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

Blogging for Darwin, 12 February 2009

I’ll be joining a long list of science blogs in commemorating Charles Darwin’s two hundredth birthday – only 23 more shopping days left! – as part of the Blog for Darwin blogswarm. (Not sure how I feel about the word “blogswarm,” but I like the concept!) Now: what to write about. There’s a nice list of suggested topics provided, and they only scratch the surface …