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Can we explain and eradicate evil through evolution?
“When she was good she was very very good, and when she was bad she was horrid.” So says the nursery rhyme. “How can some people be so cruel?” people often ask. “What’s in it for me?” is the selfish little question that often pops to mind when we’re offered the opportunity to deprive ourselves of comfort or needs for a higher purpose. Yet people can also be remarkably self-sacrificing, sometimes even with apparently unselfish motives. What is the origin of our capacity for both good and evil?
Noting that philosophers have long debated these questions, the author of a feature in the November 7 issue of New Scientist, “Homo virtuous: The evolution of good and evil,” offers not only the evolutionary answer to the origin of good and evil but goes the extra mile in offering a hope for better tomorrow through applied evolutionary science.
“Today some of the most exciting ideas are coming from an understanding of our evolution,” Kate Douglas writes. “By understanding the kinds of environments that foster the saint rather than the sinner, we can try to create societies that promote our better nature. It’s not just a pipe dream. Some evolutionists are already putting their theories into practice.”
By understanding the kinds of environments that foster the saint rather than the sinner, we can try to create societies that promote our better nature.
To better understand altruism, investigators for decades have devised laboratory games to quantitate human generosity. People often score high in the laboratory. However, “experience suggests that people behave somewhat differently in the messy maul of the real world.” Selfishness and cheating appear to flourish when people think they aren’t being watched, so does altruism even exist?
Douglas suggests it does but only if we “redefine virtue in biological terms. After all, altruism cannot be without benefit for the do-gooder, otherwise it could not have evolved. Working on this principle, evolutionary biologists have come up with a variety of explanations for human niceness.” Despite the paradox created by the principle that “natural selection helps those who help themselves,” evolutionists believe evolution must explain altruism.
Not surprisingly, the proposed evolutionary origins of “virtue” are all self-serving to one degree or another. Hunter-gatherers evolved to help their families because those who did were, “like bees in a hive,” more successful at “passing on more genes.”
People tend to be nice to those who might return the favor. After all, “It takes time and energy to help others, so evolution would have favoured people who made fewer of these costly mistakes [behaving self-sacrificially], unless the generosity provided benefits that outweighed the costs.”
Avoiding the judgmental eye of others is also a way of protecting yourself from both retaliation and gossip. After all, “Humans are incredibly nosy: we like nothing better than to watch those around us and then gossip about our insights to others. This is how reputations are made and destroyed.” Reputations matter because we tend to reap what we sow. Or as the author puts it, “Generosity, fairness and conscientiousness are universally valued and people seen to display them are rewarded—others like these individuals, want to do business with them and are more sexually attracted to them. So a good reputation can boost your chances of survival and reproduction.”
“Group selection,” the way a successful group enhances the overall survival of its members, is said to be a major evolutionary determinant of human nature. Popularized by E. O. Wilson, this notion is fairly controversial. (See Did the Altruistic "Snuggle for Survival" Help Humans Evolve? for more information.) On the negative side, our “seemingly innate desire to punish those who step out of line” keeps those who injure the group in check. And capital punishment “has made our species a little bit less evil by removing the most antisocial genes from the human gene pool.” On the positive side, many enjoy the feeling they have done something right, the proposed evolutionary origin of the conscience. And to add a materialistic gloss to the whole thing, oxytocin, a hormone produced in the brain, is called by some “the key to moral behaviour” because it is produced during “feel-good activities” and is thought to have higher levels in generous caring people. Thus the proposed evolutionary origin of the conscience appears to have a cultural and a biological basis.
On balance, the evolutionary path to a better world depends on implementation of policies that help individuals see how they can get some personal benefit by habitually helping others.
On balance, the evolutionary path to a better world depends on implementation of policies that help individuals see how they can get some personal benefit by habitually helping others. The author concludes, “It will be interesting to see how far evolutionary theory in action can bring out the best in us. What is not in doubt is that our worst side will remain. Evolution has made us both altruistic and selfish—good and evil—and we cannot be otherwise.”
As Christians, we have the Word of our Creator to tell us the truth about ourselves. All of us sin, have a sinful nature, and are capable of far worse evil than we’d like to admit. The selfish nature described in the article is part of the sinful nature humans have possessed ever since Adam rebelled. From the day Adam and Eve sinned, humans have chosen to look to their own wishes first and foremost. The sinful nature isn’t an evolutionary working out of our desire to survive and procreate but a manifestation of our rebellious spirit. Eve and then Adam thought, “What’s in it for me?” and chose to take a chance that the serpent’s “suggestion” was worthwhile. That’s not evolution; it’s just sin.
The origin of humanity’s “dark side” requires we look no further than Genesis chapter 3. When Eve responded to Satan’s question, “Yea, hath God said?” by doubting God’s Word, when Adam and Eve rebelled against the Creator—humans acquired a sinful nature, a “dark nature” that was not part of the original “very good” creation. Our problem is sin, not our evolutionary past. Popularizing “prosocial” behavior will not cure our sin problem, as even the writer admits. The real answer is only found in the Cross of Jesus Christ.
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