Darwin Day Revelation: Evolution, Not Religion, is the Source of Morality

As the world celebrates another Darwin Day, much of humanity still refuses to accept evolution.

Creationists pretend that their argument is with science. Their posts are littered with gems of motivated reasoning such as this: “If natural selection were true, Eskimos would have fur to keep warm, but they don’t.”

Yes, I suppose if the ancestors of the Inuit had gone naked they might have eventually evolved fur, or more likely perished. But they weren’t idiots, so they went clothed in furs. That’s not to say their adaptations to the harsh Arctic climate were entirely cultural. The Inuit face shows evidence of natural selection at work: high, plump cheeks and thick eyelids that function to protect the eyes from icy winds and glare.

Arguments over evolution have little to do with science. While creationists rehash fossil gaps, ignoring abundant new fossil evidence that supports Darwin’s theory, genetics has roared on by, furnishing us with a detailed phylogenetic wheel of life.


Science has demonstrated that genes can move from species to species. Scientists have observed natural selection at work and the dawn of new species.

If evolution is so settled (and it is), why the continual fracas? For an answer, we turn to Darwin’s beloved geology professor, Adam Sedgwick of Cambridge University. On reading Origin of Species, Sedgwick, a devout Christian, wrote to Darwin:

This view of nature you have stated admirably [is] admitted by all naturalists & denied by no one of common sense. … [But] Tis the crown & glory of organic science that it does … link material to moral … Were it possible (which thank God it is not) to break it, humanity in my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalize it—and sink the human race into … degradation.

There you have it: the elemental fear that belief in evolution will cause morality to collapse. That fear is predicated on a powerful assumption: that morality comes to us from God via religion. This is false. It is demonstrably false.

If religion were God’s UPS, delivering a package of moral laws to humanity, you’d expect a single, consistent set. Yet, each religion includes unique laws that outsiders find baffling or repugnant. Hinduism has its “untouchables.” Buddhism (as understood by many) spurns those born blind or otherwise disabled for bad behavior in past lives. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity each have their oddities: Judaism’s law against mixing meat and dairy, Islam’s prohibition on figurative art, and Christianity’s ritual drinking of Christ’s blood, for example.

These do not add up to clear guidelines from God. And it’s no use to argue that one religion is right and the others false, for there’s no consistent interpretation of morality—not even of central commandments such as “Thou Shalt Not Kill”—within any major religion. But perhaps God as lawgiver can be rescued if we just blame human stubbornness and stupidity.

Sorry, it won’t wash. If religion were the vehicle that delivers morality, then atheists, the disaffiliated, and those who have never heard of God’s laws should show comparatively inferior moral behavior. They don’t.

Murder stands as most heinous of immoral acts, yet we find that the countries with the lowest murder rates include those with the lowest rates of religiosity: Sweden, Japan, Britain, and the Czech Republic, to name a few. Murder rates in medieval Europe, when religion was universal, were ten times modern rates. Within the US, states that have the highest rates of religiosity also tend to have the highest murder rates.

Homicide is not an exception; this pattern holds for other crimes. Are we perhaps capturing an affluence effect? Nope. Vietnam is a poor country (per capita GDP $5,000). It is both moderately religious and murderous – but still has a lower homicide rate than the wealthier and more devout United States.

So where does morality come from? Evolution. This is as close to certain as science gets. Human universals are pretty good evidence for a start. It turns out that a prohibition on murder is found in every known culture. (Of course there are individuals—drug dealers, dictators, and fanatics, for example—who use murder as a tool of their trade, but they are the exceptions.)

Most human universals are not moral matters. Jokes, tools, and aesthetics have no inherent moral valence. That we can pick out some behaviors as morally relevant is a clue. It points to the fact that we have evolved moral instincts. At root they are empathy, disgust, and fairness.

These go beyond human universals. Experiments with Capuchin monkeys show that they have a sense of fairness. If one is offered a lesser treat than his neighbor, he screams with outrage. On the softer side, experiments show that even the lowly vole will comfort a grieving companion—something dolphins, elephants, and others are known to do.

How could such behaviors have evolved in a world of survival of the fittest? A major misconception is that evolution is strictly “nature red in tooth and claw.” Sure, competition pulses at the heart of evolution, but right alongside it beats cooperation. For proof just tap your chest: your heart is a galley of willing oarsmen who pull together for decades to give your genes a chance to get into the next generation. Cooperation is everywhere, especially in social species like ours.

So too, of course, is selfishness. The evolutionary pathway to morality, then, runs through the mutual benefits that come about when members of a group cooperate not only to care for kin, secure food, and fight off rival groups, but to suppress bad actors within the group. Put those together, and you have the beginnings of morality; love, sympathy, kindness, fidelity, and generosity are its shoots and leaves. Add to it the power of human language, abstract thought, and social contracts, and you get the rise of a civilization capable of moral progress.

Ancient religion likely advanced morals. Amid the debris of ritual commandments in the Bible and Koran are moral injunctions, such as Exodus 23:5: “If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden…thou shalt surely help with him.”

Today, however, the problem with religious morality is evident: it’s frozen in time. If morals came down the mountain with Moses or through an angel’s pen, progress makes no sense. That’s precisely the stand that ISIS and Christian Reconstructionists take.

Rejecting that stand doesn’t require one to be an atheist. Evolved morals are consistent with theistic evolution—a position held by about one-third of Americans. But surely acknowledging the evolutionary origins of morality will help us revive the concept of moral progress. Otherwise we’re stuck looking to Scripture for guidance on texting while driving.

  • Ed Pearlstein

    This reminds me of a science-fiction story about the origin of jokes. Someone observed that no one ever claims to have originated a joke (other than puns). It’s always something he heard.

    It turned out that jokes were introduced into humans by alien psychologists as a research project.

    Maybe God gave us jokes, as well as morals!

    • Mark Wynn

      Those same aliens introduced cats, to amuse, observe and study us.

  • Mark Wynn

    Clay, you always criticize Christianity by going back to the Old Testament for examples. or “fundamentalists,” or just plain wacko groups claiming to be Christians. You never acknowledge “mainstream” Christian beliefs or contributions to modern humanity. Why is that?

    • Darrin Parkin

      Becaus the Old Testament is where the foundations of Judao-Christian morality emerges. But you make a good point. I’m not sure you may be happy with a treatment of the New Testament which is in my view the culmination of the hideous beginnings of the Old Testamemt. It is way more heinous and brutal than the Old Testament. For example it isn’t until the New Testament that the horrific concept of eternal torture of the dead emerges. That’s the most vile thing humanity has seen. Completely eclipses the “milder” brutality of all the bad parts of the Old Testament. And the crowning achievement of the innate immorality of Abrahamic religion.

      • Ed Pearlstein

        : Sometimes it is said that the New Testament supersedes the Old Testament. But: “Think not that I have come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I am come not to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say to you ‘til heaven and earth pass, one jot or
        one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, ‘til all is fulfilled.” (Matt. 5:17-18). See also Galatians 3.

      • rblevy

        Right. For all the Old Testament’s faults and horrific passages, original sin is not among them. That’s strictly a New Testament “contribution”.


      • Mark Wynn

        Darrin, suggest your personal agenda may be a barrier to research and reasoning. The New Testament does not introduce “eternal torture.” In a dozen verses the New Testament states two consequences: eternal life with god … or death, destruction, obliteration. There’s no mention of eternal suffering. Might research that with verified Biblical scholars. Of course, artists of word and paint got off on other interpretations. There’s a difference between the “teachings of the Bible” and the teachings of a religion.

        • Darrin Parkin

          Hi Mark. Thanks for the comment. You might be a bit surprised at my actual agenda. I’m not coming from this in the dark without any research background. I was an evangelical pastor, prison chaplain, faith leader in my city for 20 years before de-converting and embracing humanism. I am today a humanist chaplain and spiritual care giver. So you can trust me that I know the New Testament as well as the old and I have a pretty good grasp of all of the scholarship particularly as it relates to the debate about New Testament teaching on eternal damnation as being conscious, aware, or not conscious, or annihilationism, etc.

          No matter how you do your theology around the afterlife, even the most generous softening of the doctrine of Hell leaves you with the reality of a human soul being separated from a god, from love, and from the community of all that is good. And that, my friend, is ultimate brutality, ultimate stupidity, and vile wickedness. And this horrid brutality is not mentioned at all in the entire Old Testament even amidst all its brutality. It isn’t until the N.T. That you encounter this filthy doctrine that tops anything the O.T. Has to offer. And it has a lot to offer!

    • watchemoket

      I have to disagree with you on that. The most prominent statement about Christianity in the article is this: “Judaism, Islam, and Christianity each have their oddities: Judaism’s law against mixing meat and dairy, Islam’s prohibition on figurative art, and Christianity’s ritual drinking of Christ’s blood, for example.”
      The Eucharist is hardly an ‘Old Testament’ example.

      • Mark Wynn

        A sip of altar wine is not the same as beheading non-believers. Please take care when heading down the path of relativism.

        • watchemoket

          I was responding to your statement “you always criticize Christianity by going back to the Old Testament for examples. or “fundamentalists,” or just plain wacko groups claiming to be Christians” – about which you were incorrect. The example used was clearly not from the OT, fundamentalism or “wacko groups” to which you claimed the writer limited his criticism of Christianity.
          I agree that the Eucharist is not in the same league as beheading ‘non-believers’ in the grand scheme of things.
          It is not merely “[a] sip of wine” as you state, however. The Christian doctrine of transubstantiation holds that the wine becomes Christ’s blood and the wafer becomes His flesh – not exactly a shining example of rational, evidence-based thinking, which was the focus of the article. It is a legitimate example of the differences between science-based reasoning and behavior versus those based on religious beliefs of any sect or denomination.
          If you want to get into ‘moral equivalence’ without ‘relativism’ perhaps the Inquisition, witch-hunts and persecution of heretics by many sects of Christianity through most of its history – with the support and often at the direction of Church leaders – may be closer to the abhorrent practice of beheading ‘non-believers’ by extremist ‘fundamentalist’ Muslims splinter groups.

          • Mark Wynn

            You obviously have not followed Clay’s history of articles and “Christian” examples. And yes, there’s a profound difference between observable phenomena and an article of faith. Hence, the term, faith. And finally, let me share that an irritation of mine is when, in a discussion, a person goes back in human history (as far as needed) to make an “oh yeah, well what about ….” relativist argument. That rationale fails to place actions in their times. It’s like today’s college students wanting to obliterate all references to the Founding Fathers because they held slaves. The Middle Ages was pretty barbaric. People did self-serving things in the name of religion … that are not instructed in the New Testament. On the other hand, today, people are doing things that are clearly instructed in the Koran.

      • Neither is the concept of Christianity.

    • claynaff

      In the space of a column, it’s often impossible to do justice to the spectrum of religious views. In my 2012 book Free God Now I fully acknowledge the vast difference between what I term Old Time Religion and Mainstream Religion. But even in this column I note that there’s no conflict between evolved morality and theistic evolution — a position held by many mainstream Christians.

    • Nobody knows what the hell “mainstream” Christianism is.

      Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

      He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

      He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”

      Northern Conservative†Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

      -Emo Phillips

      • Mark Wynn

        Cute joke. smh

    • cgosling

      Clay’s research includes all who claim to be Christian. “Mainstream” religion in your eyes is probably traditional Protestantism, but who gets to choose what is mainstream? You choose and write your own essay.

      • Mark Wynn

        Clay mines the internet for bizarro actions and outrageous sects and misguided individuals, that the vast majority of persons who identify as Christian have already condemned as unChristian. He likes to hold up the fringe as examples of “old tyme religion” but his points are directed at Christians in general.

  • Arjen Bootsma

    Unfortunately, the author doesn’t make the explicit step that religion is an amalgam of the codification of morals, of collective wisdom gathered by a society over the generations, of the history, of the observations of the human condition, etc. And of course the last ingredients of religion are the supernatural hocus-pocus, and the power structure for that society.

  • Mickey W

    It is not clear to me how “acknowledging the evolutionary origins of morality will help us to revive the the concept of moral progress.” I do not believe that it is necessary to accept a theistic deontological basis for morality, but Mr. Naff’s analysis is too superficially glib to be of much use in advancing ethics.

    • Clay Farris Naff

      I thought in context the point was clear enough: if one believes that morality is handed down by God, the notion of progress is moot. Of course, recognizing that such a belief is false does not guarantee that progress will occur, but, as I wrote, it helps. To be even clearer, it helps because whatever we recognize as instinctive is fair game for improvement; only the sacred (a concept I reject) is taboo. Thus, evolutionary origins validate moral reasoning, leading to, for example, acceptance of equal marriage rights for lesbians and gays.

  • westernwynde

    I find this unnecessarily complicated. Obviously, if humans invented gods, then we also invented all the directives that are supposed to come from those gods. If we could invent gods, obviously we could invent morality too.

    • Clay Farris Naff

      Perhaps we could … but the evidence, some of which I touch on above, suggests that we didn’t. Like language, morals are a product of evolution, subsequently shaped by culture.

  • RanWiz

    The point here is to reinforce the the primary concept: that the ’cause and effect’ flows from evolution to religion. Morality STARTED with evolution, causing individuals (humans and others) to have a ‘moral compass’ hard wired into evolutionary instincts that result in increased survival factors. The EFFECT was to have these memes of morality inform the early religions (and thereby later religions) with codes of ethics and morality.
    The ancients could not understand the complexity of the science of evolution, and therefore, relying on the human skill at ‘finding patterns’ (even when there are no patterns), had to secure some sort of explanation for the moral instincts they felt. Voila! Religion!

    • Nonsense. Religion was born when the first scammer met the first gullible dope.

    • Thomas Goodnow

      It seems like this explanation could be framed as a genetic fallacy: what would prevent a religious person from simply saying, “see, God used evolution to develop a moral sense within humans?”
      You certainly see it often enough, especially when origins (of anything) comes up: “here’s a mechanism, therefore the phenomenon under examination is false” (or true). Unless there’s either a complementary argument for “and that’s the ONLY reason it exists” or an independent argument showing something to be false, it seems the reasoning doesn’t hold up well.

      • Melissa H

        Religious people always go back to god when it comes to these sorts of debates… It is not possible to have an intelligent and enlightening conversation on this subject with a believer because they are incapable of taking god out of the equation. When you take god out — questions like the one above are not even a thought… that’s when the real learning and evolving of the brain happens. Evolution doesn’t just occur in a physical sense. Scientific discovery is the next step in the evolutionary process for a believer. Don’t fight it

        • chris

          Um That is because God is the foundation to the religious foundation. Without God the religious man would not be religious. Your argument is void of reason because if you truly wanted to here their side of the argument then you would want to understand how they form their beliefs. But you don’t you are a simple minded bigot. If you want to be heard you must first listen.

          *I do not claim to be a religious person. Just someone who disagrees with your logic.

          • Melissa H

            That was mean. Not sure how you could possible know that much about me from one comment on a discussion board. I am an ex-Christian and have studied many other religions as a “seeker” over the past many years. I don’t completely consider myself to be Athiest. You don’t have to agree – but you don’t have to hurt people

          • chris

            Melissa, Sorry if your feelings were hurt. I was just pointing a fallacy in your logic. and your original post isn’t the kindest towards christians either.

            I also want to point out another thing. no one is an “ex-christian” you either are or you never were. I do commend you on doing research on other religions and being a “seeker” of truth.

            I hope you have a wonderful day, and sorry again for upsetting you.

          • Stephen Bogert

            Chris, you are a very self righteous person to presume you are entitled to tell another how they may choose to define their self. By her term ‘ex christian’ she also conveys more information -her obvious intent.
            Clear to the rational mind, god is a construction of man’s mind, like hobbits and elves and werewolves. The promises of eternal heaven or hell are tools used to manipulate the ignorant masses for centuries. We should be smarter now.

          • chris

            Stephen thanks for all you do man, a real stand up guy. You’re the best!

          • RanWiz

            Simply wrong Chris – if one is a ‘Christian’ at one point, then comes to believe that Jesus was not divine, then they are no longer a ‘Christian’. That makes such a person an ‘ex-christian’. Your statement, ” you either are or you never were” implies that if you become a believer at any point that it is impossible to become a non-believer. There is no logical reason to accept that coming to belief is a one-way door through which one can not also EXIT.

          • Stephen Bogert

            hint, Learn some spelling and punctuation lest you appear an ignorant as well as a rude fool.

        • Thomas Goodnow

          I suppose if you start with the idea that atheism must be true in order for reasoning to occur, you’re correct. I have heard this derided as a sort of “atheist presuppositionalist apologetic”, sort of the converse of “if you don’t start with God, then reason can’t exist”. It does admittedly both limit dialog options and seem odd to most people, but is internally consistent.

          • Melissa H

            yes I could see that … I was just making a generalization. It is sometimes hard to debate these types of things. Being an ex-Christian I know where I stood when someone tried to challenge my beliefs… I just look at things differently now. Doesn’t mean I’m right — just the way I see it for now

      • RanWiz

        Yes Thomas… it is possible to frame any argument with the limitation that ‘God made it so, despite the evidence’ — an omnipotent god should be able to defy logic. What science has done is to limit the logical places where god can exist to those places which REQUIRE that specific argument (ie. in defiance of reason). It can never be proved that god does not exist due to this region of logic. However, god CAN be confined to this region alone.

  • K

    How did you write this without mentioning Patricia Churchyard? Really, how did that happen?

    • K

      CHURCHLAND. Sorry, autocorrect.

  • StevenJB

    Support for the theory of evolution can be found in the belief that we are created in the image of God. For if we were created in the image of God, it must be a work in progress.

  • Thomas Goodnow

    “Belief in evolution with cause morality to collapse”: if this article is true, then it could or it might not, but we would never know. On what basis would be judge morality to have collapsed?
    There are certainly many moral codes, prohibitions and exceptions, but to argue from this that morality does not exist in any substantive sense seems a confusion of epistemology and ontology. We used to not know whether the earth or the sun was at the center of the solar system: does that mean that neither is?

    The more rigorous thinkers don’t argue that, if evolution is the source of morality, that morals will collapse, but rather in an atheistic universe that there simply isn’t any basis (“grounding”) for morals. Moral relativism is the outcome, not the collapse of morals. For instance, slavery used to be widely accepted in the West, and there may come a day when it is again (though it may not be “the West” at that point). It has been widely accepted throughout history, and it’s at least somewhat challenging to disagree with Plato and Seneca and Nietzsche. So if a ballot measure arises to legalize slavery, how do you vote? From an evopsych perspective, you vote in whatever way will be advantageous for your group (or perhaps bomb the voting stations). There is no “right” or “wrong” in any of this.

    Of course, living consistently with moral relativism is effectively impossible, as Mr Naff even seems to admit (he seems to have a problem with “religious morality”, for instance). He’s obviously entitled to his opinions, of course, for as long as they’re fashionable.

    • RanWiz

      Ah, but REALLY rigorous thinkers (who do NOT have the apriori impediment of knowing that god made it go) have learned that group dynamics among social species makes certain behaviors, such as altruism, or caring for individuals to whom you are not closely related SELECTED FOR by inferring a ‘survival benefit’ to such behavior.

      Consider asocial animals such as sea turtles: no need to develop ‘caring’ due to the way these creatures live and reproduce. Note that turtle moms and turtle pops never even meet one another! There is no nurturing, not families, no tribes, and hence no cause for morals or ethics to arise.

      Primates, however, are far different (and far more like ourselves). Families become ‘tribes’ that are mostly all inter-related. Asocial behavior in an individual is punished by the group since it is bad for survival. Such behavior is also punished by evolution. The result is for a ‘basic grounding’ of morals to arise.

      I find your statement, “in an atheistic universe that there simply isn’t any basis (“grounding”) for morals.” to be an opinion without factual support. On the contrary, evolution alone can account for ‘grounding’.

      • Thomas Goodnow

        I’m not sure how you ground human value in this. Being moral is certainly a survival advantage, and I suppose you can just declare that surviving is better than not surviving, though there are a fair number of existentialists that would laugh at the naivete of this. It seems to lack any response to the folks at vhemt.org, for instance.
        It all rather misses the point, however. If being “immoral” (e.g. holding slaves) provides a survival advantage for my group, do I oppose it and become an abolitionist, or do I support it and do whatever is necessary to convince my fellows to join me? If there is good reason to think that it will actually improve the survival for my group/species, is it immoral to oppose it, or merely futile? If the latter, “morality” becomes merely a pleasant fiction we tell the unwashed masses to get them to cooperate with us, which is a bit too Orwellian for my tastes (though if true, my revulsion is merely a spandrel or mutation gone awry that’s mucked up my neurochemistry).
        There are other reasons to think that evolution is given far too heavy a load to bear in numerous other areas as well, as people like Thomas Nagel (“Mind and Cosmos”) and Terry Eagleton (“Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate”) have pointed out, but that’s another topic.

  • cgosling

    We just have to study our primate cousins to see all the emotions and values we process. How then can anyone claim morality, emotions and values came from an unseen deity law giver in the sky? Unless, of course, this deity decided to give animals a taste of what he gave humans. This is getting rediculous.

  • Peter Tim

    Lots of other very social species have “morality.” But the real question is – which evolution doesn’t explain – is why, if you can do wrong and get a benefit from it and not get caught, you still shouldn’t do it? And lots of scientific studies of cheating show that people do cheat and some conditions foster cheating more than others. Besides, Christianity doesn’t stop people doing wrong because they can just get FORGIVEN! So this article doesn’t help.