Monday, June 27, 2005

Darwin, evolution, morality, and the schools

Mark Kleiman picked a fight and PZ Myers and Lindsay Beyerstein jumped in with fists swinging. Kleiman took another swing, and Myers came back for another round.

To summarize, Kleiman says that evolutionary scientists should respect some people's (including Kleiman's?) concern that evolution undermines Judeo-Christian morality. Myers pointed out that Kleiman had compared the best strains within Christianity to the most bizarre interpretations of evolution. Beyerstein pointed out that very few people actually read Genesis to mean that people look exactly like God, which is what he hung his cap on.

It's worth noting that the fundamentalists aren't so worried about the "made in God's image" label. Fundamentalist theology holds that death came with original sin, and that is why Jesus had to die on the cross. This is a slightly strained reading, but there it is. If you believe that sin brought death, a world in which natural selection (death) had been operating for billions of years puts a pretty ugly hole in the hull.
Kleiman insulted Myers and dismissed his critique as "silly village-atheist stuff" but acknowledged some of Beyerstein's points. He claims that Torquemada was not an authentic Christian, which is a bizarre claim by any standard. He was, after all, the Chief Inquisitor, a post which has given us more than a few Popes.

I actually want to talk about Mike the Mad Biologist's response to Beyerstein.

First, he points out that biology isn't ethics, and science cannot guide ethics in any grand sense. Take his example: "~70% of fertilizations either fail to implant or are aborted [naturally]." Understanding that makes it hard to claim that God would want every fertilized egg to grow into an adult human being, but someone who believes that every fertilized egg is life will not change her ethical standards upon learning the facts of life.

The point is, our ethics are where we start. If I have an ethic that life must be preserved absolutely, I may start getting worked up about abortion. If I have an ethic that the Bible's descriptions are literally true, or at least signify some great truth, I may start getting worked up about evolution.

What I do with that ethic will be influenced by scientific knowledge. If there's clear evidence that the earth really is 4.5 billion years old, I'm going to think about how that constrains my interpretation of the Bible. There are lots of Old Earth interpretations, so it's not like Christianity is invalidated by an old earth, I just need to find a Biblical understanding that isn't demonstrably false. Like Kleiman says, no one thinks that God actually has a sword as we think of swords.

Understanding that lots of fertilized eggs die naturally can reshape a pro-life stance, but won't shake that ethic.

In high school, we read Oration on the Dignity of Man by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, in which Pico creates this natural ladder of "goodness." It goes as you might expect, animals, then people, then angels, then God. If I remember right, he cuts Satan some slack, since it's clear he could do no more than God willed, and God willed him to be evil.

The same, of course, applies to the angels, and the beasts. The only being truly unconstrained on that ladder was the human. Free will means that we can be excellent, or horrific. That's God's gift to us, or perhaps it's the flip side of original sin.

Remember, the "apple" was the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. By eating the fruit, humans became moral. There's a good case to be made for abstract morality as a unique trait of humanity.

Wherever moral capability came from, everyone involves agrees that it exists. In a Darwinian framework, I'd argue that morality consists of distinguishing when the evolutionarily stable strategy is not the morally right.

One can show that there are circumstances where rape is evolutionarily stable. An individual with low social status who will never attract a mate might have the physical brawn to leave a few offspring through forced copulations. It isn't nice, but we see it in nature and it makes evolutionary sense.

It is also wrong. Just like infanticide, polygyny, and a host of other behaviors which might carry some evolutionary benefits, my morality tells me that rape is evil.

I don't need a burning bush or a body on a cross to teach me that. I don't know whether a historical figure named Jesus got crucified, and I can't know whether that person was actually the Son of God. For me, it doesn't matter. I know right from wrong, and I don't care how anyone else derives their moral sense.

In fact, I think that it's far better for people to invest the effort to develop their own morality rather than learning to be good by rote memorization. Think of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Huck's journey down the river is an opportunity for him to develop his own moral sense about slavery and a host of other issues. The received morality told him that slavery was good and slaves should be returned to their masters. There was even a reward, so a modern free-marketer could justify Huck in returning Jim to servitude. But Huck built his own morality and that compass guided him.

Who knows what it is that lets people be moral? Maybe it's evolved, and there's a good case to be made for that. Maybe it's the fruit of the Tree. Maybe the fruit is a metaphor for the evolutionary process which brought intelligent, moral beings into the world. I don't know. I don't care.

What I do know is that moral lessons don't belong in science classes. Science, like a hammer or a nuclear bomb, is a tool, capable of being used for good or ill, but without inherent moral character.

I think there's something to be said for teaching ethical lessons in school. Maybe a philosophy class, or a world religions class, or interspersed throughout various subjects. Scientists do have an obligation to act morally and ethically. Intellectual theft is a legitimate concern for scientists, and there's no harm in talking about the ethical obligations of scholars and researchers.

But to change what is taught in biology class because of how a well-documented theory meshes with a particular reading of a complicated and often confusing Book is folly.