The Selfish Gene

Listen carefully the next time you overheard an argument in office or at home. For you may just stumble upon a powerful clue for God’s existence!

In his bestseller Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis observed that when we quarrel, we would often appeal to some higher Moral Law to which the other party is accountable. For example, it is common to hear people argue like this: “That’s my seat, I was here first”, “Give me a piece of your orange, I gave you some of mine” or “How do you like it if someone did the same to you?” Such arguments do not merely express our displeasure at someone’s behavior. They are actually appealing to a standard of right and wrong which we expect others to know about and ought to follow. Otherwise it would be as futile as claiming that a footballer had committed a foul without some agreement about the rules. This transcendent and universal Moral Law is a signpost pointing to God who is the Lawgiver.

But not everyone would agree. Popular writers such as Richard Dawkins and Robert Wright have tried to show that rudimentary forms of moral cognition can be found in animals as well. In some typical experiments, chimpanzees were given simple tasks to perform which were subsequently rewarded. When the same rewards were dispensed at random, some of the animals seemed to sulk at the ‘unfair’ state of affairs and refused to take further part in the activities. Therefore, our genetic makeup and external environment are responsible for developing variations of social behaviors, and only


behaviors that increase our chances of survival will be retained. What appears to be altruism or an unselfish regard for the welfare of others are actually disguised selfinterest programmed in our ‘selfish genes’, kin selection (“My relatives share my genes so if I help them, it will help propagate my genes as well”) or reciprocal altruism (“I scratch your back, you scratch mine”). In the final analysis, "Do unto others what you want others do unto you" is not a universal moral law. It just happens to be a strategy that helps us in the game called ‘survival of the fittest’. If so, morality is not unique to humans and can be explained by natural selection without appeal to a divine Lawgiver.

As Robert Wright explained, "The conscience doesn't make us feel bad the way hunger feels bad, or good the way sex feels good. It makes us feel as if we have done something that's wrong or something that's right. Guilty or not guilty. It is amazing that a process as amoral and crassly pragmatic as natural selection could design a mental organ that makes us feel as if we're in touch with higher truth. Truly a shameless ploy." Evolution conjures up an illusion of a transcendent moral law. In actual fact, we behave morally because that's how our instincts wired us – a sort of biological plus environmental determinism. Our "fidelity gene" or "infidelity gene" shape our behavior in order to make more copies of itself in future generations. If so, one may wonder why Mother Teresa is praised while Hitler is condemned since each of them is merely doing what their genes tell them to do?

But our sense of right and wrong does not merely describe human behavior. It also prescribes what behavior we should have. Therefore an adequate explanation of morality must be able to account for this ‘oughtness’. Natural selection may be a viable


description of human behavior in the past. But it does not offer any reason why we are obligated to be good tomorrow. It explains why we believe moral truths exist when, in fact, they don't. If everything came about by ‘chance plus time plus matter’ there can be no moral absolutes to live by. If the placebo effect from such illusory notions has now been dispelled, then it's very hard to see why people are not morally allowed to adopt the law of the jungle. One may well be justified to adopt ‘might-is-right’ or eliminate handicapped babies and the physically weak so that our chances of survival as a species will be greater. Morality, then, is not so much explained by natural selection. It has been denied.

Moreover we cannot reduce morality to merely external, observable behavior in chimpanzees. Morality goes beyond outward conduct to inward motives. We do not blame people for something done purely by accident. We distinguish between the blameworthiness of stepping unintentionally on someone’s toes in bus and the same act done on purpose. Indeed some ‘noble’ actions like giving out donations may be immoral if the motive behind the act is solely to gain others’ approval. And vices such as lust, greed and hatred may be committed in the mind without any outward action. Therefore, we cannot make simplistic conclusions about morality in animals based merely on observations of their external, instinctive conducts.

Although Social Darwinism could and had been used to justify horrible evils such as eugenics, abortions, infanticide and racism in Nazi Germany, Wright (to his credit) was very much opposed to it and called us to be a truly ‘moral animal’. In a stirring call for


ethical living, he wrote, "Natural selection's indifference to the suffering of the weak is not something we need to emulate. Nor should we care whether murder, robbery, and rape are in some sense `natural.' It is for us to decide how abhorrent we find such things and how hard we want to fight them." Similarly, Dawkins clarified in his bestseller The Selfish Gene, “I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave … My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. … Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to.”

But it seems as though these Darwinist proponents have two standards by which to judge morality. On one hand, morality is what natural selection has chosen for us, which best ensures our survival. On the other hand, they have (a transcendent?) moral standard by which to decide whether we should follow what nature has dictated. How do we account for this higher law that judges the very behavior that evolution has bequeathed us? But the problem is not so much that such notions about morality would inevitably lead us to adopt the law of the jungle. What they cannot do is to give us a reason why we are disallowed from making such a move. Ultimately, in their view, the moral restraints that protect the weak and helpless simply do not exist. Without God, everything is permissible. At the bottom of the atheistic universe, there is no purpose, no good or evil, nothing but ‘pitiless indifference’.


I suspect that this curious reluctance to follow their view to its logical conclusion is due to the fact that we cannot consistently live without moral truths. In our most honest moments, we truly believe that rape and torturing babies are objectively evil, even if it may somehow aid the survival of our species. In our most intimate relationships, we truly believe that our love and faithfulness for each other cannot be reduced to merely sexual instincts. Deep down inside, we could only live as though moral laws exist even though we may consciously claim otherwise.

For a Christian, these higher truths of love and goodness we are in touch with are authentic because a loving and good God has created us this way. Isn't this more in keeping with reality, life and love as we know it? Indeed, presupposing a Moral Lawgiver seems to be the only explanation that does not reduce our shared human experience to absurdity.

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