Darwin as Epicurean
An Interview with Benjamin Wiker
Benjamin Wiker is a lecturer in theology and science at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. His new book, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists, was published by InterVarsity Press in July. Wiker was interviewed about the book by InterVarsity Press editor Gary Deddo.
Gary Deddo: Darwinism is usually associated with biology and the debate over evolution. What happened that led you to see the connection between moral issues and Darwinism?
Benjamin Wiker (BW): Well, that’s a rather long story, but most immediately, it was reading Darwin’s Descent of Man, which is less well known than his Origin of Species, but should always be read with the Origin.
In the Origin, Darwin set forth his famous arguments concerning the power of natural selection to create all biological forms, but he was very careful not to mention how it all applied to human beings. In the Descent, which came out about a decade later, Darwin did apply his arguments about natural selection directly to human beings. It is only then that we see that Darwin’s evolutionary account had direct and immediate implications for morality.
Morality, according to Darwin, is just one more evolved trait caused by the mechanism of natural selection. I should say that in the plural—moralities—to be accurate. Many different moralities arise—or better, evolve—among human beings at different times and places, no one of them ultimately better than any other (any more than a certain length of finch beak is better or worse than another). Although Darwin tried to assert that evolution was somehow aiming at a kind of morality of sympathy, his efforts were undercut by his own argument. Evolution is absolutely non-teleological. It can’t aim at anything.
Not only did Darwin relativize morality, but (little known to many) he drew out the immediate eugenic implications of natural selection: too many of the “unfit” human beings survived, and the “fittest” weren’t breeding enough. In fact, Darwin says so much that is shocking in the Descent that anybody reading it can immediately see the essential connection between Darwinism and the kind of moral views being touted today as “cutting edge.”
Some don’t appreciate making that kind of connection. How have you responded to that objection?
BW: Well, I know there’s a well-worn objection that divides Darwin the scientist who formulated the principles of natural selection from the use that later Darwinists made of his arguments—such as to provide a foundation for Social Darwinism or eugenics—but that division is arbitrarily drawn. Like it or not, it is quite clear when you read his Descent of Man that Darwin himself was the first Social Darwinist and the father of the modern eugenics movement. Social Darwinism and eugenics are derived directly from his principle of natural selection.
I think the real reason for people objecting to someone making connections between Darwinism and things like eugenics is that they don’t want the theory to be tarnished by its moral implications. But the implications are there, not only in the text, but as evidenced in the social and moral effects Darwinism has had in the century and a half since it appeared.
What helped you see the connection between Darwinism and our present moral state of affairs?
BW: There are certainly some very obvious connections, although oddly enough, they are all too often overlooked. For example, most if not all of “traditional” morality is based on the assumption that human beings are a distinct species. Thus, the prohibition against murder is defined in terms of human nature. Don’t murder! Don’t murder what? Aphids? Anteaters? Orangutans? No, don’t kill another innocent human being. With Darwinism, however, that species distinction between human beings and other animals is completely blurred. There is no longer any moral line to be drawn because the species line has been erased.
Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer understand this perfectly. Dawkins argues, in his Blind Watchmaker, that the only reason that we believe we can derive moral distinctions from human nature is that “the intermediates between humans and chimps are all dead.” That is, if there existed a smooth spectrum of species connecting chimpanzees and human beings, with no “missing links,” there would be no foundation for morality.
Once we see ourselves as just one more animal on the evolutionary spectrum, then we must either affirm that our morality applies to all living things or deny that our morality has any foundation at all. Generally Darwinists provide a kind of incoherent stew of both. They treat some animals as if they had the same moral status as human beings, and treat human beings, in some respects, as if they were just one more animal. On the one hand, they will argue for animal rights; on the other, they assert that deformed or old and infirm human beings should be “put down” out of the same compassion we show for our pets.
In Moral Darwinism you actually see a profound connection to our present moral climate, which can be traced back to its roots through Darwin all the way to Epicurus. How did you come to see that more distant connection? Can such a link to ancient Greece be of interest beyond merely scholarly curiosity?
BW: We need to realize, first of all, that Darwinism is part of a much larger theoretical and moral worldview, that of materialism, and that it can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greek Epicurus. As I argue, Darwinism is just the modern form of ancient Epicureanism (with a modern “spin” that makes it hedonistic).
That becomes especially clear when you read the first-century B.C. Roman Epicurean poet Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, On the Nature of Things. In Lucretius’s poem you find an extraordinary thing: Darwin’s account of evolution, written almost two millennia before Darwin! Furthermore, Lucretius’s evolutionary account is part of his overall materialist argument about nature and human nature—a materialist cosmology, into which the evolutionary account fits perfectly. This cosmology necessarily entails a materialist account of morality, which again looks suspiciously modern!
In Moral Darwinism I trace that account historically, showing how it forms the basis of modern materialist thought, not only in regard to science but also in regard to morality. As it turns out, our present moral state of affairs, morbid as it is, is the result of having accepted the entire materialist package, of which Darwinism was an essential part.
This larger materialist package supports all kinds of things which are morally repugnant to Christians, not only (as I mentioned) Social Darwinism and eugenics, but also sexual libertinism, abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, cloning, and so on. That certainly makes it of more than mere scholarly interest!
Your thinking moves to a certain degree along the lines of what has become known as the Intelligent Design movement, but your connection to that movement has been rather recent, hasn’t it? Could you relate to us some of your own intellectual journey along that similar path?
BW: In one sense, my connection to the Intelligent Design movement has been quite recent. In fact, I didn’t know such a thing existed until about two years ago. Somehow or other, I picked up a copy of William Dembski’s Intelligent Design and found an intellectual home, as it were. I wrote a review of that book—very positive, of course—and contacted Bill Dembski so that I could send him a copy. One thing led to another, and I am now a fellow of the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think tank for Intelligent Design.
In another sense, however, I had been looking for something like the Intelligent Design movement for about twenty years. From the time I first read St. Thomas Aquinas’s proofs of the existence of God, I was convinced of two things. First, that the existence of God could be demonstrated by natural reason and that the demonstration would be from the effects of God in nature. Second, that the account of nature upon which St. Thomas depended was insufficient. Simply repeating his arguments, however convincing they were in many respects, would not be enough. Enter the Intelligent Design movement, which brings St. Thomas up to date, so to speak.
It becomes clear as you read along that your concerns are not just directed at critiquing secular society. You see certain problems also within the church. How do you see this book helping the church to be faithful in its own life and thought?
BW: First, no matter how good the intentions of many Christians, good intentions are not enough if our understanding of the current moral situation is confused. As C. S. Lewis rightly said, if you are lost, going full speed ahead is only going to get you more lost. Sometimes the only way out of the forest is to retrace our steps.
Following upon this, as I argue in the book, our contemporary moral debates are defined by two rival and incompatible views of the universe and of human nature, two irreconcilable cosmological-moral accounts, that of the materialist and that of the Christian. Much of the book is spent disentangling the two, tracing them back to their respective sources, and showing how the two are indeed fundamentally antagonistic.
In fact, we find out by reading Epicurus and Lucretius that materialism was designed to destroy all religion. When Christianity arose on the scene, not too long after Lucretius wrote his Epicurean materialist epic poem, it showed itself to be immediately antagonistic to Epicurean materialism. This fundamental antagonism can be traced historically over the next millennium and a half.
But then a strange thing happened. As a result of the rise of a materialist account of nature and science during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, Epicureanism and Christianity began to be indiscriminately mixed. The result was not a true mixture, however—it couldn’t be, since they were fundamentally irreconcilable. The result was that the materialism slowly ate away at the Christianity, like a kind of acid, and the West has consequently become increasingly secularized (or de-Christianized). But the phenomenon of secularization—in all its dimensions, including the moral dimension—is simply the steady victory of Epicurean materialism over Christianity.
Today, unfortunately, we find Christians all over the map, supporting all kinds of things that were actually meant to destroy Christianity. For example, we find Christians supporting the entire Darwinian account of natural selection, an account that makes God completely redundant. We also find Christians supporting abortion and euthanasia even though, from the earliest documents of the church forward, such things have been forbidden. If we trace the materialist account of evolution and the materialist support for abortion and euthanasia to their historical source, we find Epicurean materialism, an account of nature and human nature designed to eliminate religion and to instantiate a purely this-worldly system of ethics.
Until Christians are far more clear about the pedigree of their opinions, they will continue to borrow ideas and positions from an alien source, a source that, especially in modernity, was designed to destroy Christianity.
This interview originally appeared in “Academic Alert,” copyright © 2002 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, and is reprinted here by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515.
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