In response to some of the discussion about my last post re: genes and morality, I’m posting an interesting section of the debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins Time printed last year. The full article can be found here.
TIME: Dr. Collins, you have described humanity’s moral sense not only as a gift from God but as a signpost that he exists.
COLLINS: There is a whole field of inquiry that has come up in the last 30 or 40 years—some call it sociobiology or evolutionary psychology—relating to where we get our moral sense and why we value the idea of altruism, and locating both answers in behavioral adaptations for the preservation of our genes. But if you believe, and Richard has been articulate in this, that natural selection operates on the individual, not on a group, then why would the individual risk his own dna doing something selfless to help somebody in a way that might diminish his chance of reproducing? Granted, we may try to help our own family members because they share our dna. Or help someone else in expectation that they will help us later. But when you look at what we admire as the most generous manifestations of altruism, they are not based on kin selection or reciprocity. An extreme example might be Oskar Schindler risking his life to save more than a thousand Jews from the gas chambers. That’s the opposite of saving his genes. We see less dramatic versions every day. Many of us think these qualities may come from God—especially since justice and morality are two of the attributes we most readily identify with God.
DAWKINS: Can I begin with an analogy? Most people understand that sexual lust has to do with propagating genes. Copulation in nature tends to lead to reproduction and so to more genetic copies. But in modern society, most copulations involve contraception, designed precisely to avoid reproduction. Altruism probably has origins like those of lust. In our prehistoric past, we would have lived in extended families, surrounded by kin whose interests we might have wanted to promote because they shared our genes. Now we live in big cities. We are not among kin nor people who will ever reciprocate our good deeds. It doesn’t matter. Just as people engaged in sex with contraception are not aware of being motivated by a drive to have babies, it doesn’t cross our mind that the reason for do-gooding is based in the fact that our primitive ancestors lived in small groups. But that seems to me to be a highly plausible account for where the desire for morality, the desire for goodness, comes from.
COLLINS: For you to argue that our noblest acts are a misfiring of Darwinian behavior does not do justice to the sense we all have about the absolutes that are involved here of good and evil. Evolution may explain some features of the moral law, but it can’t explain why it should have any real significance. If it is solely an evolutionary convenience, there is really no such thing as good or evil. But for me, it is much more than that. The moral law is a reason to think of God as plausible—not just a God who sets the universe in motion but a God who cares about human beings, because we seem uniquely amongst creatures on the planet to have this far-developed sense of morality. What you’ve said implies that outside of the human mind, tuned by evolutionary processes, good and evil have no meaning. Do you agree with that?
DAWKINS: Even the question you’re asking has no meaning to me. Good and evil—I don’t believe that there is hanging out there, anywhere, something called good and something called evil. I think that there are good things that happen and bad things that happen.
COLLINS: I think that is a fundamental difference between us. I’m glad we identified it.