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How Evolution Undermines the Judeo-Christian Sanctity-of-Life Ethic

By Richard Weikart –

[Editor’s Note: This is the second of three articles by Richard Weikart. Read part 1: How Evolution Challenges Christian Ethics, by Richard Wikart.]

Peter Singer, one of the most influential bioethicists in the world today, is famous for supporting abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, especially for the disabled.  He has written many books, such as Unsanctifying Human Life, in which he attacks the Judeo-Christian sanctity-of-life ethic.  What few people know is that his views—by his own admission—rest on his belief in biological evolution.  Singer’s line of reasoning is that since humans have evolved from other animals, they have no special status.  Singer coined the term “speciesism” to tar those “arrogant” enough to think that their own species has special status.  In his view humans are not created in the image of God, but as Darwin stated in his notebooks, they are “created from animals.”

Many other secularists likewise believe that Darwinism undermines the special status of humans.  Jerry Coyne, evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, has claimed that science “has delivered two crippling blows to humanity’s self-image.”  The first was Copernican theory, which removed the earth from the center of the universe, and the second was Darwin’s Origin of Species, which destroyed “the comforting notion that we are unique among all species.”  Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and leading atheist, has likewise attacked the “speciesist” position that human life is uniquely valuable.  He even expressed the hope that someone would euthanize him if he is ever “past it,” whatever that means.

I did not understand these connections between Darwinism and bioethics in the mid-1990s when I began doing research on the history of evolutionary ethics in Germany.  I had no idea that a major part of my book From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany would revolve around the influence of Darwinism on bioethics.  However, during my research I quickly came to understand that Darwinism, both in the nineteenth century and today, has profoundly shaped the way that many people understand the value of human life. 

I originally came to this realization from three different sources:

1) In 1995 I read the philosopher James Rachels’ book, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism, where he argues that Darwinism undermines the Judeo-Christian sanctity of life ethic.  On this basis he argues for the moral propriety of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.  (I didn’t know about Singer’s position on Darwinism until later, but Rachels and Singer are friends whose ideas are very similar). 

2) Also in the mid-1990s I discovered that most of the German thinkers writing about evolutionary ethics in the period around 1900 were proponents of eugenics, the movement to improve human heredity by controlling reproduction.  They argued explicitly on the basis of Darwinian theory that some human lives are less valuable than others; specifically they devalued the lives of the disabled.  For many early twentieth-century eugenicists compulsory sterilization became the preferred method of limiting the reproduction of the disabled.  However, some more radical eugenics enthusiasts promoted involuntary euthanasia, too. 

3) I already knew from my dissertation research that the leading German Darwinian biologist Ernst Haeckel promoted infanticide for the disabled.  In fact, Haeckel was the first German thinker to publicly support infanticide.  He later suggested killing disabled adults, too.

What I discovered in the course of my research was that Darwinism undermined belief in the value and sanctity of human life in six ways.  I should note that all six points I am making below are positions articulate by Darwinists.  This is not my spin on the logical conclusions of Darwinism.  These are positions that many Darwinists have actually taken (see From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany for many examples).

1. As already suggested above, in arguing for the animal ancestry of humans, Darwin and many other evolutionists argued that humans are not qualitatively different from other animals.

2. Many Darwinists, including Darwin himself, denied body-soul dualism, because they claimed that all human faculties, including rationality, morality, and aesthetic sense, have arisen through natural processes.  As J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae persuasively argue in Body and Soul, rejection of body-soul dualism is inimical to maintaining a Christian stance in bioethics.

3. Since many Darwinists believe that morality arose through evolutionary processes, they embrace moral relativism, which undermines any form of objective human rights.  Darwin stated in his Autobiography that one “can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones.”  This does not provide a foundation for any human rights, including the right to life.

4. Since evolution requires biological variation, many evolutionists, especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, stressed human inequality.  Many believed that this inequality meant that some humans are more valuable than others.  Evolutionists continually bandied about the word “inferior” when referring to the disabled.  Ernst Haeckel argued that Darwinism was intrinsically anti-socialist, because it showed the necessity of human inequality.  Many saw racial inequality as evidence for evolution.

5. Darwinists believe that humans evolved through natural selection that is caused by the struggle for existence.  This means that humans are locked in an ineluctable competition for scarce resources.  Multitudes necessarily die in this competition, which takes place at both the individual level and collectively.  Individuals out-compete other individuals, often through economic competition, and some races thrive and supplant other races in the struggle for existence.  Darwin stated in Descent of Man: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.”

6. Darwinism revised people’s views about life and death.  While the Christian worldview regards death as an enemy to be overcome, Darwinism presents death as the engine of evolutionary progress.  Darwin stated in Origin of Species: “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.”  Thus, in the Darwinian vision of the world, death is a good thing, and the more death, the more progress (because more death results from increased reproduction, which means more possible variations for natural selection to work with).

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s third and last article: “How Evolutionary Ethics Influenced Hitler and Why It Matters”

Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress.

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