Wednesday, June 15, 2005

On morality

As everyone knows, the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 caused widespread controversy. Although Darwin had left humans out of Origin, he did suggest briefly in the book's conclusion that "Much light will be thrown on the origin of Man and his history." The publication of his more explicit Descent of Man in 1871 renewed public debate.

More was apparently at stake than mere science. The Times of London put it succinctly: "If our humanity be merely the natural product of the modified faculties of the brutes, most earnest-minded men will be compelled to give up those motives by which they have attempted to live noble and virtuous lives, as founded on a mistake."

The Times was correct that men and women of enlightened scientific learning might question their previous motives for goodness -- anticipation of the rewards of heaven or fear of hell -- but the paper was wrong in believing that only churchgoing Christians might chose to lead noble and virtuous lives. It was churchgoing Christians, after all, who initiated and sustained the African slave trade, the greatest moral abomination of Darwin's century. Darwin was agnostic, yet he found ample motives for virtue, and he was firmly on the side of progressive social and political change.

The Times of London is echoed today by the likes of Tom DeLay and a host of bible-thumping televangelists, but scientific agnostics go right on living virtuous lives.