Every week during the school year, I get a newsletter from my former high school. It’s a Christian school, with a conservative Baptist principal, so the content is almost always something with which I now disagree. I generally skim through it to see what diatribe he’s on this week (it’s virtually always about the importance of Christian education…how unexpected!). But the newsletter from a couple weeks ago (Sept. 30) was about bullying in particular. The topic was sparked as a result of the recent tragic news of the suicide of an 11-year-old boy. But instead of pointing the blame at the bullies themselves, possible neglectful attitudes of school teachers and staff, or the social stigma surrounding persons with disabilities (the boy had muscular dystrophy), my former principal decided to pinpoint a different cause. I’ll let him explain:
…I believe that the modern educational system has unwittingly been much of the cause of the problem. Let me explain why.
For much of the past hundred years, public schools have been teaching that man is nothing more than a highly evolved animal. One of the basic tenets of evolution is the ‘survival of the fittest,’ where the strong prevail over the weak in a process of natural selection. The animal kingdom provides many examples of this principle. For instance, wolf packs will cull out the aged, infirm, and young from a herd of caribou, feeding on those too weak to defend themselves.
So if humans are really just highly evolved animals, and if the animal world provides us with our only frame of reference, then on what basis can we decry the phenomena of bullying that we see in our society? Why should we be upset when physically or mentally handicapped people are victimized, many times to the point of taking their own lives? After all, is this not the logical extension of a worldview that views people as nothing more than animals? And don’t animals devour their weak?
But those of us who are Christians know better. We know that, unlike the rest of the animal world, human beings are made in the image and the likeness of their Creator… That makes every human being incredibly valuable.
Sadly, our publicly funded schools are not teaching this anymore. They have thrown out the Word of God, and the God of the Word. And having done so, they have thrown out any reasonable basis for viewing humans with dignity and respect, and condemning bullying, or any other social sin, for that matter.
This is a common tirade among evangelicals, and certainly was a frequent monologue when I went to the school. But it’s a tired argument, one that has been refuted time and time again, yet still somehow manages to surface one more. So at the risk of assaulting a deceased equine, let me go through the major points and discuss why exactly this argument falls short.
Yes, evolution does claim that man is a highly evolved and complex animal. I’m not sure quite why this is turned into a negative thing by saying we’re “nothing more” than a highly evolved animal—after all, it’s better than being lowly evolved and simple, right? But no matter. What evolution does not claim, however, is “survival of the fittest.” Or, not in the sense that my principal is using the phrase, at any rate. When the term “fittest” is used, it means “well-adapted to one’s environment.” It should be clear (but apparently isn’t) that being the strongest or fiercest is not always a good adaptation. And indeed, we see this in many instances in the natural world. Even parasites, organisms not exactly known for their compassion, do not always survive because they are the strongest. In order to pass on their genetic information, they must keep their host alive long enough to spread to someone else. Thus, a “strong” parasite would die off quickly, much quicker than one that is moderately strong.
As another example, my principal himself describes a case: wolf packs. He focused on the wolves eating the caribou, but he could have equally focused on the complex social arrangement of the wolf pack itself. These wolves group together and co-operate to achieve a common goal. And in a competition between a wolf pack and a fierce “lone wolf,” it’s clear that sometimes those who co-operate can end up being the fittest. Once animals become social species, the dynamics of what is “fittest” change dramatically. Humans, of course, are highly social species, and many of the advantages we have come as a direct result of our co-operation with other people.1 We have ways of dealing with individuals who act selfishly at the expense of the group: social ostracism, prisons, fines, poor reputation, and so on. The idea that evolution only teaches about how the “strong prevail over the weak” is simply a basic misunderstanding of what evolution is. And if you don’t know what evolution is, you’re likely to make mistakes about what it concludes as well.
It’s Only Natural
Evolution is, of course, a scientific theory. It has a fantastic mountain of evidence to support it, and even if it did teach moral nihilism, it would still be important to learn. I am firmly in favour of understanding reality as best as we can understand it. But as a scientific theory, evolution is descriptive. It delineates the connections between life on earth, and explains the mechanisms that cause diversity among animal species. But it makes no mention of prescriptives, of how things ought to be. To claim that it does is to commit the naturalistic fallacy by stating that “natural” must mean “good” or “desired”. Evolution merely describes what is. There are no underlying moral principles to be gained from it. Even if evolution claimed that only the strongest survive (which, again, it doesn’t), it would no more provide credence to the claim that “might makes right” than a description of current rates of fast food consumption gives evidence that people ought to eat cheeseburgers. The two are simply not connected. To claim that evolution provides prescriptions of how society should operate is, again, a misunderstanding of evolution.
From here, my principal makes the next step to a moral argument: “On what basis can we decry the phenomena of bullying that we see in our society?” This is essentially the argument, “Without God, where do our morals come from?” Of course, such a question neglects the fact that philosophers have been doing ethics for hundreds of years without God or religion as source material. Since at least the 1700s (and arguably much earlier, even back to the days of the ancient Greeks), people like Kant and Mill have described ethical systems that have no need of God. In fact, the Euthyphro Dilemma, outlined by Plato, suggests that the will of God is unable to give us moral truths. So where do we get our morals? From human reason. From shared values. From empathy for other human beings—our ability to place ourselves in another’s shoes. The idea that without God, we would all just murder and rape and steal whenever and wherever we pleased would be laughable if some did not honestly put it forward as a serious discussion point. If you, as a current religious believer, find the thought of murdering another person in cold blood to be horrendous, then there’s a very strong chance that you would continue to find it horrendous as a non-believer. I know that this has been true in my own life, and in the lives of every former religious believer with whom I have ever talked. These people simply do not lose their moral compass, because they are still aware of what it would feel like to have something bad done to them, and thus they don’t do it to other people. Basic. Human. Empathy. If you must ask, as a serious question, “[In a non-religious framework,] why should we be upset when physically or mentally handicapped people are victimized, many times to the point of taking their own lives?” then you do not understand how empathy works.
With that being said, I do agree that our education system is woefully inadequate in the matter of instilling in our children an ability to reason through moral situations. I strongly believe that more emphasis must be placed on critical issues such a knowledge of ethical systems that others have put forward; a capacity to think critically, especially about practical issues involving potential harm to others; and a better understanding of issues such as disability, homosexuality, mental illness, etc., so that social stigma surrounding these groups can be diminished.
Can We Get a Little Respect?
The final point my principal makes is to claim that religion (or, specifically, Christianity) provides the only “reasonable basis for viewing humans with dignity and respect.” Here I was going to state that religion has a mixed track record when it comes to respect for humans, from wars, to persecution and intolerance of opposing groups, to the destruction and suppression of human knowledge, and so on, but I want to focus on something else for a moment. Note here that he is implicitly making a comparison: Between religion and evolution, religion offers more dignity and respect to humans. This means that he believes that he shares certain values with his readers. Both he and you and I value the advancement of dignity and respect for humans. But this means two things: a) In order for his argument not to be circular, this means he must have a source for these values outside of his religious beliefs.2 He must already value these things, and then recognize that his religion provides more of this valued characteristic. Thus, he has implicitly suggested that there is an outside standard of values that he uses, instead of merely valuing human beings because of his religious beliefs. And: b) If we all share this value of respect for humans already, why is it such an issue that evolution does not provide it? If we all value it, we can just decide, collectively, to have dignity and respect for others, because it’s what we all want.3 That seems like a pretty reasonable thing to do, and indeed, our society already encourages us from a young age to get along with others, to share our things with others, to open doors even for complete strangers, and so on. Human dignity and respect does not have to come from any outside source; it can come entirely from within us, as human beings. Even if religion provides a better “basis” for such dignity than evolution, it is inconsequential. We can do it merely because we value it.
In summary, then, the remarks in this newsletter indicate a severe (yet unfortunately common) misunderstanding of evolution. It does not claim that the strong always win over the weak, nor does it prescriptively claim that “might makes right.” While it does not give us a system of morals, secular ethics based on human reason and basic human empathy give us more than enough material upon which to base a moral system. And finally, human dignity and respect can come from within us, as things that we know ourselves and others value. There is no need to find some mystical origin of dignity; it’s here because we are human, and we like being human.
- Or other non-human animals, for that matter. Domestication of animals greatly increased our ability to produce food and trade with others. [↩]
- Otherwise, he would be saying, “My religion defines dignity as good, and my religion is good because it provides dignity, which is good.” He must either evaluate the value of his religion based on the goodness of dignity, or the value of dignity based on the goodness of his religion, but he can’t do both. [↩]
- Obviously, this doesn’t mean we will always have a perfect definition of what dignity means, or that we will always be perfect providers of dignity. But that would be the case under any moral framework. [↩]