That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life
Evolution is a powerful tool for understanding the world. In this series of four blog posts, I make some connections between evolutionary biology and moral philosophy. Darwin was very aware of these connections when he wrote ‘The Descent of Man’ and ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’, and he was equally aware of the potential for deep conflict between evolutionary thinking and many moral ideologies. Creationists of all stripes, especially literalist Christian and Muslim thinkers, understand that the fossil record contradicts scripture, and that evolution contradicts the belief that humans were created in their current state by a deity. What is often overlooked is that that evolutionary biology also offers some pretty good explanations for a lot of evil in the world, in particular much (but certainly not all) of the injustice and suffering that people inflict on others. Further, evolutionary biology also provides some pretty good explanations for the compassionate and altruistic behavior that we all engage in on a daily basis.
Almost every religion or ideology addresses the presence of evil or injustice in the world. Evolutionary biology threatens ideologies that offer competing explanations for why people (and animals in general) are capable of great violence and kindness. All human beings are flawed by nature. While religions that have a concept of original sin figured this out thousands of years ago, evolutionary biology provides an alternative source of reasoning that leads to the same conclusion. In particular, evolution provides a good explanation for why people are racist, tribal creatures, and why bigotry will never die. It also offers a good explanation for why religion causes so much bloodshed in the world. There’s a silver lining though. When people understand that the roots of much injustice and suffering are deeply ingrained in one’s self and others, it’s easier to cultivate compassion for one’s self and others—especially those we disagree with. I think many religions and moral ideologies have come to the same conclusion that I draw from evolutionary thinking—it’s just that the line of reasoning is slightly different. Evolutionary biology is not an ideology that justifies bad or good behavior. Rather, evolutionary biology does an awfully good job of explaining the origins of violence and kindness in human beings.