Darwin’s 200th: What evolution can teach Christianity

Today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and 150 years since he published his groundbreaking book, The Origin of Species. The Origin provided the first widely-accepted explanation for the evolution of life on Earth, and, although Darwin was wrong on some points (if only he had known about genes!), a century and a half of scientific work has shown that he was right about more.

That century and a half has not diffused the perception, especially in the United States and other highly religious countries, that acceptance of a scientific account for the history of life is antithetical to religion. As a Darwinian and a Christian, this is a topic with which I struggle, and about which I’ve written a great deal here. Although I’m not sure that science can coexist with a real belief in the supernatural, I do hold that science is both compatible with the moral questions at the heart of religion and essential to answering them.

Photo by rmcnicholas.

For Darwin’s 200th, then, I’d like to briefly present three examples of evolutionary insights that complement the Christian moral perspective. I focus on Christianity here (and elsewhere in this blog) not because I think it has an exclusive hold on the truth, but because it is the tradition in which I was raised, and the one that shapes my own moral perspective. I think the following points are easily applicable to just about any other moral system, religious or non.

Our evolutionary past shapes us today.

Christianity (and, indeed, most other religions) starts from the fundamental problem of human behavior: We do things that we know are hurtful to those around us, often because we enjoy doing them. As the apostle wrote, “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19)

The Christian tradition calls this original sin; the evolutionary perspective points to its origin in the remnants of past adaptations. We have two bones in each forearm because we evolved from ancestors with those two bones in their pectoral fins [$-a]; we may be hostile to outsiders because that parochialism helped early humans to form closer-knit societies [$-a]. Far from giving us an excuse to do whatever we feel like, these results can help us figure out how to overcome evolved behaviors that hurt others.

Christ calls us to transcend our past.

Just as it shapes our hurtful impulses, our evolutionary past has a hand in the better angels of our nature. We may care for our children and close relatives, for instance, in part because they carry many of our genes – so helping them helps our own evolutionary fitness [$-a]. Similarly, the need to live peacefully with our immediate neighbors may have shaped deep emotional aversions to murder [PDF].

In the Sermon on the Mount, though, Jesus lays out a moral model that calls us beyond what comes naturally:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder,’ … But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” (Matt. 5:21-2)


“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? (Matt. 5:43-6)

Evolutionary thinking can help us realize Christ’s call.

When we understand the deep causes of hurtful behavior, we can figure out better how to overcome them. To pick just one example: Jesus proposes a moral solution to the problem of hostility to strangers mentioned above in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) when he redefines the concept of “neighbor” to mean something bigger than “people of the same race/religion.” But how do we overcome deep-seated biases against people who don’t look like us? One new study suggests hacking the mental habits that create those biases in the first place, by making the effort to become familiar with people of other races – Caucasian volunteers trained to better differentiate between African American faces showed reduced evidence of bias against African Americans.

Like the Christian moral model, the evolutionary perspective understands that humans are imperfect – but suggests ways we can do better. This is why it pains me to hear other Christians dismiss evolutionary science out of hand (apart from my nerdy compulsions to correct factual error): Understanding evolution can help us in our ongoing struggle to live together, if only we’re open to the data science provides. The current advances in our understanding of human behavior are only possible because today’s researchers stand on the shoulders of a giant: Charles Darwin.


J.-K. Choi, S. Bowles (2007). The coevolution of parochial altruism and war Science, 318 (5850), 636-40 DOI: 10.1126/science.1144237

K. Foster, T. Wenseleers, F. Ratnieks (2006). Kin selection is the key to altruism Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 21 (2), 57-60 DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2005.11.020

J.D. Greene (2001). An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment Science, 293 (5537), 2105-8 DOI: 10.1126/science.1062872

S. Lebrecht, L.J. Pierce, M.J. Tarr, J.W. Tanaka (2009). Perceptual other-race training reduces implicit racial bias PLoS ONE, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004215

T. Lewens. (2007). Darwin. New York: Routledge. Amazon.com.

M. Ruse. (2000). Can a Darwinian be a Christian? Cambridge University Press. Amazon.com.

N.H. Shubin, E.B. Daeschler, F.A. Jenkins (2006). The pectoral fin of Tiktaalik roseae and the origin of the tetrapod limb Nature, 440 (7085), 764-71 DOI: 10.1038/nature04637

8 thoughts on “Darwin’s 200th: What evolution can teach Christianity

  1. I must disagree entirely.
    With new information we have two options: cling to the old ideas, try to modify them until they have a logical juxtaposition in present day with this new information… OR..throw them away.
    I mean comparing evolutionary adaptations to original sin? Don’t you think that’s a stretch?
    However, I do greatly appreciate your thinking mind! Many creationists simply ignore evidence.
    Happy Darwin Day!

  2. I’ve seen this see-saw thinking in other scientific minds bogged down in religion. There are moments of lucid thinking and rational statements and then pow! back to Christ said, or the Bible said and it just knocks my socks off to see such a lurch into delusion. You can’t be both scientist and religionist and make sense. Oh, you can be a very good scientist because you understand how to do so, but when you try and explain religion in terms of science or science in terms of religion or explain things you don’t know as god, you’re a few synapses short of a full deck. There is no God of the Gaps, only things we don’t yet know.

    I think over time you will come to be a scientist in the true meaning because you show evidence of questioning what has been taught to you as gospel when in fact there is no evidence to support the things they tell you.

    I stumbled here. It was an interesting post. Thanks.

  3. JamesMc and panet –
    Thanks for stopping by to comment! I don’t know how comforting it would be to either of you, but most of the Christians with whom I grew up would probably get the same sense of whiplash reading this post. Hell, I do myself, thinking about these kinds of questions.

    As I’ve tried to hint here, and say more directly elsewhere on D&T, I’m prepared to abandon the supernatural claims of traditional Christianity – but I think that dropping the moral claims along with them is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Thomas Jefferson was on to something. I’m a scientist, and opposed to “god of the gaps” thinking on the simple ground that it’s bad philosophy. But a complete naturalistic explanation for human existence, I think, would still not tell me anything about how humans ought to behave toward each other – that question just isn’t empirical.

    Fortunately, humans have been thinking about morality, questions of right and wrong, for as long as we’ve had the capacity – and, for better or for worse, a lot of that thinking is in the idiom of religion. I find, in the life and teachings of Jesus, a moral framework that is valuable for me – and I do think that, if more people lived the Sermon on the Mount (me included), the world would be a better place.

  4. I’m not convinced those first two commenters read your post. I’m not a Christian (I was raised one, though), and I read your post thinking how thoughtful it was and how much sense it made. It makes me happy when people demonstrate the ease with which two seemingly (but not really) contradictory ideas can coexist. Our morality is something that we have evolved—an adaptation that must help us in some way—and I like your ideas about evolutionary theory showing us why we aren’t as good as we’d like to be, and also showing us that we can do better.

  5. Jennifer,

    Well, those first reactions aren’t out of line with responses I’ve had on D&T before. Seeing them, it occurred to me for the first time that this may be because I’m better-connected to the science side of the science/religion schism (via Blog for Darwin and Research Blogging), but often write with a religious audience in mind. May be time for some re-consideration of my focus and tone.

    That said, I’m very glad you liked the post – thanks for the good word!

  6. God is the one that created Adam. The supporting verse is Genesis 1:27, “God created man in his own image”.
    Man was formed directly by God by means of using dust from the ground instead of transforming from ape to man. The supporting verse is: Genesis 2:7, “..the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, & breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; & man became a soul.”
    Woman was formed by means of using a rib from Adam: Genesis 2:21-22, “And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, & he slept: & he took one of his ribs, & closed up the flesh…And the ribs, which the Lord God had taken from made, made he a woman”.
    From the biblical verses above, Darwin’s theory on evolution could not stand.

  7. Jonathan CHM – Since you’re not interested in addressing the substance of the post, perhaps you can tell me why you prefer the second Genesis account of the Creation of human beings (Gen 2:4-25) to the first one (Gen 1:1-2:3)? I trust it isn’t because the first account has men and women created simultaneously, as coequal images of God.

  8. Hi Jeremy. It is nice find other christian-evolutionists. I’m biologist too, and although not a mennonite, I consider myself to be a christian pacifist.

    Nice post, and I hope to keep reading your blog.

    Saludos desde Colombia

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