A Note on Evolution, ID, and Ethical Behavior

No, this isn’t going to be an extended discussion of the ethics of intelligent design advocates, though one of their number does come into it.

One of the frequent charges made against evolutionary theory is that it undermines the basis for morals. Various anti-evolutionists have blamed evolutionary theory for everything from the holocaust to bad behavior in schools. It’s interesting that the only people who are saying that if evolution is true there is no basis for morality are the anti-evolutionists themselves, and thus they would have only themselves to blame if some young people took it to heart.

I saw this kind of argument again today when I read a portion of the Kitzmiller v. Dover transcript (HT: Austringer, who actually quotes two more examples than I do). I normally don’t have the patience to read trial transcripts, and so tend to read other people’s summaries. But this section isn’t all that long and I think it will help make a couple of points about how ethical behavior is driven.

First, however, I must mention the interesting ethical question of continuing to claim that the Foundation for Thought and Ethics didn’t get its day in court. Given a substantial record indicating the contrary, one wonders if that can be regarded as either thoughtful or ethical. (Such appears to be the activities of the Discovery Institute blog.)

The following is a quotation from the testimony of Jon Buell, president of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics. Eric Rothschild (Q) is cross-examining.

Q And then if you go over to the next page, in the first paragraph, you blame — you blame the current deplorable condition of our schools resulting in large part in denying the dignity of man created in God’s image, correct?

A Yes, correct.

Q And the rest of the paragraph builds on that concept, right?

A That’s right. Many teachers tell me they have difficulty with — in the classroom with student behavior because there is no — there’s no sense of respect or accountability to the teacher, to the school, or to authority.

Q And effectively what you’re advocating in this fundraising letter is that the FTE’s publications are an antidote or a partial antidote to these problems of hostility to Christian views and the cultural decay in our schools, isn’t that right?

A I would say that they’re not an antidote to the hostility to Christian views, but they are an antidote to the hostility toward positive character qualities and moral traits and a positive outlook and philosophy.

Now what I see there is a claim that cultural decay results from the teaching of the things that the FTE opposes, particularly in Of Pandas and People, and that this creates hostility toward positive character qualities and moral traits, and even against a positive outlook and philosophy. The mere notion that human beings are descended from a common ancestor with apes is so powerful that it will accomplish all of that.

Two things come to my mind in response.

The first is the Christian doctrine of total depravity. In general, Christians have not taught that good people are produced by a proper understanding of the universe, but rather that this is accomplished by the grace of God. There are innumerable major and minor variations on this theme, but the doctrine of total depravity basically says that humankind is fallen, unable to do anything of and for themselves of a morally positive nature.

So exactly how is total depravity worse than common descent in terms of producing a hopeless attitude? Common descent does not even suggest that we are morally hopeless, but rather than we come from a morally neutral background in which our ancestors behaved as beasts, presumably in the way proper to their species and situation. We come to the point of ethical decision making at the same time when we take on whatever distinctive characteristics make us moral creatures.

Total depravity tells us that we are, in fact, worthless–on our own. Now of course the goal is to make us come to God and be redeemed. But that is precisely my point. Christianity doesn’t preach the redemption of the really good people who understand that they were designed for moral behavior, but rather for fallen people who are doomed to moral failure.

Which of these views gives the higher place to humanity? Which is more likely to produce moral people? Actually I see little reason to believe either one has a major impact. But if one can argue that evolution has an impact (I do not), then one can also argue that the doctrine of total depravity would have such an impact.

Christians, as believers in redemption, should have no difficulty working within a context in which redemption is necessary. It does not matter if one was previously dirt being formed by the hand of God into a shape, or if one was an ancestral form of animal behaving according to its character. What matter is what one is now.

But that leads me to ask just what is the primary motivation to bad behavior? I think that is demonstrated within this transcript. As humans we choose to regulate our behavior as part of societies. But we all have things that we truly desire. The question is generally whether our ethics will regulate the way we behave in order to achieve our desires. Can we deny ourselves a desired goal because the process required to get it is wrong, however we come to the conclusion that it is wrong?

Well, the same section of trial transcript suggests that belief in intelligent design does not preclude taking the less ethical pathway. The desire of the defendants, and of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics was to have intelligent design taught in schools. FTE produced a textbook for that purpose. The Dover Area School Board acted for that purpose. In order to accomplish that goal, intelligent design must not be seen as religious. If it was found to be a religious idea, it would be rejected.

The only ethical way to get a religious idea into American public school classrooms would be to change the constitution. Not that I’m suggesting such a thing be done. But coming out openly and saying, “We want to promote Christianity in public schools. The establishment clause is in our way. Let’s get rid of the establishment clause,” would be ethical, however inadvisable. People could get a look at just what the ID advocates wanted. (Note that not all ID advocates want this. My comments here refer specifically to those trying to introduce ID into public school classrooms.)

In cross-examination, again, Eric Rothschild brought up five sources that indicate that FTE had as its purpose the promotion of Christian thought. I’m just going to quote three of them:

  1. The from 990

    Q And the explanation that the Foundation provides to the IRS is that its primary exempt purpose is promoting and publishing textbooks presenting a Christian perspective, isn’t that right?

    A That’s what it says.

    Q Okay. And Pandas is one of those publications, isn’t it?

    A No, Pandas doesn’t fit this because this is not an accurate statement.
    [the quotation begins on page 84, line 12]

    So either the form 990 was falsified, or Of Pandas and People has a different purpose than the one stated.

  2. Then the corporate charter:

    Q If you go to the third page of the document, it identifies the purposes for the — for which the corporation1 was formed?

    A Right.

    Q And what it states is that the primary purpose is both religious and educational, and then it talks about making known the Christian gospel and understanding of the Bible?

    A Yes.

    Q Is it your testimony that that’s also an inaccurate submission?

    A It was boilerplate that the attorney that was helping us become established used. I felt that it was inappropriate. He said we need to be clear in identifying yourself as having a genuine nonprofit purpose, and so the language that originated with me is the phrase, “but is not limited to.”

    Q And everything else was the attorney’s?

    A Yes, most of it, I think nearly all of it, possibly all of it.
    [the quotation begins on page 85, line 24]

    In this case we appear to have a goal–formation of a non-profit–and it is therefore OK, even for an organization named “Foundation for Thought and Ethics” to just use the boilerplate. Apparently identifying their actual activities wouldn’t do.

    In fact, I have no doubt that the religious purpose was truthful, and it became inconvenient later. The problem is that either the document must be false, or the testimony about the document must be false. There’s some lying involved here somewhere.

    I am also fairly certain that nobody is so careless as to late a completely incorrect statement of purpose go through in a corporate charter. Normally you would get something you can live with. I may be optimistic about human nature, however.

  3. The organization’s web site:

    Q Mr. Buell, this document is something that was1 pulled off the Internet, but you recognize it as a purpose statement for the Foundation that used to be distributed?

    A Yes. I don’t actually — I don’t actually remember this statement, but it’s obviously an FTE statement.

    Q And in this statement it says, “The Foundation for Thought and Ethics has been established to introduce Biblical perspective into the mainstream of America’s humanistic society, confronting the secular thought of modern man with the truth of God’s word.”

    A Yes, that’s right.

    Q And then it talks about how there would be a public — a textbook published which will present the scientific evidence for creation side by side with evolution.

    A Yes, and this, by the way, was written before — I can just tell from the language, this was very early, before the National Academy defined the term creation science. So the terms of art that are in play today were not in existence at that time.

    Q This was just your use of the word creation?

    A Yes, right.

    Q And into the third paragraph it describes the Foundation as a Christian think tank, correct?

    A Yes. I would say in contrast to that, there’s what we’ve done for over 25 years, which is not to be a Christian think tank, but to actually engage in primary works of science.

    Q And that includes Pandas, correct?

    A It includes Pandas, yes.

    And there we have it. What they’ve announced that they have done for all those years is not what they have actually been doing. There is some extremely disingenuous work with the definition of creationism–the National Academy of Sciences doesn’t really have the power to control definitions–but that would require more writing.

Conclusion: It is more important to accomplish the purpose–getting ID into public schools–than it is to be truthful about the purpose of one’s organization.

This shows, I think what is the primary challenge to ethical behavior, and its not evolution. It is the attitude that says that if we have a goal we regard as desirable we can take any means necessary to accomplish that goal. In this case that manifests itself by the denial that an organization is actually pursuing Christian values.

But it manifests itself also in the claim that evolution results in all kinds of behavioral and moral problems. This claim is made in opposition to evolutionary theory–we shouldn’t teach it because it causes deteriorating morals. But the effect of a fact does not impact the truth of that fact.

To be quite honest I’d rather evolution weren’t true either. I like to preach about a loving God, and it would be much nicer to be able to show a really cuddly process of creation, a loving God carefully crafting creatures and not allowing them to fight it out. But my desire does not change the facts. And there are good points about the facts as well. A less hands-on, saccharine God, though perhaps not my first choice may be a better choice. But it still doesn’t matter. What is, is.

By attempting to argue against evolution based on the way it makes people feel, anti-evolutionists fall directly into this same trap. That which they desire to be true, must be true. But of course reality rolls blithely on, unconcerned with their desires, and people of integrity want to know what actually is, not what they wish.

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  1. So exactly how is total depravity worse than common descent in terms of producing a hopeless attitude? Common descent does not even suggest that we are morally hopeless, but rather than we come from a morally neutral background in which our ancestors behaved as beasts, presumably in the way proper to their species and situation. We come to the point of ethical decision making at the same time when we take on whatever distinctive characteristics make us moral creatures.

    Henry, I’m going to object to this claim. Evolution does not teach that “we come from a morally neutral background.” It teaches that we descended from a long line of ancestral species and are related to all species on earth. Some of those related species display behaviors that we would call “moral” in humans (e.g., vampire bats providing food to non-kin conspecifics) and some display behaviors that in humans we would call “immoral” (e.g., a male lion killing the offspring of other males when taking over a harem of lionesses).

    If anything, evolution teaches us that behaviors that we now label “moral” are not confined to homo sapiens, but rather have precursors in non-human species. While the labeling of behaviors as “moral” or “immoral” is (probably) unique to humans, the behaviors that are so labeled are not. That is a distinction that is virtually never made but is very important in these kinds of discussions.

    Now, one might assume (as you seem to do in using “morally neutral background”) that a behavior is not “moral” (or “immoral”) if the organism did not choose to perform it but was constrained by (external or internal) causal determinants. Off we go into the free will discussion. I will not go there, since my major point is to suggest that it’s entirely possible that the behavioral trait called “morality” when displayed by humans is more about how we humans label acts rather than about why we perform them.


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