Post Author: Bill Pratt
Most atheists appeal to the process of Darwinian evolution as the source of our moral instincts, but this idea poses some intriguing questions. What if humankind had evolved in different circumstances, in different environments? One could imagine a different set of moral instincts having developed in humans. What about other animals? We see different behaviors in them based on their evolutionary history. Let’s look at some examples.
Philosopher William Lane Craig draws our attention to John Hick. He “invites us to imagine an ant suddenly endowed with the insights of socio-biology and the freedom to make personal decisions.” Hick writes:
Suppose him to be called upon to immolate himself for the sake of the ant-hill. He feels the powerful pressure of instinct pushing him towards this self-destruction. But he asks himself why he should voluntarily . . . carry out the suicidal programme to which instinct prompts him? Why should he regard the future existence of a million million other ants as more important to him than his own continued existence? . . . Since all that he is and has or ever can have is his own present existence, surely in so far as he is free from the domination of the blind force of instinct he will opt for life–his own life.
Why should the ant go against his evolutionary instincts? His instinct for suicide is for the good of the ant-hill and has been placed into him by evolutionary processes. If humans had likewise evolved with an intense instinct to immolate ourselves, would atheists tell us we ought to immolate ourselves or would they say we ought not? If we ought not, then why not, given our evolutionary instincts?
Darwin himself recognized this problem. He said, “If men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering.”
If morality is derived from evolution, and evolution gave our females moral instincts to kill their brothers, would the atheist say that this is behavior is right?
Philosopher Mark Linville notes that “wolves in a pack know their place in the social hierarchy. A lower ranked male feels compelled to give way to the alpha male.” If we imagine that there were wolf moral philosophers, would they not draw the inference that justice is inequality, that wolves ought to give way to those higher in the social hierarchy? After all, this is what evolution gave them. Would atheists agree with the wolf philosophers?
In the rest of the animal world, we see animals eating their young, we see males aggressively forcing themselves on females sexually, and we see animals violently taking things from each other. If evolution has caused all of these behaviors, then how would the atheist call any of these behaviors wrong if humans had evolved these same instincts?
Here is the problem in a nutshell. Atheists must say that evolution has given us moral instincts as they cannot invoke any kind of moral standard that comes from outside the natural world. But evolution has given the animal kingdom all sorts of instincts that atheists would want to say are wrong. In order for them to say these instincts are wrong, however, they must invoke a moral standard that transcends evolution, but they don’t believe that a transcendent standard exists.
Either atheists must admit that a moral standard exists outside and above evolution, or they must accept the fact that they cannot rationally call any behavior wrong that evolution has produced. Which way to go?