Presumed negative impact of evolution theory on people’s ethical attitudes

- Another motive that is employed by some opponents of the theory of evolution is the potential opinion that general acceptance of the conclusions following from the theory of evolution would unfavorably or even detrimentally affect the behavior of people in society. I am personally of the opinion that this motive is not currently very common; nonetheless, in contrast to the previous motive, it makes sense to discuss the matter with the proponents of these opinions.
The best known case of an attack motivated in this sense occurred in the 1920’s in Tennessee in the U.S.A. and was led by the lawyer and politician William Jennings Bryan. He first substantially helped his case by assisting in the passing of a law in that State that prohibited at all public schools “teaching of any theory that would deny divine creation as taught in the Bible and, instead of this, state that man evolved from lower animals”. In 1925 he also acted as a witness in the “ape process”, in which teacher John Scopes was sentenced to a fine for breaching this law. The process itself formed the basis for the well-known film Inherit the Wind. The film depicts Bryan as a reactionary and dullard who thoroughly made a fool of himself in the process and, in contrast, Scopes as a “martyr to truth and freedom of expression”, who was finally sentenced to a fine because of the existence of a stupid law. However, the actual facts were somewhat different. To begin with, Scopes, who taught mathematics, physics and chemistry and probably never taught the theory of evolution, volunteered for the process on the basis of an advertisement published in a newspaper by the opponents of this anti-evolutionary law. On the other hand, Bryan, three times candidate for the office of President of the U.S.A., Secretary of State in one government, important congressman and personal friend of a number of famous personages and state officials in the U.S.A. and around the world, was a widely recognized humanist and simultaneously a politician who promoted progressive movements and progressive laws throughout his life. The reason for his battle against the teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools most certainly lay in his conviction that teaching students evolutionary biology would most certainly turn them into atheists which would, in itself, have a negative impact on their morality and behavior in their future lives and would also encourage attitudes that, at the very least, would be in conflict with generally accepted ethics. In the former case, he based his opinions on statistical data that showed that, when entering secondary school, only 15% of boys believed in biblical creation and that, after graduation, this percentage increased to 40%. (A scientist would probably tend to ask to what degree this conviction increased in a control set of secondary school students who did not become acquainted with the theory of evolution during their studies.) In the second case, at that time, he didn’t have to search far for arguments stating that the theory of evolution promoted unethical attitudes and unethical behavior. Opinions that the theory of evolution teaches us that the strong have the right or even obligation to suppress the weak to avoid general degeneration of human beings, that altruism or compassion are unnatural and thus, in fact, detrimental, were very popular in some circles and this “social Darwinism” formed the ideological basis for the Prussian militarism and the ideological roots of the then-recent First World War. In the U.S.A., similar to a great many countries of Europe, state-supported eugenic programs were under way, intended to prevent entrance into the country of “biologically less valuable individuals” or to prevent such persons from reproducing. For example, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people with lower IQ values or developmental defects were subjected to compulsory sterilization in a great many countries, or were at least isolated from the rest of the population in special facilities. This mass practice basically ended when it was “perfected” and thus finally discredited in the eyes of the public by Hitler. However, it continued quietly behind the scenes in a number of countries even after the Second World War. Thus, it is not surprising that it was Bryan who did not want to accept this situation and attempted to eliminate what he though was its cause, teaching the theory of evolution at public schools.
The mistake made by Bryan and a great many others after him was apparently that they concentrated, not on combating social Darwinism, but on combating evolutionary teaching as a whole. In contrast to caricatures of evolutionary theory inspired by various social Darwinists, serious evolutionary theory certainly does not provide any basis for violation of ethical standards. At a professional level, it demonstrates, amongst other things, that, in a great many situations, cooperation or even altruism is evolutionarily more advantageous than selfishness or fighting competitors (see the chapter concerned with evolutionarily stable strategies, inter-allele selection, group selection and evolutionary behavior – IV.8.2, IV.9.1, XVI.4.1, XVI.5.3). It also very clearly demonstrates that any sort of eugenic program directed towards improvement of the human race must necessarily be hopelessly ineffective and predestined to failure in advance (see the sections concerned with selection against recessive or polygenic traits, the pleiotropic effects of genes or evolution in polymorphic populations – IV.9.2, XXVI.5.3). However, it then follows that, paradoxically, the greatest danger for society was not and is not represented by teaching the theory of evolution, but rather by its insufficient and unqualified teaching. However, something else is far more important. It cannot be in the least doubted that any theory of evolution, with any conclusions whatsoever, cannot justify unethical human behavior. Decisions on what is morally acceptable and what is not cannot be made on the basis of analogies with processes occurring in nature, but only on ethical grounds. Simultaneously, the actual ethical system can be based on various grounds; for some people, it can follow from Kant's categorical imperative, while for others religion forms the basis. However, the argument that a particular type of behavior is right because it is “natural” or because our animal ancestors behaved in this way exhibits a complete lack of logic. If evolutionary biology is capable of helping us in deciding questions of morality and ethics, then only in that it shows that our behavior must be subjected to the rules of ethics as understood by reasoning, and not our natural instincts. These instincts are frequently the result of individual natural selection and can thus be contradictory to the principles of ethics and sometimes even to the long-term biological interests of the individual, society or even the human species (XVI.6). If this seems somehow reminiscent of Christian teaching about original sin, then this need not be purely accidental....

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The classical Darwinian theory of evolution can explain the evolution of adaptive traits only in asexual organisms. The frozen plasticity theory is much more general: It can also explain the origin and evolution of adaptive traits in both asexual and sexual organisms Read more