Darwinism, Morality and Free Choice
Evolutionary biology’s corrosive impact on the foundations of human society.
Born into wealth and privilege, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were Jewish Chicagoan graduate students who decided to commit the perfect crime. In the spring of 1924, they abducted and murdered 14-year old Bobby Franks. They were eventually apprehended and confessed to their crime. Clarence Darrow was hired to save Leopold and Loeb from the gallows. Yes, the same Clarence Darrow of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee.
Here, too, the law was intertwined with biology. Darrow was a true believer in biological evolution. According to him, the question before the court was whether it would embrace “the old theory” that “a man does something... because he wilfully, purposely, maliciously and with a malignant heart sees fit to do it” or the new theory of modern science that “every human being is the product of the endless heredity back of him and the infinite environment around him.” According to Darrow, Leopold and Loeb murdered Franks “... because they were made that way...”
According to Darrow, Leopold and Loeb murdered Franks “... because they were made that way...”
Robert Crowe, the state’s chief prosecutor in the case, challenged “Darrow’s dangerous philosophy of life.” He read to the court a speech Darrow had delivered to prisoners at a county jail more than 20 years earlier. Darrow had told the prisoners that there was no moral difference between themselves and those who were outside jail. “I do not believe people are in jail because they deserve to be. They are in jail simply because they cannot avoid it, on account of circumstances which are entirely beyond their control, and for which they are in no way responsible.” “There ought to be no jails” he told the prisoners.1
Darwinism as a Universal Acid
Biology dictating morality? Well, yes. Daniel Dennett is a philosopher of biology who has famously described Darwinism as a universal acid – a corrosive ideology that dissolves traditional ideas. And the effects are perhaps nowhere as apparent as in the discussion over free will and morality.
In the debate between Darrow’s moral determinism and Crowe’s insistence that human beings can make moral choices, Judaism takes the side of the latter. We are free to make moral decisions; those decisions are judged on the basis of an objective (Godly) morality. Maimonides concisely codifies our position:
Each individual has free choice – if he wishes to become righteous, he can do so, and if he wishes to become wicked, he can do so... Don’t even consider what the gentile fools and numerous silly Jews think – that God decrees regarding each individual whether he will be righteous or wicked. It isn’t so! Every individual can be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as [King] Yeroboam.2
Enlightenment Rejection of Free Will
This is an old debate. Atheists have for millennia rejected the concept of absolute morality and human free will. In the modern era, this view became prominent during the Enlightenment. For example, the prominent French Enlightenment philosopher Baron d’Holbach (1723-1789) argued that determinism must be true and, as a consequence, human beings do not control their own destinies as religion had always taught. He argued that if human beings are really merely complicated mechanical systems obeying the laws of nature as much as a comet or a planet in orbit around the Sun obeys such laws, then it must be possible, in principle, to predict the future behaviour of any person. Accordingly, man cannot have free will.
The great French biologist Georges Buffon (1707-1788) was also thoroughly committed to a mechanistic picture of the universe, and did not hesitate to extend this picture to man. He conjectured that human beings were but another part of the grand cosmic machine. As such, he could not believe in free will. In 1748, Julien de la Mettrie published L’Homme Machine (Man as Machine). As with d’Holbach and Buffon, he argued that man is nothing more than a mechanical organism whose behaviour is as predictable as the tides.3
Morality as an Evolved Adaptation
But the argument over free will and morality has become more acute ever since Darwin published On the Origin of Species, so let’s start there. William Provine is a biologist and historian of biology at Cornell University. Professor Provine is an outspoken advocate for atheism and biological evolution. One of his favorite aphorisms is that evolution is the greatest engine of atheism ever invented. Provine summarizes the consequences of the belief in evolution as follows:
1) God does not exist; 2) No life after death exists; 3) No ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) No ultimate meaning in life exists; 5) Human free will is nonexistent.4
Let us focus on points 3 and 5 above. The evolutionary view is that moral law is something humans created eons ago as an evolved adaptation. Thus, a conviction that something is right or wrong arises, ultimately, out of the struggle for survival. All the notions we associate with moral and ethical principles are merely adaptations, foisted upon us by evolutionary mechanisms in order to maximize survival.
Provine’s logic is unassailable, if you grant his premises. His point of departure is that nothing exists beyond matter and energy. Matter and energy may manifest themselves in relatively simple forms – a hydrogen molecule, perhaps – and in complex forms, as in a butterfly or human being. But in the end, it all boils down to quarks, electrons and other denizens of the subatomic world. It follows that there cannot be an objective foundation for morality, and that human free will is an illusion, the result of complex neuronal interactions.
This is a popular (inevitable, really) notion among contemporary evolutionists. In 1985, the entomologist E.O. Wilson and the philosopher of science Michael Ruse co-authored an article in which they wrote that “Ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to co-operate.” In his 1998 book Consilience, Wilson argued that “Either ethical precepts, such as justice and human rights, are independent of human experience or else they are human inventions.” He rejected the former explanation, which he called transcendentalist ethics, in favour of the latter, which he named empiricist ethics.5
One implication of the belief that human beings do not possess moral freedom is that criminals cannot be held responsible for their deeds.
Indeed, the whole field of sociobiology, founded by Wilson in the 1970s, presupposes that morality is the product of evolutionary processes and tries to explain most human behaviours by discovering their alleged reproductive advantage in the evolutionary struggle for existence.6
Are Criminals Culpable for their Crimes?
One implication of the belief that human beings do not possess moral freedom is that criminals cannot be held responsible for their deeds. University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne thus writes – in a post entitled Is There Moral Responsibility? – that he does not believe in moral responsibility:
I favor the notion of holding people responsible for good and bad actions, but not morally responsible. That is, people are held accountable for, say, committing a crime, because punishing them simultaneously acts as a deterrent, a device for removing them from society, and a way to get them rehabilitated – if that’s possible. To me, the notion of moral responsibility adds nothing to this idea. In fact, the idea of moral responsibility implies that a person had the ability to choose whether to act well or badly, and (in this case) took the bad choice. But I don’t believe such alternative “choices” are open to people, so although they may be acting in an “immoral” way, depending on whether society decides to retain the concept of morality (this is something I’m open about), they are not morally responsible. That is, they can’t be held responsible for making a choice with bad consequences on the grounds that they could have chosen otherwise.7
David Baggett8 describes how this notion manifests itself in contemporary academia:
I have found a recent trend among a number of naturalistic ethicists and thinkers to be both interesting and mildly exasperating, but most of all telling. Both one like John Shook, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York... and Frans de Waal, author most recently of The Bonobo and the Atheist (to adduce but a few examples) seem to be gravitating toward functional categories of morality. Talk of belief and practice replaces talk of truth; references to moral rules exceed those of moral obligations; and prosocial instincts supplant moral authority. What is interesting about this trend is that the resulting picture is entirely consistent with the view of complete moral skeptics, even amoralists.9
Charles Darwin and Morality
As we said above, these notions are hardly recent. The historian Richard Weikart writes that, “The idea that evolution undermines objective moral standards is hardly a recent discovery of sociobiology, however. In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin devoted many pages to discussing the evolutionary origin of morality, and he recognized what this meant: morality is not objective, is not universal, and can change over time. Darwin certainly believed that evolution had ethical implications.”10 Ever since then, evolutionists have been arguing that human free will is a mirage and that morality is subjective.
Still, Darwin made it much easier to be an atheist, having conjured up what seemed to be a plausible explanation for life without the need to invoke a Creator. His followers found Darwinism to be a convenient peg on which to hang their conviction that criminals should be exonerated from moral responsibility for their deeds seeing that, as they believe, no absolute moral code exists. Here are a few examples.
Darwinists and Criminality
Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) was a leading criminologist who authored the landmark study Criminal Man in 1876. According to Lombroso, infanticide, parricide, theft, cannibalism, kidnapping and antisocial actions could be explained largely as a throwback to earlier stages of Darwinian evolution. In earlier stages of development such behaviours aided survival and were therefore bred into biological organisms by natural selection. William Noyes, one of Lombroso’s American disciples, explained that “In the process of evolution, crime has been one of the necessary accompaniments of the struggle for existence.”
Invoking modern science in general and Charles Darwin’s work in particular, Italian jurist Enrico Ferri (1856-1929), one of Lombroso’s top disciples, argued that it was no longer reasonable to believe that human beings could make choices outside the realm of material cause and effect. Ferri applauded Darwin for showing “that man is not the king of creation, but merely the last link of the zoological chain, that nature is endowed with eternal energies by which animal and plant life... are transformed from the invisible microbe to the highest form, man.” Ferri looked forward to the day when crime would be treated as a “disease”.
Ludwig Büchner (1824–1899) was a German medical doctor who became president of the Congress of the International Federation of Freethinkers. He was an outspoken atheist and authored Force and Matter, a materialist tract that went through fifteen editions in German and four in English. He was one of the most energetic popularisers of Darwin’s work in the German-speaking world. Büchner wrote that “the vast majority of those who offend against the laws of the State and of Society ought to be looked upon rather as unfortunates who deserve pity than as objects of execration.” Büchner argued that the [alleged] brain abnormalities in many criminals showed that they were throwbacks to “the brains of pre-historic men.”
In his book Crime: Criminals and Criminal Justice (1932), University of Buffalo criminologist Nathaniel Cantor ridiculed “the grotesque notion of a private entity, spirit, soul, will, conscience or consciousness interfering with the orderly processes of body mechanisms.” Because we humans are no different in principle to any other biological organism, “man is no more ‘responsible’ for becoming wilful and committing a crime than the flower for becoming red and fragrant. In both cases the end products are predetermined by the nature of protoplasm and the chance of circumstances.” The sociologist J.P. Shalloo wrote in the 1940s that it was the “world-shaking impact of Darwinian biology, with its emphasis upon the long history of man and the importance of heredity for a clear understanding of man’s biological constitution” that finally opened the door to a truer understanding of crime than traditional views.
Judaism unequivocally rejects the view that free will is an illusion and that morality is subjective
This Darwinian tradition continues to this day. Jerry Coyne’s fellow New Atheist, the neuroscientist Sam Harris, sets out his position in his 2012 book Free Will:
Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.
The Jewish View
Judaism unequivocally rejects the view – ancient but bolstered in modern times by the scientific respectability granted to evolutionary theory – that free will is an illusion and that morality is subjective. The Torah tells us, in no uncertain terms, that God has placed before us life and death, blessing and curse, and that we should choose life.11 The Talmud goes further. It records the first attempt in our tradition to refute the case for moral responsibility. It occurred when Job argued that human beings are forced to act as they do, and bear no moral responsibility for their actions.12 The Talmud rejects this out of hand.
Evolutionary biology is not just another scientific discipline, which can be safely ignored by the masses. It is an amoral ideology whose corrosive spiritual poison undermines the foundations of human society.
Yoram Bogacz is the author of Genesis and Genes (Feldheim 2013) and Facets of Eternity (Feldheim 2014). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Some of the material in this article is from the superb Darwin Day in America by John G. West, ISI Books, 2007.
2. רמב"ם הלכות תשובה פרק ה': רשות כל אדם נתונה לו – אם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך טובה ולהיות צדיק, הרשות בידו. ואם רצה להטות עצמו לדרך רעה ולהית רשע, הרשות בידו... אל יעבור במחשבתך דבר זה שאומרים טפשי האומות ורוב גולמי בני ישראל, שהקב"ה גוזר על האדם מתחילת ברייתו להיות צדיק או רשע. אין הדבר כן, אלא כל אדם ואדם ראוי להיות צדיק כמשה רבינו או רשע כירבעם...
3. Anthony Serafini, The Epic History of Biology, Perseus Publishing, 1993, page 141.
4. Abstract of William Provine’s 1998 Darwin Day Keynote Address, Evolution: Free will and punishment and meaning in life. This used to be available at http://fp.bio.utk.edu/darwin/frmain.html. I was not able to retrieve it.
5. See the article by the historian Richard Weikart here: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/05/at_emory_univer_1059491.html.
Retrieved 12th June 2014.
6 Stephen Jay Gould was one of many evolutionary biologists who ridiculed the field for its proclivity to invent what Gould called just-so stories.
7 See http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/is-there-moral-responsibility/.
Retrieved 13th June 2014.
8 Baggett is professor of philosophy at Liberty University and co-author, with Jerry Walls, of Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality.
9 See http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/04/26/watering-down-the-categories/#comments.
Retrieved 13th June 2014.
10 See the article by the historian Richard Weikart here: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/05/at_emory_univer_1059491.html.
Retrieved 13th June 2014.
11 דברים ל, יט: הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים.
12 בבא בתרא דף טז עמוד א: אמר רבא בקש איוב לפטור את כל העולם כולו מן הדין אמר לפניו רבונו של עולם בראת שור פרסותיו סדוקות בראת חמור פרסותיו קלוטות בראת גן עדן בראת גיהנם בראת צדיקים בראת רשעים מי מעכב על ידך ומאי אהדרו ליה חבריה דאיוב [איוב טו, ד] אַף אַתָּה תָּפֵר יִרְאָה וְתִגְרַע שִׂיחָה לִפְנֵי אֵל. ברא הקדוש ברוך הוא יצר הרע ברא לו תורה תבלין.
עלי שור חלק ב עמוד לט: הרי איוב טען כי האדם מוכרח לחטוא בגלל יצר הרע שבו, והשיבו לו חבריו כי הוא מפר יראה, וכיון שיש יראה, אין האדם מוכרח לחטוא.
A Response to Comment
I was encouraged by the large number of comments to my essay Darwinism, Morality and Free Will, many of which were sent directly to me and don’t appear on the Aish site.
The negative comments fall into, very broadly, three categories. I shall respond with three comments.
Some readers (I’m being generous here; these folks evidently do not read very well) assert that “the author blames Darwin and the Theory of Evolution for all kinds of conclusions about free will, absolute morality, and belief (or lack thereof) in God.”
Wrong. Anyone who actually read the article would have immediately noticed that the connection between morality, free will and Darwinism is made by the numerous authorities I quoted. Virtually every writer cited in the article is an evolutionary biologist or an ally of evolutionary biology: William Provine, E.O. Wilson, Michael Ruse, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris are all ardent atheists and, it goes without saying, true believers in evolutionary biology. They are the ones who assert, unequivocally and unambiguously, that evolutionary doctrine leads to the conclusion that free will is a mirage and absolute morality is non-existent.
Some readers seem to think that scientific ideas exist in a vacuum, and generate no implications.
Wrong. Scientific theories often do generate philosophical and theological implications. Case in point: cosmologists and astronomers who measure the redshift of distant galaxies and conclude that there is a linear relationship between redshift and distance are not content to leave it at that. They assert that this relationship (together with other measurements) implies a beginning to the universe. This is how (roughly speaking, of course) Big Bang Theory came to be, together with its implications of a creation event, rich in theological and philosophical import.
Similarly, evolutionary biology is not limited to the nitty-gritty of allele frequencies and discussions of allopatric and sympatric speciation. It has broad philosophical implications. Those implications are spelled out clearly and vocally by proponents of evolution (see First Comment above).
Some critics immediately resort to Law 101 – when you don’t have a case, insult your opponent. When David, for example, begins his comment with “What a bunch of nonsense” he proclaims, loudly and clearly, that he’s lost the debate before it even started.