When one is aware of the fact that life is the result of the evolutionary process it is only natural to think about the implications for how we live our lives—how we try to find a moral compass ….without having one handed down from On High.
In 1859, Charles Darwin’s book The Origin of Species shook the world. His discovery, that all life had evolved by a natural historical process from a common origin, overturned the widely accepted view that species were separately created by God. With legendary evasiveness, all Darwin said then about humans was that
“Much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”
During his 5-year world voyage as naturalist on the Beagle in the 1830s, Darwin noticed that the plant and animal species in a given place included groups that were more similar to each other than they were to somewhat similar species in other parts of the world. Fossils also resembled the living animals in the area where they were found, and similar species have similar body structures, embryology, and even behavior. Darwin realized that this resemblance is due to descent from common ancestry, and it is of course that fact that enables us to say that species are ‘related’.
|Humpback whale; Public Domain|
Darwin was also struck by the adaptations of species to their particular environment; mammals are land animals but whales can swim, hummingbirds have long beaks to reach nectar, cacti thrive in arid deserts, birds are reptile descendants but they can fly. How could such adaptations have arisen, if not by divine Creation? Darwin had an answer, and it was based on the cold cruelty of life and death:
“Nothing is easier than to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, nor more difficult—at least I have found it so—than constantly to bear this conclusion in mind. . . .We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, [but] we do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey.”
Darwin also studied the exceedingly slow change in geological formations, which revealed the vast age of the earth. Among other things, he found shells inland at high elevations, and he studied the slow formation of coral atolls. Synthesizing these various facts and with deep and incisive insight, he reasoned that over countless thousands of generations, the ‘fittest’ individuals—those carrying genetically determined traits that gave them even a very slight competitive advantage, survived and reproduced. Eventually, their descendants evolved into new species—thus the ‘origin of species’—while extinction was the fate that awaited the less ‘fit’. Darwin called this process “natural selection,” and he thought that it was a universal law of life, in the same way as Newton’s law of gravitation is a universal law of physics.
Struggling with the implications of his view, Darwin rationalized (with, we think, more than a bit of wishful thinking) that
“When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.”
Painless? No fear? Well, in any case, to Darwin, a law of universal cruelty generated what he famously called the ‘grandeur’ of life.
Thirteen years after writing the Origin, Darwin finally did deal with human evolution. In The Descent of Man, he showed in convincing physical and behavioral detail that we, too, have evolved as part of the living world. He did acknowledge that in the Origin
“I perhaps attributed too much to the action of natural selection or the survival of the fittest….[but]… I may be permitted to say …. that I have at least, as I hope, done good service in aiding to overthrow the dogma of separate creations.”
In fact, some recognition of the too-old-for-Genesis earth and the succession of species had been seeping into cultural awareness for some time even before down. Leading intellectuals of the day were understandably shaken by this new view of life, as well as its challenge to their faith. They included novelists like Thomas Hardy, and George Eliot whose troubled reactions show up in her novel Middlemarch, and poets like Matthew Arnold, and Alfred Tennyson who gave us the phrase “Nature red in tooth and claw.”
|First edition title page of Middlemarch; Wikipedia|
Though he is much less well known, the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace discovered evolution independently, and at the same time as Darwin. The two became friends, but Wallace struggled to accept that evolution could apply to humans: he felt that things like our mathematical and musical abilities could not have evolved by natural selection. After all, hunter gatherers didn’t compose piano sonatas or work out integrals. When in 1869 Wallace wrote that such abilities were evidence for the guiding intervention of God, Darwin famously replied in frustration,
“I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child.”
We now have wholly plausible general explanations for traits evolving in one way and being used in another at some later time. But it was a very logical question for Wallace to have raised.
Always a modest man, in a letter explaining his theory to the American botanist, Asa Gray, Darwin quipped,
“This sketch is most imperfect . . .[and] . . .your imagination must fill up many wide blanks. Without some reflection, it will appear all rubbish; perhaps it will appear so after reflection.”
Natural selection is still today widely taken as law-like dogma, but while Darwin’s theory was deeply insightful, some of it is, in a sense, a sort of rubbish, at least because the truth is not so simple!
The ability of natural selection to generate adaptive variation, and the glacial slowness of the process in what was by then recognized to be a very old earth, together removed the need to explain the diversity of life by sudden events of divine creation. But that same snail-like pace means that competitive advantages at any given time must themselves usually be very slight.
That’s important to our point here, because it means that relative success in life is mostly the result of chance, or luck, or happenstance, and not inherent genetic superiority. Harmful traits might be selected against if their bearers do not survive or reproduce. Even clearly genetic traits are typically affected by variation in many different genes, so that the ‘same’ trait will be genetically different in each person to a considerable extent. Species are adapting simultaneously in many different ways, and so there are usually many ways to be ‘fit’.
As a result, in general, at any given time and place, the main criterion for what is ‘better’ is what happens to be luckier. An oak tree makes hundreds of thousands of acorns during its lifetime, but in a stable environment only one, on average, lives to become a mature oak itself—at least, we cannot say that the genetically very best acorn—whatever that could actually mean!—is that very one in a hundred thousand.
Even individuals with otherwise slightly more advantageous genes that could otherwise make them, say, better hunters or gatherers, or bankers, violinists, athletes, nurses—or even professors or drug dealers!--may instead be the victims of accident or childhood disease, fail to find a mate, and so on. This quite obvious fact undermines the yen of a strict believer in natural selection for a single, precise law-like natural underpinning of life. Life is just much more nuanced than that.
There are many religious questions about the implications of evolution. For example, there were religious skeptics and atheists long before Darwin. In a rather passive sense, these people simply did not see convincing evidence for the truth of sacred texts or of a personal God. But evolution is different: it shows in an active sense not stories about where we might have come from, but facts about where we have come from. This insight removes the need for an external Creator who is also the provider of an absolute moral compass, a True North, by which to live, or claim to live, or try to live, our lives.
Instead, evolution is an impersonal process, with no mission nor set of values. But this need not be entirely distressing, because the fact of evolution liberates us to explore a moral compass for ourselves.
It is certainly true that some people find that compass in Darwinian evolution itself, taking relentless natural selection as the True North of existence, at last revealed by science—Nature red in tooth and claw, in your face, whether you like it or not!
That Darwinian dogma has been used as justification for all sorts of real rubbish, including a cornucopia of discrimination, racism, and violence of humans against each other. This rationale—perhaps better called an excuse—is still reflexively and routinely extended to justify competition among societies, organizations, businesses, and even universities (beyond just their football teams)! At the extreme, leading scientists used evolutionary dogma to justify sterilizing the impaired, and providing cover for Hitler’s racist horrors on the grounds of preserving the supposed genetic superiority of the Aryan race.
Cathedrals of unutterable evil have been constructed by people who, we must acknowledge, have in their own minds, and sometimes in Darwin’s name, as clear a moral compass as have saints. But so have cathedrals of incredible beauty been constructed on Darwinian grounds. In fact, if you try hard enough, you can find credible ways within Darwinian theory to account not just for mass murder, strident atheism, or nihilistic existentialism, but also for any of a smorgasbord of more ‘positive’ values, including sustainability, vegetarianism, social kindness, polygamy, even self-sacrifice and celibacy.
In that sense evolution is a Rorschach test. It’s most basic truth is successful descent with modification from a common ancestor. Beyond that, you see in the theory what you bring to it. If almost any behavior, even direct opposites, can be shown to be consistent with evolutionary theory, as they can, then to that extent the theory of evolution is no more useful for developing a moral compass than a creationist’s just saying “God said so”.
So, then, what about God? Darwin recognized that evolution neither requires, nor precludes, a God—at least one who, as deists (probably including Darwin) might say, started everything and (given the state of the world) has been on an extended coffee break ever since.
Evolution makes it possible for us, as beings, to conceive of and believe in a God, or many gods, or a world of spirits, or of none. Whether such beliefs are factual or not, it is perfectly consistent with evolution to believe in a Heaven paved in gold, if it comforts, because we evolved to seek comfort and safety.
The point is that evolution itself doesn’t dictate the answer. Despite the impression one might get from the daily news media’s hot new stories about genes for this and genetic cures for that, not everything we do or think, or that happens to us, is determined by our genes. The very notion of right and wrong is culturally constructed, and changes over time and place. As existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre said:
“Nowhere is it written that the Good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie.”
A moral compass is a choice we must make for ourselves. Sometimes we invent our own, sometimes, consciously or not, we adopt one, but it is always based on our individual experiences.
Of course, the fact that there is no easy answer ‘out there’ can be a challenging burden to accept. Darwin himself faced this challenge, as do we all; his writings portray a complex man continually revisiting his own moral compass.
Three of his 10 children died young, one severely disabled. As he wrote of his favorite daughter Annie, the joy of his life, who died painfully at age 10:
“We have lost the joy of the Household, and the solace of our old age:— she must have known how we loved her; oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & shall ever love her dear joyous face. Blessings on her.”
Darwin had been studying theology as a student at Cambridge, preparing to become a vicar, when he was offered the trip aboard the Beagle. As he viewed the natural world, his orthodox belief faded, and Annie’s death is said to have extinguished any remaining faith he may have had in a personal, intervening God.
But he didn’t just brush her death off as the normal consequences of evolution, as a good and natural thing because it reflected natural selection. Instead, Darwin had all the human inconsistencies that any of us do. And he had as much sympathy and empathy as well. He wrote of the horrors of slavery that he had witnessed in his travels, and became a fierce abolitionist, yet he held a rather hierarchical view of human populations (with the ‘civilized’ ones like imperial Britain on top, naturally). He was a humanitarian, yet he was comfortable with his status in the wealthy leisured class.
And if unlike his personal life, his theory stressed Nature’s harsh realities, Darwin also knew of the softer wonders of life, even if this appreciation may have come to him later in life: as he wrote wistfully in his autobiography
“… if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week. . . The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”
So Darwin was not a one-dimensional man, and his Origin of Species is not a sacred text, not The Word from on high. Instead, it’s the fact of evolution in itself that provides an external kind of ‘authority’ that forces a recognition that there may be no external personal authority, and that we have to decide individually what to believe about what is right or wrong.
If evolution’s impersonal nature seems a lonely view of life, evolution has also produced the almost mystical collective wholeness of life: everyone here, and every butterfly, mouse, tree, and blade of grass—yes, even every cockroach!—shares a single 3.5 billion year unbroken chain of successful ancestors.
This magnificent cosmic unity will not remove the challenge of individual isolation, nor the pain of loss. But it can lead to a greater appreciation of friends, family, colleagues, and social fellowships.
It is at the very least more than a small comfort to know even if facing the sorrows of life is a challenge, when you are trying to find your own moral compass these softer truths provide the joy of being able to live in ways that have been chosen by you, rather than for you. This isn't written in evolutionary theory, but it is a direct consequence of knowing the evolutionary facts of life.