International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality in Biological and Religious Perspective

edited by Philip Clayton , Jeffrey Schloss

Introductory Essay by Makarand Paranjape

As early as October 1838, nearly twenty years before he published The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin jotted down in his “N” notebook a single phrase which is the basis not just of this book but of much of the debate concerning the nature of human consciousness, morality, and metaphysics. What Darwin wrote was simple, even seemingly innocuous—“the mind a function of the body.” But it forms the basis of not only of a materialistic theory of organic evolution but of most contemporary bio-scientific approaches to ethics. Darwin knew that his theory of evolution by natural selection would need to account for human behaviour, else its entire edifice would be imperilled. “Metaphysics must flourish” he wrote in his “M” notebook in August 1838 but declared that its basis must be evolutionary biology, not religion or philosophy: “He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.”

While the discovery of our origin and of the scientific basis of evolution was nothing short of momentous, the real question is whether it, once and for all time, put to rest our need for, and notions of, transcendence. Does evolutionary naturalism rule out any space for religion, especially the Christian faith, with its emphasis on love, altruism, and sacrifice, from whose theo-cultural matrix Darwin himself emerged? Sin, redemption, revelation, free will, determinism—where do these ideas stand once we accept evolutionary biology? Can all human morality be reduced to the “selfish gene”? Are ethics purely functional? Can group selection, primeval social instincts, prosocial disposition and other such traits necessary for survival account for all human behaviour, including morality, ethics, and religion? Or are Darwinism and neo-Darwinism grossly reductionist and therefore, ultimately, inadequate?

As Philip A. Rolnick, in one of the essays in this book puts it, “Just as genes do not undertake the study of genetics, neither do they undertake ethics” [305]. Or as Holmes Rolston remarks, “We never become free from nature, but we do become free within nature” [306]. In other words, can naturalism and supernaturalism be reconciled, with the latter being a subset of the former? Can transcendence be part of the evolutionary design?

This fascinating and readable anthology of sixteen papers plus an Introduction and Conclusion addresses such questions. Based on in-depth discussions, interactions, and debates held at Calvin College over the Summer of 2002, the participants, who were both scientists and theologians, then presented and critiqued each others’ papers in a conference later that year. The book, which came out in 2004, is thus the fruit of a good deal of research and soul searching.

Ably edited by a philosopher and professor of religion, Philip Clayton, and a professor of biology, Jeffrey Schloss, this book is indispensable to biologists, philosophers, theologians, and to all those who are interested in the relationship between evolution and ethics. The three parts of the volume, “The Evolution of Ethics: Scientific Perspectives,” “Religious and Evolutionary Ethics – Are They Compatible,” and “The Ethics of Evolution: Theological Evaluation and Critique” reflect its aim of balancing the two sides of the debate, giving importance to both biological and theological perspectives and also providing a bridge between them.