In this section ethics in the light of evolution will be explored. The first section looks at the evolved character of ethics and the second section deals with a Christian ethic that is rooted in an understanding of evolution.
For Charles Darwin, ethics had evolved in early humanity and had at its roots the positive feelings that individuals have for the good of others and their company. However, an individual may still be controlled by selfish behaviour (something we all have experienced). Altruism can be found in other creatures as well, especially those that live in social groups. One might think of elephants or apes. Inclusive fitness is the term used for acts of altruism that may result in the death of an individual, but which is beneficial for the bigger group of the same species. Natural selection through inclusive fitness is termed kin selection. Bees and ants are good examples of this. Reciprocal altruism refers to instances where one organism or species helping another results in positive gains for the one that helps. Indirect altruism is directed at individuals who cannot repay the altruist, but the reward for such altruism comes from others observing the act of altruism. This kind of altruism is rare in nonhuman creatures and results in a higher social standing for the altruist.
Humans are social creatures, and a kind of morality or altruism that would serve the community would result in the community surviving in the process of natural selection. Humans necessarily had to learn to cooperate in order to survive. Darwin sees the standard of human morality as rising higher and higher and thus including altruisms that have nothing to do with the interests of the group.
Jesuit theologian Jack Mahoney states that “[w]e are entirely the product of divine altruism, the effect of the sheer creative generosity of the Supreme Being.” John Haught states that “[m]orality, then, is both an outcome of natural evolutionary factors and a response to the divine.” Craig Nessan makes the important observation that “[t]he human animal is no longer innocent in its quest for survival. Because now there exists the additional possibility of recognising the other as a self with a claim to survival equal to one’s own. … Animal innocence gives way to human guilt.” With self-consciousness and self-reflection comes the knowledge that one acts selfishly.
There are those who argue that evolution rids the world of ethics and morality. Mark Isaak refers to Arthur Rendle-Short who argues that “[e]volution teaches that people are animals. We should not be surprised when people who are taught evolution start behaving like animals.” Isaak points out that animals behave in many different ways, that “evolution teaches that people behave like humans,” and that even in a Creationist view, human beings are designed like animals. We are made of the same components as animals, we have the same biological processes as animals. Isaak goes on to make an interesting remark about the morality of some creationist proponents by listing several indications of less than moral actions taken by some creationists:
- Using quotes out of context.
- Bogus credentials.
- Fraudulent claims.
- Repeatedly using claims that have already been refuted (eg. planetary dust infall, Paluxy mantracks) discussed in this post
- Vilifying their opponents, eg. comparing them to mass murderers.
The Christian religion calls for Christian ethics to be acted out in day-to-day life. It is a way of life, not just a way of belief. Christianity is not only focused on the hereafter, but also on the here and now. Haught states the ethical challenge and a resolution for it clearly in the following passage:
Evolution allows us to realise that human beings are invited to participate in the great work of creation. If we fail to keep this evolutionary perspective alive, our sense of ethical obligation – and for the Christian, the following of Christ – is in danger of being reduced to blind obedience to arbitrary imperatives and divine commands, or perhaps simply to seeking reward in the hereafter. In that case, ethical life becomes, in Teilhard’s own words, a matter of “killing time,” and redemption becomes a matter of “harvesting souls” from a pointless universe. After Darwin, Christian theology can do better than this.
It is not straight forward to develop evolutionary ethics, as Stanley Rice points to an example: “Thomas Henry Huxley said that evolutionary ethics consisted of resisting the violence of evolution; his grandson said that evolutionary ethics consisted of embracing the cooperation that evolution produces”. Because the history of evolution is so varied, there can be views that focus on opposites, such as the views of Huxley and his grandson. Thomas Henry Huxley states the following regarding the struggle for existence and ethics:
The practice of that which is ethically best – what we call goodness or virtue – involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows; its influence is directed, not so much to the survival of the fittest, as to the fitting of as many as possible to survive. It repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence.
Christopher Southgate adds to the sentiment of Huxley when he states that humans need to cultivate “ethical kenosis,” which is an emptying of the self and putting other humans and creatures above our own selfish aims. The first step is “kenosis of aspiration,” meaning that we won’t aspire too high, to a status which will be detrimental to others. The next step is the “kenosis of appetite,” which basically comes down to not taking more than your share. This second step applies not only to appetites that may take from other people, but also to the exploitation of the natural world. The third step is the “kenosis of acquisitiveness,” which means we shouldn’t hoard up material possessions. A culture that is materialistic and based on consumerism is a good example of a culture that has failed in this regard. These steps of kenosis is only half of the moral imperative that Southgate identifies, the other half is “the desire, on the part of anyone who truly loves, that the other, the beloved, should flourish in his/her/its otherness.”
To see the complete explanation of these three kenotic ethics, see the PDF article God’s Creation Wild and Violent, and Our Care for Other Animals, page 250 (pg 6 of 9).
Keeping in mind the kenotic ethics of Southgate, we can also turn to Arthur Peacocke, who proposes seven roles that humanity should play in its proper relation with the cosmos:
- Priest of creation
- Trustee and preserver
- Co-creator, co-worker, or co-explorer with God the Creator.
Southgate explains the role of priests of creation by saying that we are “the species that offers up creation’s praise to God.” Systematic theologian Philip Hefner defines our status as co-creator as follows: “Human beings are God’s created co-creators whose purpose is to be the agency, acting in freedom, to birth the future that is most wholesome for the nature that has birthed us.” We have a responsibility to act in nature in symbiosis and with love. Our responsibilities as trustees and preservers of the environment do not arise from our Darwinian understanding of it, but “out of our sense of the value of God’s creatures.” Because all the earth belongs to God, we ought to look after it. If we claim to love God, we should take care of God’s universe. As human beings, we are stewards of God’s cosmos and Wentzel van Huyssteen refers to the work of Richard Middleton, who envisages the imago Dei as a “prism refracting God’s presence though a multitude of sociocultural responsibilities and activities.” This implies an ethic pertaining to practices that include both interpersonal and ecological spheres. Pope claims that we, as human beings, are “naturally primed to give and receive love,” but that we need training and education in order to extend this love to its full expression, which is to love beyond the circle of family and friends. Loving beyond the circle of family and friends also entails loving beyond the confines of our own species. In the words of Ann Pederson: “We are created through the relationships with all the critters in the world, becoming who we are through our relationships with all the entangled, muddled bodies of this world. Consequently, how we get together and get along with the creatures around us will determine our future well-being.”
Gloria Schaab proposes a model for the role of humanity: “that of the midwife in the process of procreation.” This midwife model encourages us to be attentive to choices that promote healthy growth and to be vigilant against the spread of that which is deleterious to the well-being of creation. The midwife model supports those attitudes towards creation that are nurturing and gentle, which results in treating creation and creatures with respect, working against attitudes that trigger destruction and exploitation of the biosphere. She concludes on the ethical approach by saying: “As Christians grow to contemplate and emulate the God who embraces, permeates, and suffers with both human and cosmic being, action for restoration, transformation, and liberation will extend to not only the abused and violated persons, but also to the abused and violated cosmos itself.” Van de Beek makes the poignant observation that taking in a controlling stance toward the rest of creation is simply another way to promote the self. At this point we converge again with ethical kenosis: taking proper care of the world in which we live is a form of self-emptying and ethical kenosis, where the self is not the primary goal of one’s action.
As conclusion, the words from Mahoney sum up the Christian stance on ethics in light of the evolutionary history:
We can find the defining shape of Christian ethics as a response of whole-hearted generosity in which altruism, agape, and love are synonymous, which can theretofore be seen from an evolutionary point of view as the core ethical attitude to be incalculated and expressed in all human behaviour in an infinite variety of ways, leading individuals into community, or fellowship (koinonia), with the risen Christ. … Altruism is seen, then, as the cosmic, connecting link between the initiative of God, the self-surrender of Christ, and the ethical call to evolving humanity to transcend itself in imitation of both God and Christ and, as the church, to enter into fuller communion with both.
The next blog post will look at salvation and eschatology in light of evolution. That will also be the last post in this series which has been quite a journey.
Cunningham, C. 2010. Darwin’s pious idea: Why the ultra-Darwinists and creationists both get it wrong. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans.
Haught, J F. 2010. Making sense of evolution: Darwin, God, and the drama of life. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Isaak, M. 2007. The counter-creationism handbook. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Mahoney, J. 2011. Christianity in evolution: An exploration. Washington: Georgetown University Press.
Pederson, A M. 2009. All God’s critters: A feminist reflection on Darwin and species. Word & World 29(1): 47-55.
Rice, S A. 2007. Encyclopedia of evolution. New York: Facts on File.
Ruse, M. 2000. Can a Darwinian be a Christian? The relationship between science and religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Schaab, G L 2006. A procreative paradigm of the creative suffering of the Triune God: Implications of Arthur Peacocke’s evolutionary theology. Theological Studies 67: 542- 566.
Southgate, C. 2008. The groaning of creation: God, evolution, and the problem of evil. London: Westminster John Knox Press.
Van de Beek, B. 2005. Toeval of schepping? Scheppingstheologie in de context van het modern denken. Kampen: Uitgeverij Kok.
Van Huyssteen, J W. 2006. Alone in the world? Human uniqueness in science and theology. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans.