Tag Archives: biological evolution

Why Can’t Evolution Be the Source of Transcendent Moral Values?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

In two previous blog posts (here and here), I have called attention to the fact that human beings universally take for granted that our moral judgments transcend time, place, and species. We judge certain actions to be morally right or wrong regardless of when these actions occurred, where they occurred, and also regardless of which species of intelligent agent has acted. I take these truths to be indisputable, based on our common human experience.

Biological evolution is a group of many and varied processes which act on all organisms to produce the great diversity of life on earth. These processes have operated on life in dramatically different ways depending on the particular time in earth’s history, the particular places where life resides, and depending on the type of organic species.

I take it that when a person says, “Evolution is the source of moral values,” they are saying that the process of evolution has produced particular bio-chemical brain states in human beings that we identify as moral values and duties. So, here are the problems for those who want to claim that biological evolution is the ground or source of transcendent moral values.

With regard to time, the very word “evolution” entails change over time. A thing could not be said to evolve if it stayed exactly the same forever. Evolution, then, is working to modify and change all organisms all the time. It seems to me to be completely incoherent to claim that timeless, unchanging moral values have been produced by a process which, by its very nature, is changing everything on which it operates. If we are looking for a fixed, time-independent source of moral values, I cannot see how biological evolution even remotely fits the bill.

With regard to place, the results of evolutionary processes are quite dependent on geography. This was one of Darwin’s first insights about evolution, that geography is a major factor in the way that evolution produces biological diversity. No evolutionary biologist would claim that the effects of evolutionary processes are the same across our planet, or even on other planets (assuming life exists elsewhere). But if moral values are independent of place, then how can a process which produces completely different effects from place to place possibly produce moral values?

With regard to species, let’s first look at gods, angels, and demons. Evolutionary processes simply do not apply to immaterial beings. Even an atheist who does not believe that these beings exist, would at least grant that if they did exist, biological evolution would not operate on them. But if evolution is the source of moral values, then how is it coherent to apply evolved brain states in human beings to non-human agents who themselves never evolved?

What about intelligent aliens? An evolutionist would say that aliens, if they existed, did evolve through biological processes, but there is a different problem here. How in the world does it make sense to apply the evolved brain states of human beings to alien beings who evolved completely different brain states? It is inconceivable, given evolutionary processes alone, that alien brains would evolve the exact same moral values that human beings evolved.

As we’ve seen, though, human beings feel very natural in making moral judgments about spiritual beings and aliens alike. We all take for granted that all intelligent agents should be operating under the exact same moral principles. If evolution is the source  of moral values, then we are completely unjustified in morally judging non-human intelligent agents.

To summarize, evolutionary processes are totally and completely inadequate to ground moral values that transcend time, place, and species. If evolution were truly the ground of moral values, then we would only be justified in judging the actions of other members of our human species who live at the same time and place as we do. Since none of us restrict our moral judgments in that way, then clearly evolution cannot be the source of moral values.