Copyright © 1992 by Kevin Sharpe. All rights reserved. Biology and Philosophy 7 (1992): 77-88.

Biology Intersects Religion and Morality


Kevin J. Sharpe

ABSTRACT. Michael Ruseís writings explore what sociobiology says about morality. Further, he claims that sociobiology undermines the base for Christian morality. After responding to criticisms of Ruse, especially those of Arthur Peacocke, I lay a base for meeting his challenge.

KEY WORDS. Michael Ruse, Arthur Peacocke, science and religion, sociobiology, morality, reductionism, theology


Altruism and Epigenetic Rules. 1

The Love Command and the Ground for Morality. 2

The Relationship between Science and Religion. 3

Genes and Culture: Sociobiology and Reductionism.. 3

Being a Christian, and Being a Theologian. 4

Morality is Human. 5

Conclusion. 5

References. 5

Human sociobiology is a new and controversial field which takes evolutionary theory beyond the biological into the social. By claiming there is a biological basis for morality, it confronts many theological claims. Michael Ruse champions such confrontations. For instance, he argues that evolutionary biology and Christian morality are incompatible (Ruse 1989). The points he makes are important for they challenge key ideas in most theologies. Similarly, they challenge the ideas of many believers.

Altruism and Epigenetic Rules

Ruse first sets the sociobiological stage. The human mind contains various dispositions. They are innate and Ďhave proven their worth in the past struggles of proto-humansí (1989, p. 260). These dispositions (called epigenetic rules) guide people into thoughts and actions that will insure human survival.

Epigenetic rules are powerful as an explanation − their existence is a key feature of the theory. By connecting altruism to Ďaltruism,í morality to biology, they say why people morally justify behaviors. Moral reasoning comes from genes to make humans behave Ďaltruistically.í The rules also provide the enforcement power behind Ďaltruismí; humans must behave as biology dictates. However, while epigenetic rules are important to the theory, little evidence appears for their existence (see Irons 1989 for recent research).

The Love Command and the Ground for Morality

ĎMorality is a biological adaptation,í says Ruse (1989, p. 262). People are aware of morality, a sense of what is right and what is wrong. They also feel obliged to do what is right. Both senses exist because both have biological worth.

He distinguishes two interpretations of the command, a weak and a strong form. The latter is Ďto love everyone: family, friend, nodding acquaintance, and enemyí (Ruse 1989, p. 265). Further, people must forgive their enemies Ďvirtually without limit.í

Further, the strong love command acts against survival. The biological urge to retaliate, for example, undermines turning the other cheek without limit. Rather, biology encourages frustration at abuse − humans by nature seek to counter mistreatment near its onset.

Ruse provides a further insight into morality. Humans need to believe that morality is objectively true for it to work. This is why biology deceives people into thinking moral claims are objective. Ruse is saying that biology with its epigenetic rules has made humans behave Ďaltruisticallyí by supplying feelings of altruism. It empowers these feelings, at least for Christians if not others, by providing the belief that morality refers to something absolute, objective and independent. Christians feel this absolute, moral other as a force with which to reckon, and so follow its moral dictates.

The prescription to go from Ďcaní to Ďoughtí can only be justified by the method of moral reasoning. Here scientific reasoning has no task. Of course, scientific reasoning can explain why some person in given circumstances in fact goes from Ďcaní to Ďought,í but only moral reasoning is competent to justify the prescription that somebody ought to do what [they are] able to. . . .But that does not mean that the scientific approach is of less worth than the moral one. Both of them operate in a different realm, and as such have their own worth. . . .I conclude that there exists no need to make a choice between the scientific approach (evolution) and the moral one (ethics) in the reflecting on morality; neither of them can replace the other (1988, p. 86).

Arthur Peacocke responds to sociobiology by saying that it

has a limited range and needs to be incorporated into a larger theistic framework that has been constructed in response to questions of the kind, Why is there anything at all? and What kind of universe must it be if insentient matter can evolve naturally into self-conscious, thinking persons? and What is the meaning of personal life in such a cosmos? (1986, p. 111).

The Relationship between Science and Religion

Unfortunately for Manenschijn and Peacocke, there is a heavy price to pay for their separating science from religion. This calls for a discussion on the relationship between religion and science.

In general, Peacocke places science and religion on different levels. This avoids the possible reduction of religion to science, or morality to sociobiology. There are potential problems with this stance, however.

In Western thought the distinction between the subjective and objective reflects the science and religion conflict. The positivist extreme assigns science to the objective, theology to the subjective, and denounces the latter as meaningless. Theologians respond with an insistence that theology has a world of meaning − a world different from that of science. For theologians to assign different worlds of meaning to science and theology, while not emphasizing the connections between them, is to give into positivism. They make religion irrelevant to scientific culture (Sharpe 1984). Their theology is not part of a life based on modern technology. Further, they leave science and technology without moral direction. They also mock religionís claims that it deals with all aspects of existence, not just with the meaning of life. In effect, theologians lose religion in their attempt to save it.

To deal with these problems, Peacocke could look at the epistemological relationship between the levels, or between the different domains. Are the levels exclusive or interacting? If exclusive, then positivism with its dangers holds sway. If they are interacting, do they in fact interact? Do they interact both ways, or does one include the other? Further, do the laws operating on a particular level affect the lower levels? The answer to the last question should not be speculative, but a genuine demonstration. A level will probably experience a new property emerging at higher levels as a break in what it would expect to happen. Does this occur? The higher-level laws must have a noticeable effect on the lower levels. In particular, theology must have a noticeable effect on the sciences. If not, then the level theory comes unstuck.

Paul Daviesís book, The Cosmic Blueprint (1987), approaches science and religion constructively. It also uses the levels idea. In addition to lower-level laws, Davies thinks there are organizing principles which explain the development of natural systems into more complex states. While no one has yet discovered the principles, Davies can say something about them. For instance, they do not have to refer only to lower levels; they may start to operate as nature reaches new levels of complexity. One could say they Ďharness the existing interparticle forces, rather than supplementing themí (p. 143). In doing this they holistically change the collective behavior. Thus downward causation (a higher level affecting a lower level) accords with laws of the lower levels. Moreover, the explanation of what causes an event may not be the same for all levels. Without conflict between the levels, Ďcausation can operate simultaneously at different levels, and between levelsí (p. 192).

Genes and Culture: Sociobiology and Reductionism

Peacockeís main concern with sociobiology is that it is reductionist. This is the focus of the first two points he makes against it in God and the New Biology (1986, pp. 66-71; see also Chap. 8). Like his other complaints against sociobiology, they too have adequate answers.

Peacocke raises the relation between genes and culture. There must be room in sociobiology, Peacocke believes, for the genuinely emergent properties of social behavior. Genes have their basic place. Built on this is culture − which has more say in explaining how people behave.

A problem is Peacockeís image of a dividing line between biology and culture. He seems to think that all below some level is biological, all above is cultural. Reductionism to him is when that level is at the top of culture. There is, however, no clear-cut dividing line. For instance, the epigenetic rules which people feel are cultural are in fact biological mechanisms. It is not a matter of culture above a certain point; rather, the genetic and the cultural are inseparable.

These points have answers. The response to the first comes from the theory of epigenetic rules. The rational bases chosen to justify an ethical code could be the product of epigenetic rules whose function is to lead to Ďaltruisticí behavior. The second point concerns participation from culture. Ruseís writing style confronts and is up front, and it may appear that he completely rules out the chance of cultural contributions to behavior. This is not so. Thus he could say that reflections on behavior are mostly social. The third objection challenges Ruse to respond to the differences in ethical codes. In particular, it asks how he might explain the opposition between the strong love command and biology. Ruse says that an ethical code such as the strong love command is inadequate where it counters biology. It needs replacing. Thus he does not think of a morality as mechanically produced by biology. Cultures add to and change the basic biological norms, even making the resulting morals oppose their original function.

Being a Christian, and Being a Theologian

There are reasons for abandoning a traditional objective base for morality besides Ruseís challenge. They include the existence of evil, the relativity of moral claims, and the moral performance of Christians. The difficulties in putting an idealized moral code into practice also poses problems.

Ruse is asking, in part, how one can be a Christian while acknowledging no independent, objective, unchanging moral code. This is possible. To be a Christian is to follow (the teachings and example of) Jesus Christ. This is not a blind adherence to the words of the Gospels and Epistles, but an informed opinion of their meaning. To be a Christian is also to belong to a Christian community. While some such communities require a literal adherence to doctrines and symbols, others do not. Some are wrestling with their inherited beliefs and symbols and are changing − slowly. There may come a point when a Christian community asks an individual to leave because it rejects his or her beliefs and conclusions. But there is no border fixed between the acceptable and heresy. Further, new communities continue to emerge.

Traditional theologians may not listen to Ruse or, if they do, have little interest in responding. If they did Ruse would probably find it easy to rebuff them − and enjoy it! Ruse has more difficulty with responses which accept and build on his challenge from theologians who see their discipline as construction. Such people expose theology to re-evaluation and reconstruction. They try to be honest not only to tradition, but also to current experiences, questions, and problems (e.g., Kaufman 1979; and McFague 1982). Constructive theologians want to work with Ruse more than Ruse may wish. Instead of defending traditional Christianity, they would create a theological scheme taking note of what sociobiology has to say.

Morality is Human

One starting point for understanding God is that God is amoral. Morality has nothing to do with God; it has only to do with, and comes from, human beings. Nothing forces morals on people from outside their biological being. There is no pressure from some Ďabsolute otherí to behave in a certain way. People are to discover or work out their morality according to their natures, to discern the good parts from the bad.

A problem with morality being human is that it could lose its power. Ruse says there are biological reasons for people feeling (deceptively) that morals have an objective claim over them. Unless they Ďthink morality is objectively true − a function of something outside of and higher than [them] − it would not workí (1989, p. 268; see also Sharpe 1984). Sometimes Ďaltruismí needs a push to counter selfish feelings − this comes from a feeling of obligation. Our genes make us objectify morality so it will work. Thus, by breaking the belief in the outside objectivity of Christian morality, Ruse takes away its power. He offers nothing in its place.

Ruse would probably suggest using sociobiology. Yet while sociobiology may help in working out a morality, it does not provide a morality broad enough to apply in most circumstances. Neither does it make the choice between competing biological inclinations. Human beings are social animals as well as biological. Theoretically, therefore, a culture will build a morality from the base which is the scientific findings of sociobiology.

There are two possible sources for its strength: the power of science and the power of religious traditions. Together science and religion have the power the objective God used to have.


Ruseís case against the basis for Christian morality is serious. Science once more has a strong hand against traditional Christianity. Once more the religious tradition adjusts to keep in touch with and appropriate to this continuously changing world. The call is not to defend the tradition to the last − it will continue to dissolve with the inevitable growth of science.


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