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February 25, 2011

Is Evolution Bad?

When someone tells me they do not believe in evolution, I like to ask why. Answers can range, but recently I heard one that interested me: that evolution is bad. I had heard evolution called many things, but bad? To be clear, the person I was talking to meant bad as in evil. They saw evolution as being the inspiration and justification for various historical atrocities. Although it caught me off guard, it is not an uncommon criticism to hear, and it deserves some time to discuss here.

The skeptical community's first response to arguments like this is often to point out the poor logic of it. Calling evolution bad is actually a great example of the appeal to consequences. The appeal to consequences is when an argument asserts that because of the consequence of an idea, it is therefore true or false. This line of reasoning falls apart once you realize that there are realities of the universe that are not good for society and our species in general. For example, the fact that atomic weapons can be used to kill millions human beings does not mean they therefore do not exist. Knowing whether or not something is good or evil does not tell you if it is a reality.

You can point out logical fallacies in disagreements all day long, but without the proper delivery they often come off as hollow. Before you point out a logical fallacy to someone, first agree that logic is a necessary tool for finding the truth. Don't take for granted that everyone always agrees with logic, as this is simply not true. If you are debating in front of an audience, it can be effective to point out fallacies if you do it right, but often just comes off as snobbish. Being able to recognize logical fallacies is a useful skill but presenting them to someone who disagrees with you is a whole separate issue. If you do want to point out the logic do so by analogy. I would simply say something to this effect:

It could be possible that woman are smarter than men (or visa-versa) and the discovery of that could have major social consequences. Some of those might be positive and others negative but neither would make the original fact more or less true. The consequence of something is not what makes it true.
Find the style and analogies you like, but hopefully the idea is clear.

Back to my main point: so, the social consequences of evolution don't change whether it's true. But does evolution have negative social impacts? This question of evolution and morality is one I am actually very interested in. It is a matter of historical fact that evolution has been used to justify atrocities. Eugenics, the forced sterilization of a group of people that share certain undesirable traits, is the most obvious example of this. The justification is typically that evolution favors the strong and so we can improve or evolve the human race but artificially selecting for those traits. So what scientific merit does this have, if any?

None. Let me walk through the problems with this justification. The first problem is a widespread misunderstanding of the theory of evolution. According to the theory of evolution there is no such thing as 'more evolved' or 'higher evolved'. Humans are no more evolved than a bacteria, although we are more complex. Evolution by natural selection pressures all species to develop traits advantageous to their environment. Different environments require different traits. After all, bacteria can survive in many more environments than we can. This brings me to the second flaw. The idea that evolution is all about the 'survival of the strongest' is another mistake. Flies are not very strong, yet they are pervasive across the planet. The same is true of many other animals. Finally, natural selection favors genetic diversity. Natural selection forces some traits to remain constant in a certain environment. Outside of that, it is generally advantageous to diversify. This way, if the environment changes, it is more likely that some members of the species will be able to survive. So in the end, any attempt to "improve" human beings in terms of evolution is both meaningless and doomed to fail.

So can any morality be derived from evolution good or bad? Like the Earth going around the Sun, evolution is a fact. Facts should be used to inform morality, but I leave it to philosophers to debate where morality is derived from. What I will say is that evolution, when properly understood, tells of a connection with each other and nature which I would call spiritual. The idea that we share a distant ancestor with every living thing on this planet gives a new appreciation for the beauty of the world around us. It in no way dispels our responsibility to help one another. It may be that it instead extends that responsibility beyond our own species. Again, let me be clear that this paragraph is more my own personal thoughts on the issue. This is by no means universally accepted or a direct outcome of evolution. That said, I am not the only person who feels this way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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