On January 2, 2007, Cameron Hollopeter had a seizure on a subway platform in New York City. Three people rushed to help him, including Wesley Autrey, who jammed Hollopeter’s jaw open with a pen. Then, as the lights of an approaching train filled the station, Hollopeter tumbled off the platform and onto the tracks. Autrey jumped in after him and tried to lift Hollopeter back onto the platform. But the train was too close, so Autrey dragged him into a drainage trench beneath the tracks and lay on top of him. The train roared over the two men, so close that it left a grease stain on Autrey’s hat.
Why would someone risk his life for a stranger? Francis Collins, the prominent biologist who currently serves as the head of the National Institutes of Health, raises the heroism of Wesley Autrey as an example of a selfless act that cannot easily be understood as the product of the amoral forces of biological evolution. To Collins, such acts suggest divine intervention.
As someone who studies morality, I hear this argument a lot. People can be selfish and amoral and appallingly cruel, but we are also capable of transcendent kindness, of great sacrifice and deep moral insight. Isn’t this evidence for God? This version of “intelligent design” is convincing to many people—including scientists who are otherwise unsympathetic to creationism—and it’s worth taking seriously. Like other intelligent design arguments, it doesn’t work, but its failure is an interesting one, touching on findings about evolution, moral psychology, and the minds of babies and young children.
For most of human history, it was easy enough to believe in a loving and all-powerful God. The natural world appears to teem with careful and complex design, and, as scholars from Cicero to Paley have argued, design implies a designer. This is a powerful argument: The evolutionary theorist and well-known atheist Richard Dawkins notes at the start of The Blind Watchmaker that he would certainly have been a believer before 1859—any observant and intellectual person would have to be. But Darwin changed everything, as he proposed a mechanistic account of where this complexity could come from. The theory of natural selection has been supported by abundant evidence from paleontology, genetics, physiology, and other fields of science, and denying it now is as intellectually disgraceful as denying that the Earth orbits the Sun.
But, as we see from Collins, the design argument persists, in a subtler and perhaps more promising form. Even if biological evolution can explain the bodies of humans and other creatures, it might be inadequate for understanding certain features of our minds, and, in particular, our moral and spiritual natures. This was the position of Pope John Paul II. In 1996, in a speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences plenary session at the Vatican, the Pope shocked many Catholics by supporting the Darwinian account of biological evolution. But he drew the line at the soul; theories that "consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man."
About 150 years ago, a similar argument was made by the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russell Wallace. He was convinced that the existence of our physical bodies could best be explained through the parsimonious and utilitarian forces of survival and reproduction, but he worried that explaining our mental lives requires something more. How could natural selection explain the origin of music, art, science, and mathematics? Where do our “higher moral faculties” come from? In an article published in The Quarterly Review, Wallace argued: “Natural Selection could only have endowed the savage with a brain a little superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one but very little inferior to that of the average members of our learned societies.” Wallace’s solution is that “an Overruling Intelligence has watched over the [laws of evolution], so directing variations and so determining their accumulation, as finally to produce an organization sufficiently perfect to admit of, and even to aid in, the indefinite advancement of our mental and moral nature.”
Darwin was not pleased. Before he had even seen the article, he wrote to Wallace expressing his concerns: “I hope you have not murdered too completely your and my own child.” In Darwin’s copy of the manuscript, he underlined the passages about the limits of natural selection, and scrawled a large underlined “NO” in the margin with exclamation marks all around it. He wrote to a friend saying that he was “dreadfully disappointed” in Wallace, and then wrote Wallace again, “As you expected, I differ grievously from you and I am very sorry for it. I can see no necessity for calling in an additional and proximate cause in regard to Man.”
Many contemporary psychologists have taken Darwin’s side, using natural selection to explain the human mind, including those very capacities that so intrigued Wallace. But Wallace has his defenders as well. The social commentator Dinesh D’Souza concedes in his book, What’s So Great About Christianity?, that natural selection can explain our kindness in cases where it has a genetic payoff. But he argues that it fails when it comes to “high altruism”—acts such as giving blood to strangers, or jumping on a subway track to save a stranger. This has no biological basis, D’Souza argues; it is best explained, as C.S. Lewis puts it, through “the voice of God within our souls.”
And then there is Collins. In his best-selling book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, he also draws upon C.S. Lewis to make the argument that an appreciation of objective moral truth—a Moral Law—cannot be explained in Darwinian terms. Rather, it is “a signpost to God.” Indeed, Lewis’ analysis of morality drove Collins, at the age of 26, to abandon atheism: “Faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief.”
There is much that is impressive about this argument. In its focus on morality, it differs from the usual attempts to prove the existence of God in nature. These arguments, as atheists cheerfully point out, typically have the unfortunate consequence of also proving the existence of Zeus, Odin, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But if this moral design argument is right, it would not only prove the existence of a divinity, but also suggest that this divinity has certain specific properties—as Collins puts it, “He would have to be the embodiment of goodness. He would have to hate evil.” Collins suggests that such a God looks very much like the God of Abraham.
Before going further, it’s important to distinguish the serious version of the moral design argument from a similar, but confused, variant that goes like this:
1. Darwinian theory predicts that everything we do is in order to spread our genes.
2. We act in ways that don’t spread our genes.
3. Darwinian theory is disproven. One needs God.
Collins sometimes argues this way, describing moral yet maladaptive actions as if their mere existence refutes evolutionary theory. With regard to Wesley Autrey, the subway hero, Collins says, “Evolution would say, 'Wesley, what were you thinking? Talk about ruining your reproductive fitness opportunities!' This is a scandal, isn't it?” He give other real-life examples of “selfless altruism”, such as the acts of Oskar Schindler and Mother Teresa, and argues—convincingly, in my view—that they cannot be explained as the direct products of natural selection.
But so what? None of this refutes a Darwinian approach to psychology. The fact that people don’t act to spread their genes isn’t some striking discovery; it’s an obvious fact of everyday life. I spend much of my own time on such non-Darwinian activities as reading novels, listening to music, drinking whiskey, and grading student papers. Some people engage in anti-Darwinian behavior: They use birth control, take vows of celibacy, get sterilized, abandon their families, and sometimes kill themselves and their children. And I would bet that modern men spill more of their seed in response to images on computer screens than in intercourse with actual women. Is the appeal of Internet porn a refutation of evolutionary biology, and a powerful argument for the existence of God?
Hardly. It’s the first premise that goes wrong. Nobody should think that specific actions like the ones I’ve listed are the direct product of evolution. Rather, our actions are explained by our beliefs and desires, which emerge from the workings of our brains. Our brains are in part the products of natural selection, but we are also shaped by our environments, including our culture. We have evolved the capacities to learn from others, to make choices, and to pursue goals, and these adaptive capacities can lead us to non-adaptive ends, such as deciding not to have children. Also, any appetite or desire that has evolved through natural selection in the distant past can lead to maladaptive behaviors in the here and now. Food preferences that evolved to help us survive in an environment of scarcity can get us into trouble in a world of Cinnabons and Big Gulps; neural systems that evolved to trigger sexual desire toward real people can be activated by patterns of light on a computer screen. And moral sentiments that exist for narrowly Darwinian reasons—to motivate care for genetic relatives and to help individuals in small groups coordinate their actions for mutual gain—can be modified by cultural learning so that people act in ways that are decidedly not to their genetic benefit, such as dying for their country.
Elsewhere, Collins recognizes this alternative perspective—if the Moral Law is a human invention, then it’s no longer evidence for God. His response is to insist that the Moral Law is not a product of culture. Rather, it is universal, part of what it is to be human.
If Collins is right, his argument would have real bite. In Origin of Species, Darwin is clear that natural selection makes strong predictions about what should and should not evolve; for instance, no animal should evolve a capacity solely for the benefit of another species. One can add that no animal should evolve a desire for the greater good—a willingness to sacrifice for others, a willingness to do the right thing regardless of the consequences for one’s own genes. Should we find something like this as part of human nature, this really would point toward divine creation.
Does such a thing as an innate moral sense exist? Some contemporary psychologists and philosophers—and many parents—would be skeptical. Morality is often seen as an innovation, like agriculture and writing. From this perspective, babies are pint-sized psychopaths, self-interested beings who need to be taught moral notions such as the wrongness of harming another person.
When Collins insists on the existence of an innate moral faculty, he is drawing on a different tradition, one that has its foundation in many religions and philosophies, but that is most clearly articulated in the work of philosophers such as Francis Hutchinson and Adam Smith. It’s nicely summarized by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, in 1787, in a letter to a friend: “The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body.”
I am a developmental psychologist, and recently completed a book—Just Babies—that argues that Jefferson got it exactly right. Over the last few decades, there has been growing body of evidence from many labs—including work that I’ve been involved with in collaboration with Karen Wynn at Yale—suggesting that even babies have rich moral capacities. These include:
- moral judgment: some capacity to distinguish between kind and cruel actions.
- empathy and compassion: suffering at the pain of those around us and wishing to make this pain go away.
- a rudimentary sense of fairness: a tendency to favor those who divide resources equally, and, by the second year of life, an exquisite sensitivity to situations in which one is getting less than someone else.
- a rudimentary sense of justice: a desire to see good actions rewarded and bad actions punished.
Collins is right, then, that there exists a moral nature. But the same research that finds that a moral sense exists also suggests that it is limited. Empathy and compassion exist early in development, but they are most powerfully triggered by the suffering of those who the baby or child is familiar with. Toddlers and children sometimes help others, but there is no evidence that they are willing to sacrifice for a stranger. Collins marvels at agape—selfless altruism—and describes it as “a major challenge for the evolutionist … a scandal to reductionist reasoning.” And it would be—if it had evolved. But there is no evidence that it has. Everything that Collins describes as special to humans, everything that motivates him to see God as playing an essential role in establishing our natures, is absent early in development.
As a specific example, consider fairness. Some appreciation of fairness does seem to be part of our initial endowment. Children are obsessed with getting their fair share—try giving one child two cookies and her sister three cookies and see what happens. This is known in the literature as “disadvantageous inequality aversion”; children hate getting less. And you find the same thing in other species. Researchers have done experiments in which two dogs each do a trick, but one dog is rewarded with a nice treat, while the other gets a lesser treat. The dog offered a lesser treat will sometimes refuse it, apparently out of spite.
What you don’t see in other species, or in young children, is “advantageous inequality aversion”—where individuals appreciate that it’s wrong for them to get more than another individual. The girl who gets three cookies isn’t going to complain, or even feel that anything is wrong.
One might think that this is a case where selfish desires override a moral sense; the child might know that unfairness is wrong but wants the extra cookie so much that she puts aside her moral unrest. But this is too rosy a view; our research has found that children will pursue unfairness—even at a cost to themselves—if it leads to a relative advantage. A young child, for instance, will often favor a distribution where she gets one item and the other child gets nothing, over a distribution in which they each get two. If they each got two, both would be in a better absolute position, but the appeal of 1/0 distribution is that the child herself gets relatively more.
Children aren’t just selfish, then, they’re worse—they will actually sacrifice absolute gains if doing so gives them a relative advantage. This is reminiscent of the Jewish folktale in which an envious man is told by an angel that he can have anything he wants—but his neighbor will get double. The man asks to have one of his eyes plucked out. (I recently learned there is an Irish version of this story, with the punchline “I want you to beat me half to death.”)
And so there is no support for the view that a transcendent moral kindness is part of our nature. Now, I don’t doubt that many adults, in the here and now, are capable of agape. Collins talks about dramatic cases—“Shockingly, the Moral Law will ask me to save the drowning man even if he is an enemy”—but I’m more impressed by more humble, everyday acts. My favorite example comes from an experiment done in 1965 by Yale Professor Stanley Milgram, in my own town of New Haven. Milgram and his students scattered stamped, addressed letters all over the city, dropping them onto sidewalks and placing them in telephone booths and other public places. If the name on the envelope was a person—“Walter Carnap”—most got returned. That is, someone picked them up and dropped them in a mailbox, a tiny and anonymous act of altruism that could never be reciprocated. And it’s an act that it is responsive and intelligent, not reflexive; the letters tended not to be returned if they were addressed to “Friends of the Nazi Party.”
You also see the Moral Law in the beliefs that people now hold. People care about the fates of non-human animals, so much so that some of them give up the pleasure of eating meat. Many people believe that racism and sexism are wrong, even if they themselves would benefit from racist and sexist policies. We are hardly angels, but our behavior goes far beyond the dictates of natural selection.
When you bring together these observations about adults with the findings from babies and young children, the conclusion is clear: We have an enhanced morality but it is the product of culture, not biology. Indeed, there might be little difference in the moral life of a human baby and a chimpanzee; we are creatures of Charles Darwin, not C.S. Lewis.
Let’s look at things another way. The idea that God inserted into us a moral code, filling our brain with moral truths and moral motivations, certainly has a poetic sound to it. But what could it actually mean?
One might be tempted to read the words of Wallace and others as mere metaphors, as expressions of awe for our wondrous capacities, in the same way that an atheist might casually use terms like “blessings” and “miracles". But this would be a tin-eared and disrespectful analysis. These design theorists aren’t just talking pretty; they are making a serious argument, which is that God actually did something to us, presumably in the few million years since we split off from other primates. Collins didn’t come to believe in God because of a metaphor, after all.
Instead, Collins is imagining a distinct moment of implantation. In a public talk, he suggests a two-step process: First, biological evolution provided us with a sufficiently advanced human brain. Then God stepped in; he “gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the Moral Law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.” As we’ve seen, Wallace’s view is slightly different; he suggests that God made us moral by tweaking the process of natural selection, favoring some variants over others.
In his discussion of the Moral Law, Collins states that these sorts of claims are not testable—“If God exists, then He must be outside the natural world, and therefore the tools of science are not the right ones to learn about Him.” But actually, his own implantation view is a substantive and testable claim. If one believes that our moral thoughts and actions are the result of—or, to put it more cautiously, instantiated in—neural activities in our brain, then what implantation means is that God has rewired our brains, presumably by fiddling with the genetic instructions that dictate how neural connections develop. The genetic fiddling could have been direct—God might have divinely shuffled various molecules—or indirect; God could have guided the process of natural selection, directing variation and favoring certain results, as Wallace suggested.
Either way, it follows that careful neuroscientists should be able to find the parts of the brain that God created. And surely Collins, who used to lead the Human Genome Project, would appreciate the exciting prediction that his view makes about the human genome, as it implies that are certain divinely created sequences of genes that give rise to the Moral Code. It follows, then, that neuroscientists and biologists should be able to identity what God modified and observe how his handiwork differs from the more conventional products of biological evolution. If Collins and others are right, then, we are on the cusp of the greatest discovery in the history of science—decisive proof of the existence of God.
There is a different way to make sense of the design proposal, however. If Collins were to propose that, at some period in history, God modified the way in which we digest food, it would be natural to expect this modification to be manifest in both our internal organs and the genes that help build them in our bodies. But morality is different. Some people don’t think of the brain when they think of good and evil, and might believe that morality—or at least Moral Law—doesn’t have much to do with the physical world at all.
Collins might see it this way; he might see morality as the product of an immaterial soul, not the brain. If so, then I agree with Sam Harris, who argues that such a position “makes a mockery of whole fields of study—neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science, behavioral economics, among others—and, if taken seriously, would obliterate our growing understanding of the human mind.”
In any case, this dualistic view of morality is also testable. There are many scientists who explore the issues that fascinate Collins and others, such as altruism to strangers and a sense of justice. It would be big news indeed if it turned out that the enactment of the Moral Law didn’t involve the brain, but exists in a special spiritual realm. But, of course, this isn’t the case. It turns out that one can study moral psychology through the same tools that one applies to more mundane domains such as sexual attraction or language development. One can look at the effects of culture, the influences of genes and parenting, and, yes, the parts of the brain that are active when people think good thoughts and do good things.
I don’t want to overstate what we know; we are far from anything like a complete understanding of human morality. And it’s always possible that someone will find evidence for divine intervention—a “Moral Law” gene that could never have evolved or some sort of moral action that has no neural correlate. But until that day, there is no need to posit divine intervention to explain any aspect of our morality.
I would think that Collins would be sympathetic to this counter-argument, as he makes it a similar point in a critical discussion of Intelligent Design (ID):
ID is a “God of the gaps” theory, inserting a supposition of the need for supernatural intervention in places that its proponents claim science cannot explain. Various cultures have traditionally tried to ascribe to God various natural phenomena that the science of the day had been unable to sort out—whether a solar eclipse or the beauty of a flower. But these theories have a dismal history. Advances in science ultimately fill in these gaps, to the dismay of those who had attached their faith to them.
None of the arguments here refute the existence of God, of course. A believer is always free to say that our morality is the product of God’s will, simply by taking the position that God created the universe so that it would give rise to creatures who come to possess the Moral Law. This is an empirically empty claim—nothing could prove it wrong—and so it’s a safe haven for any theist who wants to preserve a divine-origins account of our morality.
These issues matter. The theory first raised by Wallace is wrong about God, but it is also wrong about morality. It is a mistake to see the powerful and unique morality that modern humans possess as a divine gift. Doing so distracts us from its origin as a cultural accomplishment, best understood in terms of processes such as the exercise of reason and imagination, and best explained by thoroughly secular accounts such as those proposed by Martha Nussbaum, Steven Pinker, Peter Singer, and Robert Wright. And the stakes are high: Given the tragic limitations of our innate moral sense, and given that we want these enhanced aspects of morality to flourish, it’s critically important to better understand them.