of the Renaissance, interestingly enough, the texts of Epicurus and Lucretius, which had literally been buried in monasteries — were rediscovered and published all over Europe. You can follow the thread of their influence from the 1400s to the 1600s. By the 1800s, it's really set in stone as the view of science. Darwin simply revived the evolutionary account, which was part of the original Epicurean framework more than 2,000 years ago.
How do you see that Darwin's brand of Epicureanism became the basis for moral decline in the West?
We can use some really very obvious examples, such as euthanasia. If you're going to treat human beings as another animal, with nothing to look forward to other than the pleasure they can get from this life or the pain they need to avoid—that's Darwin—you're going to treat them the same way you would your dog or your cat.
So what difference does it make that Darwinism is simply kind of an update of an ancient idea?
First of all, note that Darwinism is not something that was discovered. It's not a scientific discovery. And the sign of this is that it was 2,000 years old before it could have ever had any scientific vindication of it. It's a philosophical account. And that means it's an account of nature that filters out evidence that would contradict it. That's what the Intelligent Design movement is saying: this is not a science, it is a kind of metaphysics. It's a philosophical view that defines science in such a way that will only allow more evidence that supports it.
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Wiker earlier presented his connection between Epicurus and Darwin in the November 2001 issue of First Things.
Moral Darwinism is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
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