Thursday, October 07, 2010

"Does Our Moral Sense Have a Darwinian Origin?"

The question posed in the title of this article is one that was asked by Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion. To the religious person, at first glance, the question might seem preposterous.  But the more I think about the eternal nature of eternity, the more I think Dawkins is onto something.

In a recent, related article, I raised a few eyebrows (and perhaps ruffled at least one set of feathers) by claiming that we should ultimately do good because we want to and not because God wants us to. That article came as a result of thinking through the--to me--now seemingly outlandish claim that atheists somehow can't be or aren't moral.  Or as Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion
Many religious people find it hard to imagine how, without religion, one can be good, or would even want to be good.  
I don't find this hard to imagine at all. After all, everyone who is born into this world is enlightened with the sense to do good. We most commonly understand these sense to be our conscience.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints refers to this sense as "The Light of Christ."
11 And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your aunderstandings;

12 Which alight proceedeth forth from the presence of God to bfill the immensity of space—
13 The alight which is in all things, which giveth blife to all things, which is the claw by which all things are governed
 7 Which truth shineth. This is the alight of Christ.

Is it called the light of Christ because Christ invented it? In my opinion, no. Is it referred to as such because God designed this power and refers to it as The Light of Christ in honor of his son?  Perhaps partly.  It seems to me, however, that this power--to give life, to govern everything in the universe, and to enlighten our minds, has existed as long as the universe has existed. And, in a way that I do not come close to comprehending, I believe that the universe has always existed. This eternal power means that we are far more likely to be moral than immoral.

Mr. Dawkins puts it a little different than what I have stated.  He says that
our sense of right and wrong can be derived from our Darwinian past.  Natural selection can easily explain hunger, fear, and lust...but what about the wrenching compassion we feel when we see an orphaned child weeping, and old widow in despair from loneliness, or an animal whimpering in pain? Where does the Good Samaritan in us come from?

p. 215

Part of this, Dawkins explains, comes from the "selfish gene". Many people have misunderstood this concept to mean that evolution naturally implies selfish or organisms, and that thus the concept of Survival of the Fittest is a necessarily immoral concept.  Not so.
The whole idea of the selfish gene, with the stress properly applied to the last word, is that the unit of natural selection is not the selfish organism, nor the selfish species or the selfish ecosystem, but [rather] the selfish gene [which] either survives for many generations or does not.

Far from being immoral, there are many indications in nature that organisms, including man, tend to be moral.  To be sure, says Dawkins

...there will always be cheats, [but] stable solutions...of reciprocal altruism always involve an element of punishment of cheats.

Similarly, the LDS Church teaches that
19 ...the anatural bman is an cenemy to God, and has been from the dfall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he eyields to the enticings of the Holy fSpirit, and gputteth off the hnatural man and becometh a isaint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a jchild, ksubmissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love...
Because we have the spirit of God, at least minimally in the form of the Light of Christ, each of us has the ability to recognize that our morality makes sense in light of what Dawkins refers to as "reciprocal altruism".  We become "submissive, meek, humble, patient, [and] full of love" in large part because we expect that in most cases those around us will do the same.

We can take comfort that everyone is born into this life innocent and with some spark of understanding of the self-interest of being moral.
38 Every aspirit of man was binnocent in the beginning; and God having credeemed man from the dfall, men became again, in their infant state, einnocent before God.

So, whether we think it comes from our Darwinian origins eons ago or our divine origins eons ago, it's comforting to know that the moral sense is innate in essentially all of us. Hopefully that entices us to look with first impressions on most of those we meet as potential friends, rather than potential enemies.


  1. Frank,

    My favorite article of yours so far. :-)

    Quite nice for a brief exploration of the topic!

    By the way, it's called "The Light of Christ," because believers like to name everything they observe after their gods or at least in the context of their beliefs.

    (And that is a problem because it places less emphasis on the observed phenomenon and more emphasis on their largely imaginary "world beyond.")


  2. Bennett: Excellent insight. I agree. We in the Church should do a better job of explaining that. I guess I'm doing my little part to fill that void... ;-)

  3. Here's my question: If actions that we traditionally call "good" have their origin in selfish genes, or self-interestedness at any level, isn't it misleading to call them "good"? Shouldn't we simply call such actions "advantageous" or "effective"? It seems that the idea of evolutionary origins of morality does not explain the origins of goodness, but rather dissolves the very idea of goodness. So an atheist/positivist might very well continue to perform actions that believers call "good," but wouldn't a self-consistent atheist acknowledge that he doesn't believe such actions are "good," but rather are advantageous?

    Also, you say you believe that through the Light of Christ each person is "enlightened with the sense to do good." You also say you believe the Light of Christ "has existed as long as the universe has existed." Then you suggest that "our sense of right and wrong" comes from genes. But genes have not existed as long as the universe has. So when there were only inorganic elements floating around, where was the Light of Christ?

    (By the way, there's a way to prevent hyperlinks and footnote letters from appearing when you copy and paste scripture passages. Let me know if you want me to explain it.)


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