Darwinism and Morality

William Provine is a biologist and historian of biology at Cornell University. He is forthright about biological evolution and its implications, writing, for example, that evolution is the greatest engine of atheism ever invented. Provine summarises the consequences of the belief in evolution as follows:

Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent.[1]

In this post, we will concentrate on points 3 and 5 above.


The evolutionary view is that moral law is something humans create as an evolved adaptation – a conviction that something is right or wrong arises out of the struggle for survival. All the notions we associate with moral and ethical principles are merely adaptations, foisted upon us by evolutionary mechanisms in order to maximize survival.

Provine’s logic is unassailable, if you grant his premises. His point of departure is that nothing exists beyond matter and energy. Matter and energy may manifest themselves in relatively simple forms – a hydrogen molecule, perhaps – and in complex forms, as in a butterfly or human being. But in the end, it all boils down to quarks, electrons and other denizens of the subatomic world. It follows that there cannot be an objective foundation for morality, and that human free will is an illusion, the result of complex neuronal interactions.

This is a popular (inevitable, really) notion among contemporary evolutionists. In 1985, the entomologist E.O. Wilson and the philosopher of science Michael Ruse co-authored an article in which they wrote that “Ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to co-operate.” In his 1998 book Consilience, Wilson argued that “Either ethical precepts, such as justice and human rights, are independent of human experience or else they are human inventions.” He rejected the former explanation, which he called transcendentalist ethics, in favour of the latter, which he named empiricist ethics.[2]

Indeed, the whole field of sociobiology, founded by Wilson in the 1970s, presupposes that morality is the product of evolutionary processes and tries to explain most human behaviours by discovering their alleged reproductive advantage in the evolutionary struggle for existence. (Stephen Jay Gould is among numerous evolutionists who ridiculed the field for its proclivity to invent just-so stories).

One implication of the belief that human beings do not possess moral freedom is that criminals cannot be held responsible for their deeds. University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne thus writes – in a post entitled Is There Moral Responsibility? – that he does not believe in moral responsibility:

I favor the notion of holding people responsible for good and bad actions, but not morally responsible. That is, people are held accountable for, say, committing a crime, because punishing them simultaneously acts as a deterrent, a device for removing them from society, and a way to get them rehabilitated – if that’s possible. To me, the notion of moral responsibility adds nothing to this idea.  In fact, the idea of moral responsibility implies that a person had the ability to choose whether to act well or badly, and (in this case) took the bad choice. But I don’t believe such alternative “choices” are open to people, so although they may be acting in an “immoral” way, depending on whether society decides to retain the concept of morality (this is something I’m open about), they are not morally responsible.  That is, they can’t be held responsible for making a choice with bad consequences on the grounds that they could have chosen otherwise.[3]

David Baggett describes how this notion manifests itself in contemporary academia:

I have found a recent trend among a number of naturalistic ethicists and thinkers to be both interesting and mildly exasperating, but most of all telling. Both one like John Shook, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York… and Frans de Waal, author most recently of The Bonobo and the Atheist (to adduce but a few examples) seem to be gravitating toward functional categories of morality. Talk of belief and practice replaces talk of truth; references to moral rules exceed those of moral obligations; and prosocial instincts supplant moral authority.[4]

But these notions are hardly recent. As the historian Richard Weikart puts it, “The idea that evolution undermines objective moral standards is hardly a recent discovery of sociobiology, however. In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin devoted many pages to discussing the evolutionary origin of morality, and he recognized what this meant: morality is not objective, is not universal, and can change over time. Darwin certainly believed that evolution had ethical implications.” Ever since then, evolutionists have been arguing that human free will is a mirage and that morality is subjective. Here are representative examples of a vast genre.[5]


Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) was a leading criminologist who authored the landmark study Criminal Man in 1876. According to Lombroso, infanticide, parricide, theft, cannibalism, kidnapping and antisocial actions could be explained largely as a throwback to earlier stages of Darwinian evolution. In earlier stages of development such behaviours aided survival and were therefore bred into biological organisms by natural selection. William Noyes, one of Lombroso’s American disciples, explained that “In the process of evolution, crime has been one of the necessary accompaniments of the struggle for existence.” Invoking modern science in general and Charles Darwin’s work in particular, Italian jurist Enrico Ferri (1856-1929), one of Lombroso’s top disciples, argued that it was no longer reasonable to believe that human beings could make choices outside the realm of material cause and effect. Ferri applauded Darwin for showing “that man is not the king of creation, but merely the last link of the zoological chain, that nature is endowed with eternal energies by which animal and plant life… are transformed from the invisible microbe to the highest form, man.” Ferri looked forward to the day when crime would be treated as a “disease”.

Ludwig Büchner (1824–1899) was a German medical doctor who became president of the Congress of the International Federation of Freethinkers. He was an outspoken atheist and authored Force and Matter, a materialist tract that went through fifteen editions in German and four in English. He was one of the most energetic popularisers of Darwin’s work in the German-speaking world. Büchner wrote that “the vast majority of those who offend against the laws of the State and of Society ought to be looked upon rather as unfortunates who deserve pity than as objects of execration.” Büchner argued that the [alleged] brain abnormalities in many criminals showed that they were throwbacks to “the brains of pre-historic men.”


Born into wealth and privilege, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were Chicagoan graduate students who decided to commit the perfect crime. In the spring of 1924, they abducted and murdered 14-year old Bobby Franks. They were eventually apprehended and confessed to their crime.

Clarence Darrow was hired to save Leopold and Loeb from the gallows. Yes – Clarence Darrow of the famous Monkey Trial in Tennessee. Darrow was a true believer in evolution. According to him, the question before the court was whether it would embrace “the old theory” that “a man does something… because he wilfully, purposely, maliciously and with a malignant heart sees fit to do it” or the new theory of modern science that “every human being is the product of the endless heredity back of him and the infinite environment around him.” According to Darrow, Leopold and Loeb murdered Franks “… because they were made that way…”

Robert Crowe, the state’s chief prosecutor in the case, challenged “Darrow’s dangerous philosophy of life.” He read to the court a speech Darrow had delivered to prisoners at a county jail more than twenty years earlier. Darrow had told the prisoners that there was no moral difference between themselves and those who were outside jail. “I do not believe people are in jail because they deserve to be. They are in jail simply because they cannot avoid it, on account of circumstances which are entirely beyond their control, and for which they are in no way responsible.” “There ought to be no jails”, he told the prisoners.


In his book Crime: Criminals and Criminal Justice (1932), University of Buffalo criminologist Nathaniel Cantor ridiculed “the grotesque notion of a private entity, spirit, soul, will, conscience or consciousness interfering with the orderly processes of body mechanisms.” Because we humans are no different in principle to any other biological organism, “man is no more ‘responsible’ for becoming wilful and committing a crime than the flower for becoming red and fragrant. In both cases the end products are predetermined by the nature of protoplasm and the chance of circumstances.” The sociologist J.P. Shalloo wrote in the 1940s that it was the “world-shaking impact of Darwinian biology, with its emphasis upon the long history of man and the importance of heredity for a clear understanding of man’s biological constitution” that finally opened the door to a truer understanding of crime than traditional views.


Evolution is not only a scientifically untenable theory, but also a morally bankrupt, corrosive spiritual poison that undermines the foundations of human society.


See also: the post Random and Undirected:



[1] Abstract of Dr. William Provine’s 1998 Darwin Day Keynote Address, Evolution: Free will and punishment and meaning in life. This used to be available at http://fp.bio.utk.edu/darwin/frmain.html. I was not able to retrieve it.

[2] See the article by the historian Richard Weikart here:


Retrieved 12th May 2013.

[3] See http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/is-there-moral-responsibility/.

Retrieved 12th May 2013.

[4] See http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/04/26/watering-down-the-categories/#comments.

Retrieved 12th May 2013.

[5] Much of the material in the rest of this post is from the superb Darwin Day in America by John G. West, ISI Books, 2007.


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