Thursday, June 18, 2015

Is Selflessness Consistent with Atheistic Darwinism?

            Have you seen this?

            To be blunt: that’s offensive as fuck.

            But I’m not going to dwell on how offended I am by that. Offense, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily compelling to everyone. What I am going to do, however, is address the incredible ignorance displayed by the kind of person who would write or perpetuate this particular meme.

            Firstly, “atheistic Darwinism,” seems to be a thing that exists only in the minds of creationist Christians. It is a philosophy with no actual adherents anywhere, a straw man constructed solely for the purpose of dehumanizing people who accept the theory of evolution. In this bizarre shadow-puppet philosophy, people who accept evolutionary reasoning are necessarily atheists, and necessarily abandon all compassion in pursuit of a twisted ideal in which only the strongest, most selfish, most vicious people deserve to survive. Which only goes to show that the people who live in, and perpetuate, the fear of this “atheistic Darwinism,” understand neither atheists nor the “Darwinistic” theory of evolution.

            But then, the goal of memes like these aren’t to understand or to promote understanding – their purpose is to promote fear and hatred of the “evil other.” Their purpose is to make people too afraid of us to even try and understand us. Their purpose is to turn us into something other than human in the eyes of believers, so that we can be automatically dismissed and diminished without consideration of our shared humanity or any possible merit to our outlook. This blog exists precisely because I’m not willing to just let that kind of thing pass.

            So here’s the thing: the theory of evolution – the real one, not the vicious straw man presented in this meme – is not a moral philosophy. It says nothing about how individual people ought to behave. It is only, and only ever has been, a body of scientific explanations for the observed fact that populations of organisms change over time in response to genetic variation and the effects of changing environment on relative survival rates. It is a description, not an instruction.

            And it’s worth noting that this description, properly understood, does not in any way preclude human compassion and risking ourselves to help others. In fact, it explains quite nicely why we have those traits. You see, the “survival of the fittest” principal does not say that only the strongest and most self-interested deserve to survive. It says that those organisms that possess traits which enhance their likelihood of survival are, in fact, more likely to survive (“deserve” has nothing to do with it). And this is a statistical effect over large numbers and long periods, saying little to nothing about individuals. In the case of humanity, it is precisely our willingness (even compulsion) to help each other survive that allows larger numbers of us to pass our genes on to the next generation than otherwise would. Even if that sometimes results in the death of the one trying to help, statistically it results in a greater overall rate of human survival. Humanity’s evolutionary success is owed in very large part to the development of those traits that this ridiculous meme claims it precludes us from having.

            In other words, the author of this meme is simply lying – either out of ignorance (willful or otherwise), or malice. I hope that it’s mere ignorance, because that can be cured with information.

            An atheist witnessing the drowning man in the meme example would feel the exact same surge of compassion and instinct to help that any theist would. It’s part of being human. It doesn’t matter whether we believe those emotions come from a god-given sense of the divinity of all people, or that it is the result of millions of years of evolutionary forces that rewarded populations of primates in which individuals were willing to risk themselves to save others and thus ensure the survival of greater numbers of their tribe. Those emotions remain real, and powerful, and there is strong rationale in either outlook for acting on them. An atheist is no less likely to save a drowning man than a theist, because we’re just as human as you are.

            So back to the title question: is selflessness consistent with atheistic Darwinism? If you understand “atheistic Darwinism” to mean “acceptance that evolutionary theory is an accurate description of the processes by which species change over time, coupled with a lack of belief in the existence of gods,” then you bet your ass it’s compatible!

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