Joined: May 2002
Larry Arnhart points out the same thing I was trying to in my above post:
Benjamin Wiker’s attack on me (“Darwin and the Descent of Morality,” November 2001) contains many errors. I will point out only a few.
I have argued that a Darwinian science of the “moral sense” as rooted in human nature supports a conservative view of morality as derived from natural law. Thomas Aquinas indicates the biological basis of natural law when he endorses the claim of the Roman jurist Ulpian that “natural right (ius naturale) is that which nature has taught all animals.”
While I see this as a similarity between Darwin and Aquinas, Professor Wiker asserts that there is no similarity at all because “for Darwin, we don’t just share some aspects of our nature with animals. We are ultimately indistinguishable from other animals.” Prof. Wiker is wrong, because Darwin clearly states that although human beings share social instincts with other animals, the moral sense that combines social emotions and rational reflection is uniquely human. Indeed, Darwin declares, the moral sense is “the greatest of all distinctions” between human beings and lower animals. But like Aquinas, Darwin thinks this uniquely human morality is rooted in natural inclinations (such as sexual mating and parental care) shared with other animals. Contrary to what Prof. Wiker asserts, Darwin is not a reductionistic materialist who cannot see the moral distinctiveness of human beings.
To make Darwin look like a crude proponent of eugenics, Prof. Wiker selectively quotes Darwin’s remarks about how in civilized societies the weak are protected by compassionate practices so that they can survive, and “this must be highly injurious to the race of man.” Prof. Wiker does not quote, however, Darwin’s remark that such care for the weak manifests the “instinct of sympathy,” which is “the noblest part of our nature.”
Prof. Wiker claims that Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins are closer to Darwin’s view of morality than I am. This is strange, because both Pinker and Dawkins explicitly reject Darwin’s explanation of morality as rooted in human nature. Both are ethical transcendentalists of a Kantian variety who assert that human morality shows the ability of human beings as rational creatures to transcend their nature. Both assert a radical dichotomy between natural facts and moral values. Only human beings, Dawkins believes, have the rational power to cultivate “pure, disinterested altruism,” which is “something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the history of the world.” By contrast, I defend Darwin’s view of the moral sense as rooted in human nature.
I believe that Darwin’s ethical naturalism is fully compatible with a theistic view of nature as originally created by God. Prof. Wiker asserts, however, that any notion of God as Creator is incompatible with Darwinian evolution, but he does not explain why this must be so. Doesn’t the Bible teach us that God created the universe at the beginning with all of the natural formative powers necessary for developing into the world as we now see it? Doesn’t God use the secondary causes of the natural world to execute His original plan? Why couldn’t God use the natural secondary causes of evolutionary history to do this?
Is Prof. Wiker implying that God was unable or unwilling to create a fully gifted universe at the beginning that could unfold naturally without any gaps requiring miraculous interventions later? I see no evidence for this in the Bible, unless Wiker is a “young–earth” creationist who interprets the “six days” of Creation as a literal week of twenty–four–hour days. Like Augustine, I find such a literal reading of Genesis 1 to be absurd.
Department of Political Science
Northern Illinois University
Another good letter, and Wiker's reply, including some incredibly ignorant stuff about the races being "long isolated" and a complete failure to deal with Martin Luther's "The Jews and their Lies", which is quite surely tied to Luther's religious views, resulting in far more egregious faults than Darwin's victorian racism expressed in Descent of Man.
It is odd to encounter in First Things that vulgar rhetorical device—usual favorite of the left—of reviling a historical figure for his once–unexceptional views on race, sex, etc. It can hardly be surprising that Darwin was a racist, given the prevalent views of his contemporaries. To contextualize his racism is, of course, not to excuse it, but it is not impossible to separate his scientific ideas from his prejudices. Holding a contemporary Darwinist liable for Darwin’s racism makes about as much sense as asking a modern–day Protestant to answer for Martin Luther’s “The Jews and Their Lies.”
Charles Darwin’s books are not read as Holy Writ by any biologists I know of. One can appreciate his ingenious ideas of modification by descent and natural selection without agreeing with his misapplication of those ideas to humankind. In the passages that Benjamin Wiker quotes, in fact, it is obvious that Darwin is relying not on empirical observations—unless Professor Wiker agrees that there is some empirical basis for believing that the races differ in moral or intellectual capacity—but on the blind prejudice of his time. Rather than impugning the theory of evolution per se, these passages stand as a stark reminder to the scientist to confine his or her theorizing to matters empirical. When Prof. Wiker insists that despite their unpalatability, “Darwin’s [racist] conclusions were correctly drawn from his evolutionary principles,” he misses the point that without hard data, those principles exist in a vacuum.
Darwin is right, however, to observe that past societies have permitted behaviors that now seem shockingly immoral, such as infanticide. Is Prof. Wiker contending otherwise? Certainly a glance back at the twentieth century—to say nothing of September 11—confirms William Blake’s opinion that “Cruelty has a Human Heart / And Jealousy a Human Face.” Blake expresses a despair at the human condition that is not hard to square with the Christian idea that humans are mired in sin, unable to escape without the aid of their Redeemer. In this vein, I am stimulated by Edward T. Oakes’ writings in these pages (“Original Sin: A Disputation,” November 1998; “Wrestling with Original Sin,” February 1999) to wonder if there is an important if so far incompletely explored connection between the theory of evolution and the doctrine of original sin.
Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology
Benjamin Wiker replies:
Allow me first to say how pleased I am to have received such well–articulated responses to my article.
Larry Arnhart asserts that, for Darwin, “the moral sense that combines social emotions and rational reflection is uniquely human.” Darwin did indeed say that the “moral sense perhaps affords the best and highest distinction between man and the lower animals.” (All quotations from Darwin are from his Descent of Man.) As Professor Arnhart points out, Darwin argued that the “moral sense” of human beings is composed of two elements: “social emotions” and “rational reflection.” If the human moral sense is truly distinctive, then we should be able to see its distinctive character arise in its elements.
In regard to “rational reflection,” Darwin argued that “there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.” Since the mental faculties, as all else, arise through natural selection, “the mental faculties of man and the lower animals do not differ in kind, although immensely in degree.”
This “immense difference in degree” might sound promising for Prof. Arnhart’s argument, but a closer inspection proves otherwise. The “gap” in mental faculties on the evolutionary spectrum is not caused by some sort of leap of natural selection from the ape to man; rather, Darwin asserts that the “breaks in the series are simply the result of many forms having become extinct.” And so, the difference in degree in regard to reason turns out to be merely the result of the intermediate species having become extinct. Therefore, human reason, as a distinctly evolved trait, is distinct only per accidens.
Even more distressing for Prof. Arnhart’s case is that Darwin did not consider reason, as developed in relation to moral sense, to be peculiarly human. For Darwin, “any animal whatever, endowed with well–marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”
But couldn’t Darwin have meant that any creature thus endowed would develop the same moral sense—say, that outlined by St. Thomas in his account of natural law? No. Darwin was quite clear: “I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours.” It is at this point in the argument that Darwin illustrated his assertion by the hypothetical rational hive bees (quoted in full in my original article) who, according to their evolved moral sense, think it a “sacred duty” to commit fratricide and infanticide.
Nor, finally, is “sympathy” distinctively human, but develops in “all those [social] animals which aid and defend each other,” and “will have been increased, through natural selection.”
The social instincts, reason, the moral sense, and sympathy—none are distinctly human, nor does their evolution through natural selection result in a definite, non–changing morality, such as St. Thomas’ natural law.
Next, Prof. Arnhart faults me for quoting Darwin’s very frank eugenic language, but not quoting Darwin’s remarks that sympathy keeps us from destroying the weak, the sickly, and the deformed, even “if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.” However noble Darwin’s sentiments here, there are (at least) the following difficulties with his invocation of sympathy.
First, it contradicts the essentially non–teleological nature of his more fundamental principle of natural selection. On evolutionary grounds, natural selection has no goals, and that includes no moral goals. Yet Darwin, in contradiction to his own principle, inserted one, and began waxing poetic about “an advancement in the standard of morality” through an extension of sympathy from the tribe to the nation, then “to the men of all nations and races,” and finally “to the lower animals.”
Second, since natural selection is the fundamental principle, on Darwinian grounds, if sympathy happens to develop by natural selection, and the expression of sympathy contradicts the better survival of the group, then so much the worse for sympathy. As the great nineteenth–century zoologist and avid Darwinian Ernst Haeckel asked, “What good does it do to humanity to maintain artificially and rear the thousands of cripples, deaf–mutes, idiots, etc. who are born every year with an hereditary burden of incurable disease?” Haeckel, reaffirming the “hard reason” of natural selection, declared quite frankly: “Sentiment should never be allowed to usurp the place of reason in these weighty ethical questions.” Haeckel’s conclusions are horrible, but in contrast to Darwin himself, they are consistent with the premises of Darwin’s account of the survival of the fittest, and that is why the eugenics movement flowed forth so swiftly after publication of the Origin.
Third, the embrace of sympathy as the moral principle is opposed to the natural law anyway. Sympathy is rooted in the capacities to feel pleasure or pain, and to recognize them in others. As Darwin points out, the capacities for pleasure, pain, and sympathy are not distinctly human. The difficulties? At least the following two.
In regard to human beings alone, sympathy is a loose cannon on a very large deck. The feeling of sympathy could just as easily bring someone to become an escort at an abortion clinic as it could bring someone to pray outside that same clinic; sympathy could just as surely lead someone to affirm homosexual marriages as to deny them; sympathy could just as quickly lead to the conclusions of the euthanasia movement as to the anti–euthanasia movement. Unlike the natural law, sympathy is morally protean.
Even worse, the elevation of sympathy and its extension to animals means that other animals must be weighed in the moral balance with human beings. As Peter Singer rightly reasons (on Darwinian grounds), the adult gorilla’s capacity to suffer and to empathize are greater than that of a newborn human, and therefore the adult gorilla morally trumps the human newborn.
As for Pinker and Dawkins, all attempts by “ethical transcendentalism” to escape the inevitable results of natural selection determining morality should tell us quite clearly that “natural facts” as defined by Darwinism do in fact lead to pernicious moral results. Why else would Pinker and Dawkins feel compelled to emigrate from the natural world—the world of Darwinian natural selection—to some alleged noumenal, transcendental world and plant the flag of morality there?
Finally, I am not a young–earth creationist, and I do believe that God uses secondary causes—but just not secondary causes as defined by Darwinian materialism.
Charles Murtaugh asserts that I used a “vulgar rhetorical device” to tar Darwin with racism. Certainly the question at issue is whether Darwin’s racism was intrinsic to his arguments or extrinsic. If intrinsic, then Darwin was rightly tarred; if extrinsic, I treated him unfairly.
To give an example of an extrinsic relation, suppose I had written an article on Dmitri Mendeleev, who discovered the logical arrangement of chemistry’s Periodic Table of Elements, and my article was chock full of Mendeleev’s racial slurs, all of which were taken from his private letters and none of which had anything to do with the structure of the Periodic Table. Then we might conclude both that Mendeleev’s racism might be an expression of “once–unexceptional views” and that such racism had nothing to do with his scientific theories.
The case of Darwin is clearly different. The racism is intrinsic to his account of natural selection, and that is why it arises in his application of natural selection to human races in the Descent of Man. Since, according to Darwin, the races themselves have arisen through natural selection, and further, since both intelligence and moral capacity are variable heritable traits, then (Darwin rightly concludes) different races will have different intellectual and moral capacities. If I were a Darwinist, I could not think otherwise, however unpalatable for current tastes.
But I am not a Darwinist, and I don’t believe that the races were caused by natural selection. Indeed, I believe that the presence of equivalent intelligence and moral capacities spread equally among all the races is a proof against Darwinism and for natural law, for natural selection could never have spread such capacities so uniformly. Thus, I am not a racist, because I am not a Darwinist. If a Darwinist is not a racist, then he will have to come up with a very good reason for the remarkable convergence of human intelligence and moral capacity among races so long isolated and evolving.