Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Creationist Bodie Hodge Tries to Understand Kin Selection

morality the secular response

Mechanical Engineer and creationist Bodie Hodge at Answers In Genesis has gotten all worked up about a popular science article about the evolution of morality in New Scientist. Unfortunately, the “criticism” laid out in the article in question is an obvious creationist swing and a miss because it misunderstands the nature of science, confuses the evolution of morality with moral philosophy, optimization of inclusive fitness and/or adaptive behavior of the individual with metaphysical notions of goodness and put forward many other flawed arguments.

The New Scientist article being discussed is called “If morality is broke, we can fix it” and can be found here. It is just a short editorial about the evolution of moral behavior and how it can be augmented and improved by humans. Simple enough, yet when Hodge tries to comment, he gets it all wrong.

Science as a human endeavor

Hodges starts off by misunderstanding the nature of science.

The article says, “Science has made great strides in explaining morality.” This statement attributes human-like qualities to the methodology of “science,” which is the fallacy of reification. “Science” does not explain things; people explain things. Sadly, this fallacy is made frequently on the secular side.

“Science” in this context does not refer to a monolithic and abstract methodology, but rather the concrete human endeavor to understand the world around us. That endeavor has indeed made great strides in many areas, such as sequencing genomes, building spaceships, understanding quantum mechanics and morality.

The article goes on to say, “No longer is [morality] seen as something handed down from on high . . .” Though many secular humanists profess that morality is not set by God, the majority of people disagree and still recognize that morality does comes from God. But does it really matter what people think, or is it about what God says?

It is a description of how the scientific viewpoint has changed over time. Hodges make a curious false dichotomy here. Either morality is about what people think, or it is a matter of what a deity says. On the contrary, morality has to be about evidence and rational arguments. Also, “what people think” and “what god says” is really the same thing as religious scripture was written by people and it is people who interpret them. There is really nothing in any religious texts that could not have been invented by humans. This is clear from the many contradictions and scientific falsehoods in the texts. If a deity had written the texts, then surely, it would pass an introductory science education.

Enlightened self-interest, not unreflective egoism

The article continues, “. . . instead it is an evolved system of enlightened self-interest.” If morality is really all about “self-interest,” then who cares about the morality of others? Hitler was consumed with his own self-interest, and he was an evolutionist. So, was his morality acceptable by these evolutionary standards? I should hope not!

Here, Hodge focuses the evolution of moral behavior and moral philosophy. The evolutionary origin of moral behavior is that of enlightened self-interest in the sense that you benefit (in a particular way, see below) from benefiting other individuals as well. This has nothing to do with our moral philosophy i.e. justification of moral claims and it is not about egoism.

Hodge also makes several historical inaccuracies. Hitler was not “consumed with his own self-interest”, but rather believe that his “race” was superior to others. This has nothing to do with evolution or biology at large, which rejects both group selection and race realism. In general, evolution explains the diversity of life and is not to be interpreted as a moral framework by which to live. This is no different than the fact that the atomic theory of matter explains features of chemistry, rather than morality.

Kin selection and inclusive fitness

Hodge now tries to tackle inclusive fitness, but misses the mark completely.

Next they say, “Altruism for example can benefit your genes and disgust can protect you from disease.” What do they mean by “benefit”? Did you catch that? They are appealing to some overarching “good” in the universe by which to judge something as a “benefit.” Secularists are borrowing from the biblical worldview when they propose that something such as a “benefit” or “good” exists. By so doing, they undercut the very argument they are trying to propose.

No, they are not appealing to some overarching good in the universe by which to judge something as beneficial. Altruism in behavioral ecology is when a behavior leads to a direct fitness increase in the receiver but a direct fitness decrease in the donor. How would evolution explain this? As it turns out, one such explanation is kin selection, where the receiver is more closely related to the donor than to the average at the population at large. This means that while the direct fitness decreases for the donor, it’s inclusive fitness increases because some gene variants that the donor has is also found in the receiver. Benefit here means something very precise, namely the optimization of inclusive fitness or the increase in the particular gene variants over time. Clearly, using the term benefit in this ways does not “borrow from the biblical worldview”, because the claim is not about morality, but about inclusive fitness.

Hodges makes a similar argument about disease and disgust:

Furthermore, who are these people to say that “disgust” is a good thing or that being disease-free is a good thing? Such ideas are a reflection of Leviticus and the cleanliness laws from the Bible, which teaches to resist effects of a sin-cursed and broken world. But how can an evolutionist say that preventing disease is a good thing? Perhaps catching a disease and dying is what is needed for the next step of evolution.

Ask yourself: would I prefer having an illness, or would I prefer not to have an illness? The answer is simple. Furthermore, it is actually about what is adaptive for the organism, not about biblical laws. Hodges also confuses the evolutionary origins of morality with moral philosophy. What is evolutionary beneficial is not automatically morally acceptable. This is explained in the very next quote by Hodges. So close, yet so far off.

Evolved moral behavior and moral philosophy

The New Scientist editorial points out that evolved moral behavior does not have to be rational. Hodges misunderstands, yet again.

Next, they comment that “this picture is progress, but it can also lead to a kind of fatalism, a belief that our moral values evolved for a good reason and so we should stick with them.” So, now they are appealing to an overarching concept of “good” by which to judge these things? For people who claim that they no longer believe in morality being “handed down from on high,” they have twice appealed to something higher that determines what is good and bad and governs everything. This is self-refuting!

The actual argument made by biologists is that there is a mismatch between organisms and environment because of evolutionary time lag, so what was evolutionary adaptive in the past may not necessary be adaptive at the level of organisms today. The classic example is obesity. In the distant past, it made sense to eat all the food you came over since future access to food was not guaranteed. In the modern day life, this is a bad idea for your health. In other words, just because a behavior evolved does not mean it is beneficial today and we should not let our moral philosophies be determined by what is evolved behavior. This too is explained in the next paragraph, but Hodges, yet again, misunderstands.

In the article, the writer(s) further agreed that their moral guidelines are “arbitrary” and that “the rules are not set in stone,” so there is nothing to stop them from getting rid of the rules they think don’t work. I could continue, but I’m sure you understand the basics of how these arguments have failed.

No, that is not what they claimed. Here is the original quote:

That picture opens the door to more progress. Yes, we follow rules that bring little benefit and can even be positively harmful. But the rules are not set in stone, so there is nothing to stop us getting rid of those that don’t work and putting better ones in their place.

The editorial is talking about how social evolution has favored setting up arbitrary moral rules and there is nothing that stops us from replacing those evolved behaviors that are not rational or supported by evidence with those that do. That does not mean that these new rules are going to be arbitrary. By definition, they would not be. This is superior to “biblical morality”, since we don’t have to waste time justifying divine genocide or anti-gay sentiments. We just get rid of the stuff that is clearly not supported and irrational, and replace them with stuff that works. It is safe to say that this pragmatic form of radical empiricism feels uncomfortable for creationists on many levels.

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