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Goodness, Evil, and Darwinian Science

April 24th, 2008 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Noah Millman, in commenting upon the Derbyshire dust-up, writes:

I continue to believe that both sides of the Darwin vs. Christianity battle are missing the most telling point. We should all agree that religious dogma has no bearing on the truth or falsity of a scientific theory. Heliocentrism is true; geocentrism is false. There is an enormous weight of evidence behind the theory of evolution by natural selection. There is going to be more and more evidence behind new theories about the workings of the human mind, and the interactions of the human genome and human personality. All religion can do is react to these discoveries and, as part of that reaction, caution us about drawing unwarranted conclusions (political, moral, what-have-you) from the evidence. But I don’t think that’s the end of the story, because I think science does have implications for the persuasiveness of specific religious doctrines, simply as a psychological matter. And I think evolution through natural selection is extremely uncongenial to the central Christian story about the nature of sin and evil in the world. Why? Because the Christian story has the entry of strife into the world come about as the result of human sin, whereas the core idea behind evolution by natural selection is that our existence – and the consciousness and ability to sin that comes with it – is a product of strife. Put bluntly: natural selection is not the mechanism that the Christian deity would use to create man in His image. Or, if it is, I’d like to see the explanation. I think that natural selection poses similar but less-acute problems for Judaism and Islam; it poses the fewest problems, I suspect, for Hinduism. Again: I’m not speaking of science refuting religion. I’m speaking of scientific results making certain core religious claims less persuasive.

Millman captures the philosophical tension between Darwinism and Christianity well.

But it is not a tension that is limited to the explanation for evil.  If natural selection erodes the Christian concept of 'sin,' then it does so only by virtue of its own inability to explain goodness, the concept upon which the Christian notion of sin depends.  On the one hand, the Christian teaching of the imago dei is that human nature is fundamentally good.  On the other hand, the Darwinian narrative implies that human nature is born in strife and grows out of strife.  At best, its goodness and the goodness it creates is ancillary to its nature, rather than inherent to it like Christianity teaches.
There are, of course, attempts by evolutionary ethicists to ground ethics in the evolutionary process, just as there are attempts to Christians to incorporate the notion of the fall into evolutionary theory.  I am, in fact, not arguing against those attempts.

My aim is simply to point out that in addition to being an astute observation of the effects of Darwinian science on Christian theology, Millman's point implicates Darwinian ethics.  I think Chesterton got it exactly right when he said the doctrine of sin is the only doctrine of Christianity that can be empirically proved.  The existence of sin makes the burden for evolutionary ethics tht much heavier and the plausibility of Darwinian science's presuppositions much less persuasive.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.