Evolution the universal doctrinal acid

John T Mullen posting at BioLogos took issue with my claim that natural selection has not, in fact, built sin into human nature, so that evolution is not the fundamental problem for the orthodox Christian doctrine of sin it’s often claimed to be. He replied:

Evolutionary biology presents us with a view of humanity that includes strong inherited behavioral tendencies toward self-exaltation at the expense of others. Natural selection can provide a satisfying explanation for this. The fact that we also seem to have inherited behavioral tendencies toward “altruistic” (i.e., co-operative, sacrificial-but-group-enhancing) behavior is very interesting, but beside the point. We all feel the pressure to advance our own causes even if others are harmed.

I want to examine in closer detail the question of these evolved selfish behaviours, which are apparently the issue requiring an evolutionary view of sin, as well as the main question on which his disagreement with me rests. My brief response is that Darwinian evolution cannot be shown to predict, nor consistently to produce, self-centred behaviours. Rather it is, to the organism, a passive process: the “reward” of the environment for whatever accidental variations lead to relative reproductive success.

In more detail, I will start tangentially by questioning how much complex behaviour of any sort is actually truly Darwinian. For a start, much behaviour, like other traits, may be simply fortuitous through near-neutral, non-adaptive mutations, or “spandrels” of unrelated selected traits. Much behaviour is likely to be culturally, not genetically, mediated (see Eva Jablonka’s work). And in any case whether coding genes and their control mechanisms have, or even can in theory have, the information capacity to explain social behaviours is open to question – certainly attempts to explain specific human behaviours genetically have proved elusive. In other words, viewing all behaviour as evolutionary adaptation is simply old-hat anyway. But for simplicity here I’ll grant that adaptive Darwinian mechanisms are indeed universal in behavioural patterns.

Are evolved behaviours selfish in theory?
Darwin’s “struggle for survival” was a metaphor borrowed from Malthus, and was even metaphorical in Malthus’ work. That’s why “differential reproduction” is a better concept. It could be that, for some species in some situations, competing for light provides reproductive success, though even the word “compete” is a teleological misnomer. Actually, trees blessed with the fastest growth rates or tallest trunks happen to survive, and calling that “competition” is more Lamarckian than Darwinian. For every such competing species, there’s another whose success depends on staying short and adapting to the dark.

Conceivably, similarly, the males of one species, in its peculiar niche, might reproduce more by killing every other male they encounter, but for another taxon, in another niche, reproductive success might depend on shining their boots and singing cheerful minstrel songs. Whatever works, reproduces, if you’re holding to standard theory rather than to its teleological popularisations, and almost every conceivable variation works somewhere.

As far as the organism’s behaviour goes, those adaptive or maladaptive changes are not deliberate, but entirely accidental. Genes mutate, and the organism suffers the results passively. Suppose that human reproductive success depends on being blonde, buxom and bright – or tall, dark and handsome, as the case may be. No motivation is involved in Darwinian evolution, and one is not being selfish by being eligible, and therefore successful in those ways. But such diverse and innocuous things are are the usual material of evolutionary success.

The ideas of “selfish genes” standing pulling the strings of phenotypes has been admitted by Dawkins himself to be a mere metaphor, and is a rather poor one for someone arguing for an ateological process. Selection at the genetic level, like that at the phenotypic, favours whatever will successfully reproduce. Period. But even if genes were truly selfish, it would not make behavioural traits any more likely to be selfish. A gene would have you giving everything to the poor if you gained more offspring thereby.

That’s why in this particular discussion Darwinian explanations for “altruism”, that reduce them to evolutionary advantage, are entirely irrelevant. If loving my neighbour evolved by selection because of some convoluted reproductive advantage, I would not be guilty of hidden motives, but I’d just happen to inhabit an environment that rewards virtue with quivers full of sons.

Are evolved behaviours selfish in fact?
So the next question is whether evolution characteristically favours “self-centred” behaviours (in the absence of a self in animals, I guess that means favouring individual survival, or individual “interest” in the form of gratification), or whether, given that it need not in theory, it is as common for non-self-interested behaviours to result from evolution. Remember, being rewarded with many offspring says nothing whatsoever in itself about any motivation for personal gain: indeed, reproductive success itself can only be seen as an individual “gain” if you assume that evolution has invariably made it gratifying to the individual for the sake of the next generation, which is by no means probable.

It’s a question to be answered by the observations of natural history, and I don’t see any evidence that evolution is at all univocal in that way. Evolution’s “goal” (or let’s more correctly say “result”, since teleology is verboten in biology) is reproduction, not survival – as the polychaete female will tell you as she splits apart to shed her eggs, or the salmon as it pours out its last life energy for its offspring.

Here on my smallholding in Devonshire it’s possible to see classic examples that, anthropomorphically, can be interpreted as egocentric. In the week or so of the rut, our roe deer stags will ignore gesticulating humans, electric fences and everything else as they fight for the right to mate. That adrenaline madness is how (under Darwinism) the deer population does best. The rest of the year, though, they’re as gentle and shy as Bambi, and males fortuitously finding themselves on the same patch have no observable ego issues. Even the rut itself operates on strict, and ritualised, rules of engagement.

Another classic “me, me, me” example is the European robin, which will perch on your foot and nurture its young tirelessly, but defends its territory like a Kilkenny cat. Last year we found two that had literally fought each other to death. But, natural selection being assumed, the 30% adult losses from such disputes must serve the reproductive success of the species better than anything else would.

In contrast, another common passerine here, the long-tailed tit, spends its time building a gem of a woven nest rather than street-fighting. Sadly, despite its artistry it loses more nests to predation than the robins, which just squat in a large hole. But frequently when a pair loses their brood thus, they go and help some other pair raise their young. Are they more moral than robins? According to evolution, no. What they do works for them, and constitutes part of the “nature”, or “essence”, that is the philosophical universal of the form “long-tailed tit”.

According to Evolutionary Creation, evolution is also the process that God, the sole Creator of Christian theology, uses instrumentally to create life. To create is more than to bring to existence, as John Walton has demonstrated ably from his word studies: it is to order something towards the function God assigns it. So we must say (unless we hold evolution to be wholly or partly autonomous, when “Evolutionary Creation” would be a misnomer) that the universal natures of robins, tits, or deer are their God-given natures, and therefore embody in their own way the goodness with which he greeted the creation in Genesis 1 when, and after, he ordered it as his sacred cosmic temple.

One more example. The cuckoo is perhaps the bird most proverbially maligned for its selfishness. As it happens a guy from my year in natural sciences in College is perhaps the world expert on the cuckoo, and has done great work on the wholly unconscious, and far from one-sided, arms race between cuckoos and their hosts’ ability to encrypt their eggs and spot the parasite. But isn’t it selfish and immoral to push the host’s eggs out of the nest and fool her into feeding you? I answer, “Not if it’s in your God-given nature to do so, nor even if a blind evolutionary process rewards it by reproductive success.” It’s just the right way to be a cuckoo. In any case, it doesn’t seem much different to me from slaughtering a cow’s bullock and fooling her into giving a farmer the milk instead.

The right behaviour to examine in cuckoos is not how destructive they are to their hosts – parasitism is their nature, for goodness’ sake – but how they treat other cuckoos. As far as I know, they rub along well, and try not to use nests that are already parasitised. If they sometimes fail, and one newborn cuckoo accidentally evicts another rather than a warbler, I don’t think “self-promoting behaviour” is a good characterisation of what’s going on.

Are evolved behaviours selfish in man?
But John Mullen’s original point about self-exaltation was, of course, about an evolutionary origin for such behaviour in man. Perhaps, although self-interested behaviour is by no means prevalent amongst lower organisms, human behaviour has evolved specifically in that direction for contingent reasons. What an unjust deal that would be! Determining it to be true, though, seems to be problematic, whether we look at current human behaviour, or the “legacy” of our presumed ancestry.

Any behaviour we observe in human society now can, of course, only be attributed to evolution by the circular reasoning that if it is present it must have evolved. Which is the whole question at issue, if sin might not have evolved.

As for our immediate ancestors, we know very little about their behaviours, and nothing about their motivation, nor about whether such behaviours evolved by natural selection. A Neanderthal bone that appears to have been cannibalised can be explained by one of evolutionary psychology’s speculative fables about how killing and eating rivals might have given selective benefit. But inventive Just So Stories are, I suggest, an insufficient basis on which even to question, let alone change, Christian doctrine.

More accessible are our supposed nearest relatives, the chimps and bonobos. But here’s a problem: we’re said to have diverged from them 6 million years ago, whereas they separated only 2 million years ago. Yet their divergence has led to dramatically different suites of behaviour. Male-dominated chimp raiding parties may remind us of the paradigmatic evils of Boko Haram, but we’re as closely related to bonobos, which proverbially Make Love, Not War and are an icon for both LGBT feminists and hippies. Both strategies work for their respective species. There seems no good reason to suppose that in 6 million years genus Homo didn’t have their entire behavioural repertoire shuffled by natural selection – but we don’t know, because every human we’ve ever met also has his or her behaviour moulded by sin. Once again, there is just no way to say what behaviours evolved before mind, conscience and relationship with God changed the game completely.

Are evolved behaviours even consistent with sin?
That leads to what seems to me a grave philosophical difficulty with evolutionary sin scenarios, in which our bad acts are part of our God- and/or evolution-given nature. Suppose in the first instance that it is held that our entire human condition, including our ability to sin consciously, arose through evolution. One is then committed to believing that a blind process, in which behaviours are controlled by genes adapted to the best possible reproductive advantage, is capable of generating behaviours which can go against that genetic control – to the inevitable detriment of reproductive success. Why would evolution relinquish its unique ability to maximise offspring? Or more to the point, since it is a blind instrument, not an active agent, how could natural selection select against natural selection?

This is clear evidence that the capacity for choosing to follow our nature, or go against it, is not the result of evolution, but of some non-biological, spiritual, endowment from God. This is necessarily an historical, rather than an evolutionary, change.

And if that be granted, we cannot make unsubstantiated assumptions about how strong we were to overcome any alleged evolutionary self-centredness. To say that failing was more or less inevitable (which belief is at the heart of “evolutionary” hamartology) is an argument from ignorance of the situation after we became moral beings and before we fell. The Genesis account suggests that God gave us sufficient resources for the job of transforming not only our animal selves, but the cosmos, and punished us sorely for our rebellion. What in evolutionary science disproves that? And if there was a non-evolutionary event or process that gave us the ability to buck natural selection, why is there any objection to a non-evolutionary event that brought sin into the world?

In a similar vein, reminding ourselves that all evolutionary behaviour is for reproductive success makes sin, in many cases, anti-evolutionary. The drunkard may experience  gratification, but is likely to become impotent. He’s not even likely to do himself any good. And did intoxication ever arise as an adaptive evolutionary behaviour?

The adulter typically deserts the offspring of his misdemeanours. The pride of a king may cause him to gain many wives and concubines. But not infrequently his jealous paranoia has led him to kill all his children as potential rivals. Quite simply, typical sins don’t track well to evolutionarily advantageous behaviours.

Righteousness ought to track to evolution, however: God’s creation ordinance both to animals and man was to multiply and fill the earth. If Darwinian theory is a complete explanation of life, God’s command was best met by following the dictates of the natures natural selection gave them, which were maximised for reproductive success. The nature with which man was created was the nature he was commanded to live out.

Are evolved behaviours selfish in the biblical material?
Let’s dwell on the biblical teaching a little.

John Mullen, replying to me, objects to my claim that sin is ontologically theological, not biological. Referring to temptation to selfishness and our succumbing to it, he writes:

It contains a “usurpation of God’s lordship,” a “sidelining of God as God,” a “refusal to receive wisdom only from God,” and a “questioning of God’s knowledge and justice.” In short, in contains the things you said it does not contain.

In other words, selfishness instilled by evolution would not only predispose to immorality, but to godlessness. With respect, the compatibility of selfishness with godlessness is not the issue, but the weight and meaning that the Scripture gives to the order of events. Genesis describes narratively how the first sin of disobedience (which was also intrinsically the sin of clutching at wisdom apart from God’s tutelage, cf John Walton’s analysis in his new book) led on to the gratuitous murder of Abel, and then to escalating moral evil up to its inevitable consequence, death (in the flood narrative). That soon introduces the beginning of God’s salvation plan through Abraham, Israel and finally Jesus, all of which interventions aim to restore both moral and cosmic harmony through restoring the severed relationship with God.

In Romans 1 Paul spells out exactly the same sequence in theological exposition: sidelining of the known God led to idolatry, and through that then to sexual aberration (decribed by Paul as the due punishment for despising God, that is as an act of reprobation) and the whole panoply of self-centred, God-sidelining sin, some invented on the hoof, the passage culminating in a reminder that men did/do these things though they know the just penalty is death.

The point is that because the source of the problem is theological, the solution – reconciliation to God and forgiveness through Jesus Christ – treats the problem at source, and leads logically to release from sin’s power, and the maintaining and enhancing rule, by man, of God’s kingdom that was interrupted by the events in Eden.

The alternative explanation makes creation the source of sin, and as for the solution merely pits a greater power – the grace and love of God – against the otherwise “almost insurmountable” power of our biological inheritance over us. God, in other words, can undo what he has done in evolutionary creation.

But in logical terms, an equally effective and more rational solution would be biological, and one could easily argue that we’ll soon be in a position to fix any genetic disorder on a mass scale. All we have to do is identify the genes responsible for our evolved self-aggrandisement, modify them according, and we’ll have solved the problem of sin at a stroke, and generated selfless love for God as a useful by-product. If you think that’s irreverent or facetious, tell me why it wouldn’t work as well as the passion of our Lord, given sin’s ontologically physical nature?

The new theology of inherited evolutionary sinful behaviours is entirely unnecessary, even if Neodarwinism is fully embraced. It doesn’t even do much justice to Neodarwinism. It requires denying or ignoring aspects of the Scriptural accounts and logically leads, more or less inevitably, to a complete recasting of the story told by Bible. In the Bible, sin is an offence against our own inherent nature formed in the image of Christ (the true Image of God), and against God’s good order for the cosmos, both of which are restored in the redemption of Christ. In evolutionary scenarios, sin is an ontological feature of our nature, and nature itself is disordered from the start. Few aspects of Christian doctrine emerge unscathed in the long run.

OT scholar J Richard Middleton gives a good account, based on the study of folk-narrative explained to him by by N T Wright, of how the Bible is truly an epic story, in the narrative sense. To abbreviate it, like all good stories we start with a good situation – the creation and a plan for man to rule and perfect it in communion with God. Then there is an event which threatens the plan – sin and its dire consequences. Then there is a helper who brings a solution – and in the Bible’s case one can see that as God working through prophets, kings and finally his own Son, in a complex but logical series of sub-plots. One reason the Bible rings true is because the story hangs together so consistently and, one might say, artistically.

I’m not so sure about the new version: God creates through a process that inevitably produces bum results. He punishes the most intelligent of the results with exile and death for being bum, but then gives his only Son to show that he’s actually very loving and can find a fix for them – though possibly not for the rest of creation, unless he starts again. Bestseller material, do you think?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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One Response to Evolution the universal doctrinal acid

  1. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Update: John’s reply to this piece on BioLogos stressed the antisocial behaviour of chimps (v bonobos), suggesting this to be the evolutionary selfishness he finds challenging. I posted this comment there today:

    An interesting 2011 piece suggesting that reports of chimp selfishness may be largely artefactual:

    However, past experiments had suggested that chimps were loath to share, being what scientists had classified as antisocially selfish instead of pro-socially altruistic. This led to a widely held belief that human altruism evolved only after humans split from their ape cousins about 6 million years ago.

    “For the past decade we have lived through the curious situation — frustrating for many chimpanzee fieldworkers and observers — that chimps are well known for spontaneous acts of altruism, yet have not shown the same tendencies in well-controlled experiments,” said researcher Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta.

    It turns out this past failure to find such altruistic behavior might have been due to the experiments on the chimpanzees themselves.

    “Most earlier studies had presented the apes with a complex apparatus that helped them deliver food to themselves or others, often so complicated that the experiments tested tool skills rather than social tendencies,” de Waal told LiveScience. “Ours is the first study that uses no such apparatus at all.”

    Conclusive? No, except to show conclusively that biological research is provisional and subject to many human biases. Cautionary? Yes, when calling into question Christian doctrines on the basis of science.

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