Evolution and Immorality: Is Sin Darwin's Fault?

Allan H. Harvey

On May 10, 2000, Nancy Pearcey, a voice on the so-called "Christian right," spoke at a Washington, DC briefing about "Intelligent Design" and the teaching of evolution. Her main point (at least the one featured in media reports of the event) was vividly illustrated when she quoted a catchy chorus from a group called the Bloodhound Gang: "You and me, baby, ain't nothin' but mammals, so let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel." In other words, according to Pearcey, scientific claims that we are descended from animals make us behave like animals.

This was perhaps embarrassing to those at the briefing who wanted the discussion to be about science. But the invocation of immorality is characteristic of much opposition to the theory of evolution. Ever since Darwin, it has been claimed that a theory that connects us to amoral beasts will cause us to (or give us an excuse to) behave like beasts. Many examples are cited in Christopher Toumey's study of the creationist movement [1]. For example, Henry Morris and Duane Gish put it this way:

If man is an evolved animal, then the morals of the barnyard and the jungle are more "natural," and therefore more "healthy," than the artificially-imposed restrictions of pre-marital chastity and marital fidelity. Instead of monogamy, why not promiscuity and polygamy? Self-preservation is the first law of nature; only the fittest will survive. Eat, drink, and be merry, for life is short and that's the end. So says evolution! [2]

Morris has also blamed evolution for "most of the spiritual and moral problems that have arisen to hinder the gospel." [3] The cover of Toumey's book shows "The Evolution Tree," a drawing by a Pennsylvania creationist in which a tree labeled "evolution" bears twenty-one evil fruits (many of which, it should be noted, predate Darwin) including "abortion," "racism," "dirty books," "inflation," and "hard rock." To pick one example from early in the century, William Jennings Bryan blamed the "survival of the fittest" aspect of evolution for German aggression in World War I [4].

Leaving aside temporarily the truth or falsity of these claims, they raise an interesting question. Should scientific results ever be opposed or suppressed solely because of their moral consequences? Can a scientific finding itself be "immoral"? Or can it be so conducive to immorality that we should oppose it regardless of whether or not it might be true?

I hope readers will agree that scientific findings themselves cannot be immoral. From a Christian perspective, the physical universe is a revelation of its Creator. It is hard to see how greater knowledge of that revelation can be considered bad. In fact, one can make a good Biblical argument (drawing on, among other things, our stewardship mandate in Genesis) that scientific understanding is something God calls us toward. Of course, as with other good things God blesses us with (sex and material possessions are two other examples), sinful humans can pervert God's gift and use it for evil (e.g., the use of science to build a terrorist bomb) or pursue the understanding in immoral ways (e.g., the medical experiments of the Nazis). Nevertheless, as Martin Luther said, "The abuse does not destroy the use." The immorality would seem to lie with the human misuse of scientific knowledge rather than with the knowledge itself.

The related question, whether some scientific finding might be so conducive to immorality that it should be opposed or suppressed, requires more thought. Idealistically, I would like to believe that the discovery of truth is always a good thing. However, there may be some areas of research where the results would have such great potential for evil (and relatively little potential for good) that those areas should be left unexplored. Research into human cloning or biological weapons might fall into that category.

It is hard to see how one could include evolutionary science in the same category, especially since the knowledge already exists (the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak) so it could not be "left unexplored." This understanding has been beneficial to biology, medicine, ecology, and many other disciplines. Admittedly, there have also been abuses of evolution, such as using the theory to support social Darwinism and eugenics (both of which, however, were around in some form before Darwin). But one could name similar good and bad uses for nuclear physics, organic chemistry, and much of the rest of science. As with these other areas, the approach with evolution should be for scientists and the rest of society to oppose the abuses, rather than trying to suppress the science itself.

Moral or other consequences of scientific findings might also be a factor in considering how vigorously to oppose a result one believes to be wrong. Cold fusion and magnet therapy may be bad science, but the harm they cause to people is relatively small (lost research money and minor damage to the integrity of science in the former case, some money wasted on placebos in the latter). One might therefore pick one's battles and fight against things that do more harm, such as the physical damage caused by quack cancer cures or the damage to the witness of the church caused by "creation science." To be fair to Nancy Pearcey, this is probably what she thought she was doing – pointing out damage caused by some science she believed to be wrong. I believe her assessment of the science is mistaken (and probably colored by the common but misguided dogma that evolution and Christianity are incompatible), but that is another issue.

So is there anything to Pearcey's lyrical claim? While I know of no research to confirm or deny a causal link between belief in the theory of evolution and sexual immorality, it seems dubious. David and Bathsheba certainly needed no Darwinian excuse to "do it." Throughout human history, we have transgressed God's boundaries, and have used whatever was at hand to justify and rationalize our sin. This is not limited to sexual sin; a good example is racism. Literalist Biblical interpretations were used for many years to justify racism (with blacks seen as further degenerated from Edenic perfection and/or as descendents of Ham whose proper place was servitude). These attitudes still exist in some circles today. After evolution came along, eugenicists and others found excuses for racism there. Humans want to sin, and will grab onto any excuse to do so, whether it be evolution or something they think they have found in the Bible. Surely Darwinism is quite far down on the list of reasons for sexual immorality today.

Even if there is some extent to which the theory of evolution has enabled sin by providing an additional excuse for it, the Christian response cannot be to hide our heads in the sand and ignore the scientific evidence. We will serve the cause of morality better by facing the facts head-on and dealing with them from a Christian framework. Some scientific findings might pose a challenge to traditional Christian morality. I do not think evolution is in that category, but claims of a biological basis for homosexuality might be if they turn out to be true (it seems to be an open question at this point). In such cases, for Christians to deny the evidence would render the church less able to minister to the world. I can think of no potential scientific finding that would undermine anything foundational to Christianity (I suppose finding the bones of Jesus would be an exception). If we work from that strong, Christ-centered foundation, we should be able to deal with any challenges science might bring, even if it means adjusting some interpretations on non-foundational matters. The Galileo affair has already caused us to revise what was thought to be the clear Biblical teaching that the Earth was at the physical center of the universe; I hope any similar future adjustments will come in a manner less embarrassing to the church.

Finally, there is one area where Pearcey's concern may be legitimate. Nothing in the theory of evolution says I should act like a beast (just as I need not behave like my grandfather). The idea that evolution negates morality and excuses beastly behavior is not science at all, but a warped meaning which some may attach to the science. If there are schools where it is taught that evolution means we are "nothing but mammals" and therefore might as well behave like animals, that should not be allowed to stand. Evolution is an area where unjustified philosophical meaning (like the idea that natural explanations exclude God) tends to attach itself to the science like barnacles to a ship. Christians and all who care about education should cry out whenever they see such philosophical extrapolation passed off as science. But the proper response to the promotion of unscientific (and unbiblical) ideas of what evolution "means" is not to accept the mistaken philosophy and deny the science. Instead, we should separate out the philosophy, demanding that only the science be taught in science classes. Then we can try to discern any metaphysical meaning if we wish. It sounds like Nancy Pearcey has repeated the mistake of other anti-evolutionists by letting her view of what evolution means be dictated by those in the enemy camp (like the Bloodhound Gang) rather than by Christian theology.


[1] Christopher P. Toumey, God's Own Scientists: Creationists in a Secular World, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1994.

[2] Toumey, God's Own Scientists, p. 94.

[3] Toumey, God's Own Scientists, p. 95.

[4] Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1992, pp. 41-42.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay are the opinion of the author of this essay alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

Essay originally written in 2000.
Page last modified Nobember 1, 2008