29 November 2006

The Force of Moral Gravity

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 9:47 am


“Boys growing up in nineteenth-century England weren’t generally advised to seek sexual excitement.”

– Robert Wright, The Moral Animal, 1994

The Bible begins with a really great first line. While putting together the first draft of the Genesis 1 book I started getting interested in the first lines of other books. I looked at the first sentences of a bunch of books on my shelves and wrote down the ones I found particularly stimulating. Unfortunately I failed to write down the titles of the books these sentences came from. Eventually I either remembered or retrieved all of them – all, that is, except the sentence at the top of today’s post.

Yesterday I watched part of a YouTube video of Richard Dawkins responding to questions from the audience at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. I’d been thinking about Dawkins in the context of creation versus evolution, a theme that’s inescapable when dealing with Genesis 1. On his website Dawkins lists his upcoming and recent appearances. Randolph-Macon Woman’s College immediately caught my eye because it’s my wife’s alma mater. Skipping the part where Dawkins reads from his latest book, I jumped ahead to the Q&A.

This is a woman’s college we’re talking about – although finally and not without regret the school, nodding to market pressures, goes coed next year. So why are there so many college-aged young men hulking over the floor microphones? It’s because R-MWC is located in Lynchburg Virginia, the home turf of Jerry Falwell and his Liberty University. Turns out it’s mostly Liberty underdgrad guys queueing up to take their shots at the famous atheist. I’ll refrain from comment on whether I agree with Dawkins that he cleaned their clocks, or whether it would have been an impressive display of debating prowess if he did. What interested me was the fact that most of the questions had to do with morality.

Now I’d just gone a couple rounds at Open Source Theology about Dawkins’ views on morality; namely, that our selfish genes may actually promote altruistic behavior. Why, I wondered, is it important to dismiss this idea as scientistic hogwash? Certainly we’re instinctively predisposed to protect our children and kinfolk: being genetically similar to us, they’re able to perpetuate our genetic legacy into the next generation. Certainly we’re instinctively predisposed to cooperate with our neighbors: if we don’t they might retaliate; if we do they might reciprocate when we’re in need. Certainly we’re instinctively predisposed to empathize: we’re able to learn from others because we’re able to see ourselves in the other’s shoes, pursuing the same goals in the world as they do. If evangelicals are going to take on Dawkins they’d better bring their “A game,” and denying the adaptive advantages of cooperation just isn’t going to cut it.

In any event, I can’t remember whether Dawkins specifically cited Robert Wright’s book or whether I was just reminded of it by the discussion. Wright offers an excellent discussion of the evolutionary underpinnings of morality. So I pulled it down from the shelf, opened to the beginning – and there it is, that first line I’d been looking for! I expected the writer to have been English, so I never thought about Wright as the source. On the frontispiece Wright quotes a passage from The Power and the Glory, which was written by an Englishman and the first sentence of which likewise appears in my compilation of notable first lines.

And what, you ask, does this first sentence about English boys have to do with the evolution of morality? Wright begins his book by establishing the sociocultural context in which Charles Darwin grew up: a pre-Victorian era of prudery invoked by a newly-ascendant evangelicalism. Man is evil by nature; only the sternest measures of suppression can keep the beast at heel. I suspect that today’s evangelical hasn’t changed all that much from Darwin’s day. Today perhaps there’s a greater willingness to acknowledge forgiveness and the possibility of moral regeneration – although the Wesley boys were preaching that same gospel back in the day. But the idea that God can redeem and restore our innate moral goodness? I don’t think so.




  1. I suppose it would be relevant to add to the first line, that girls, like boys, growing up in nineteenth-century England weren’t generally advised to seek sexual excitement. I know that the same would be said for RMWC women during the 20th century…

    Now what are the implications of that for the morality and evolution?


    Comment by blueVicar — 29 November 2006 @ 9:37 pm

  2. Evolution-wise there’s no reason to encourage boys to seek sexual excitement ’cause their genes have already taken care of it. Males can reproduce and pass on their genes humdreds of times a year — as long as they can find enough females willing to go along with the idea, that is. Females can only “turn the trick” once a year, and for years afterwards they’re saddled with childcare. The payoff for females: hook up good breeding stock, preferably someone who’s willing to stick around to help with childrearing — or who can pay for a good nanny. The instruction at R-MWC: hold that sexual excitement in abeyance until the right gentleman caller shows up at the door. As for you, I think you could do better (winky smiley face)…


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 November 2006 @ 10:05 am

  3. Your last two lines of this post intrigued me the most, but unfortunately you didn’t expand on them….care to share more???


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 30 November 2006 @ 11:57 pm

  4. It seems to me that the post-evangelicals should wrestle with this issue. As I’ve seen in your comments, the idea of “Genesis as true myth” seems to be a way for post-evangelicals to have their cake and eat it too on the cosmogony front. What about a moral anthropology that takes into account the Imago, the Fall, and the New Man as well as natural selection’s impact on both selfishness and altruism? It’s one of the next places where Christianity ought to develop a more nuanced position in response to evolutionary science.


    Comment by ktismatics — 1 December 2006 @ 7:38 am

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