Evolution and Human Dignity

* This post was originally published in June of 2010*

Writing on his blog, evolutionary psychologist Steve Stewart-Williams discusses forthrightly the implications of evolutionary theory on our view of human dignity:

Evolutionary theory does not directly contradict the doctrine of human dignity. It does something else, though: It undermines the foundations upon which it rests, and the worldview within which it makes any sense. I’ll explain how. The doctrine of human dignity is supported by two main ideological pillars: the image-of-God thesis and the rationality thesis. The image-of-God thesis is the idea that we and we alone were created in the image of God and have an immortal soul, and that this is a fundamental difference between all humans and all other animals that justifies a fundamental difference in how we treat all humans vs. all other animals. The rationality thesis is the idea that we and we alone possess rationality – the spark of reason – and that this is the difference that justifies privileging members of our species above all others.

Evolutionary theory undermines both these theses.

Three thoughts about that – first I appreciate Stewart-William’s honesty here – contrary to the view of many Christians, I find atheists to be refreshingly honest when it comes to the implications of their own beliefs. They may be uncivil, ignorant of history and theology and given to logical fallacies, but when it comes to what impact their beliefs will have on our culture, they are fairly straight shooters.

The second point here is that the author has correctly identified the primary basis of human dignity in Western culture, that being the Christian belief that we were created in the image of God and are eternal creatures with eternal value. Whatever discrepancies skeptics imagine there is in Scripture on certain questions, this fundamental belief is clear throughout Scripture and in Christian theology. It is the basis for the idea that we are endowed with certain rights and liberties, the most important of course the right to life itself.

And Stewart-Williams rightly claims that evolutionary theory undermines these basis for human dignity. There is in fact no basis to believe humans are particularly special via a naturalistic understanding of the world. Whatever characteristics distinguish us evolutionarily, they are a matter of degree, not particular qualities.

And he doesn’t stop there. After correctly identifying the basis for human dignity, he properly ascertains its central role in our Western ethical system, and some specific issues abandoning it will impact – namely suicide and euthanasia:

By undermining both the rationality thesis and the image-of-God thesis, the Darwinian worldview undermines the doctrine of human dignity. It leaves it without intellectual foundations. This has important implications for many key issues in ethics. The idea that human life, and human life alone, is infinitely valuable has impregnated the ethical systems of the world, especially those of the West. Although the doctrine of human dignity has its origins in the religious conception of humankind, it has woven its tendrils into our secular codes of ethics. It is implicit in the ethical beliefs of many who doubt or even reject the various religious accounts of human origins, and who believe that right and wrong exist independently of religion. Thus, even though we in the West live in a semi-post-Christian world, in which the image-of-God thesis and the rationality thesis are widely dismissed, the ethical attitudes they inspired linger on. But what happens to these attitudes when we really get to grips with the fact that the foundations of our traditional morality have eroded? This is the question I’ll address in my next few posts. In the next, I’ll discuss the contentious topics of suicide and euthanasia.

Over the course of his next post, he does indeed show how the application of evolutionary theory modifies our views of suicide and euthanasia:

With the corrective lens of evolutionary theory, the view that human life is infinitely valuable suddenly seems like a vast and unjustified over-valuation of human life. This is because Darwin’s theory undermines the traditional reasons for thinking human life might have infinite value: the image-of-God thesis and the rationality thesis (see my last post). But if human life is not supremely valuable after all, then there is no longer any reason to think that suicide or voluntary euthanasia is necessarily wrong under any or all circumstances. In fact, it starts to seem decidedly odd that we have elevated human life – i.e., pure biological continuation – so far above the quality of the life in question for the person living it. Why should life be considered valuable in and of itself, independently of the happiness of the individual living that life?

Of course none of this is new – though he decries the eugenics of the last century, there is nothing he offers to distinguish this current incarnation of Darwinist ethics from previous versions except to sound more sophisticated. The reality is that as much as we see evolution as the basis for human existence it invariably leads us back to the same place, a place where we human life is de-valued if it doesn’t prove itself useful or productive to society, or if caring for a life becomes too burdensome. The implications of the application evolutionary theory to ethics goes much farther than that of course, but this is far enough to remind us of what we lose as Darwin’s theory plays a central role in our society.

It is notable the Stewart-Williams is writing in a very mainstream journal, Psychology Today. It is also interesting to note that this is not the only suggested application of evolutionary theory to our treatment of human maladies – I detailed earlier the suggestion in a psychiatry journal that the ‘evolutionary lens’ be applied to our view of depression. It is clear that evolution goes far beyond a mere biological theory – it has clear implication in ethics, sociology, and policy, as admitted by its own adherents. To the degree we adopt this evolutionary lens, we abandon the Scriptural mandate to care for the least of humanity.

3 Responses to Evolution and Human Dignity

  1. moriahbethany says:

    The distinction between evolution and religion is that evolution offers an explanation for how life came to be but does not offer moral solutions to our problems. If it did it wouldn’t be science. The fact that evolution does not offer answers to our philisophical and moral dilemmas does not make it immoral automatically. We are simply left to our own devices to decide right from wrong. Your example about euthanasia being a way to devalue life and rid ourselves of those who do not offer anything is ridiculous…and is not inherently tied to the evolutionary philosiphy…because there isn’t one. If God is removed from the equation a person would be left to determine right and wrong based off of the effect of the action. In the case of euthanasia we should ask, “Does this person have the right to die?” “Can their condition be treated?” “How much pain is this person in?” We currently do not allow euthanasia although the only difference between euthanasia and doctor assisted suicide is who administers the drug. Just because something makes us uncomfortable doesn’t mean that we have the right to deny it to someone else. To apply for doctor assisted suicide is very difficult and requires a lengthy amount of time to process. This is specifically so that the system will not be abused and so that the patient has plenty of time to think about what they are doing. Whatever is decided in cases of moral reasoning it should be done based off of the evidence at hand not off of an absolutist philosphy.
    Back to

  2. moriahbethany says:

    Sorry, I accidentally *published* and cut myself off.
    Back to evolution,
    I find it offensive for anyone to think that we cannot know moral truth without God. That I am not capable of knowing right from wrong unless someone threatens me with punishment and reward (heaven and hell)
    I think we all understand pain and suffering, we have all experienced it to some degree. So I know, that there are things that I do not want done to me, as I know that there are ways I would like to be treated, and this gives me guidelines to how other people might want to be treated. Life without God doesn’t equal relitavism for that reason. An advanced society will never allow things like child molestation, bestiality, incest, etc. because these things violate the rights of others. Incest because it produces damaged offspring and because it is harmful for the family dynamic if you have to worry that your family members want to sleep with you. Family is our safe place, we all inherently know this. Religion can even be the cause for pain (wars over holy lands, fundamentalists “marrying” children to older men, discriminating against two people who love each other because they happen to be gay, etc.) We do know better, we are capable…without God.

  3. Mike D says:

    Mkay. So first, the whole thesis that evolution undermines God, and by extension humanity’s worth (which you never provide any sort of reason why that must be tied to God… you just assert it) is obviously tossed aside by the innumerable theists who believe that God created the process of evolution, just as he lovingly created black holes, supernovas and viruses that infect ants’ brains and make them suicidal (seriously, Google that one!).

    I think the biggest threat from evolution, as Dan Dennett articulated in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, is that it undermines the idea of teleology. If we were to rewind the clock on evolution, there’s no guarantee humans would exist, or that the phylogenetic tree would look anything like it does. I’m not sure how theistic evolutionists square that with the idea that God intended humans to exist.

    But in any case, none of this is relevant because even if you were right, it doesn’t change the fact that evolution is one of the most rigorously well-established scientific theories ever, probably eclipsed only by quantum theory in sheer overwhelming evidence. The evidence for evolution is independently corroborated by numerous fields of inquiry, including paleontology, molecular biology, and genetics. It’s responsible for advances in medicine, agriculture, and conservation. And unlike ID, it makes falsifiable predictions, like this:

    No amount of anyone’s personal discomfort with evolution will change the fact of it. But hey, I’m sure the lawyers and theologians that comprise the Discovery Institute know more about the topic than all those pesky scientists.


    A final note. I really like this comment above:

    I think we all understand pain and suffering, we have all experienced it to some degree. So I know, that there are things that I do not want done to me, as I know that there are ways I would like to be treated, and this gives me guidelines to how other people might want to be treated.

    I, and many others, have generously offered you many similar responses, and I’ve never seen you respond directly. It would seem that the most you could say is that these don’t constitute commands, but then I’d just take it back to whether God has reasons for his commands (i.e., it is in our mutual best interest to behave kindly instead of cruelly), or if his commands are simply arbitrary. If the former, there’s no reason for commands since we can arrive at the same “oughts” by reason alone. If his commands are arbitrary, then you think morality rests in obedience and no particular behavior is either right or wrong in itself – it’s just whatever God decides at the time.

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