Sociobiology and Evil:

Ultimate Reality and Meaning Through Biology


Kevin Sharpe

ABSTRACT. This essay looks at evil in the Christian context, using insights from sociobiology.

Ultimate Reality contains, does, begins or creates the potential for moral and natural evil and suffering. Yet, from an orthodox point of view, God is all-good and all-powerful. Despite pleas for release from suffering, God often does nothing to stop it. Theology tries to relieve the problem by emphasizing such ideas as free will and the mystery of God. Yet the problem persists.

Sociobiology provides insight into the problem of evil, first by suggesting that Ultimate Reality may not have the morality to which humans aspire. Ultimate Reality may not even have a morality at all. It is therefore inappropriate to think Ultimate Reality should abide by the highest human sense of love and justice. Second, sociobiology explains why humans plea for help from Ultimate Reality and are angry at Ultimate Reality if the suffering continues. Both the human understanding of Ultimate Reality and the pleading to Ultimate Reality are biological at root.

KEY WORDS: altruism, evil, God, morality, Arthur Peacocke, Michael Ruse, sociobiology, suffering, theodicy



From the Christian perspective, there are two types of evil. Humans sin when they do wrong. This is a type of moral evil. The other sort is natural evil, when suffering and destruction happen through natural agencies, and humans are not responsible. All people experience both types of evil. We all feel pain, injustice, suffering, a sense of helplessness, and each of us does wrong whether we intend to or not.

Suffering and evil raise two problems in Christian theology. One has to do with morality, the principles of right and wrong conduct: theology wants to know why humans do wrong and it frequently interprets the fall of Adam and Eve to find an answer. The other problem has to do with God: why the almighty God allows evil and suffering to happen. John Hick states the latter question well. `If God is perfectly loving, God must wish to abolish all evil; and if God is all-powerful, God must be able to abolish all evil. But evil exists; therefore God cannot be both omnipotent and perfectly loving' (Hick, 1983, pp. 40-41; see also his 1978, p. 5). Theodicy is the name theologians give to this topic.

Theodicy is more than academic. Humans dislike suffering, so Christians think it cannot be part of God and the good life on the other side of the grave. They believe God must have their sense of justice and of right and wrong. God has to hate the suffering too and have something better in mind. They think this but add that God's sense is within a scheme or plan beyond their understanding.

There are many traditional and other efforts to soften the question of theodicy. Theology often brings free-will in to help, for instance. Theodicy persists. Why does God allow evil and suffering? Why does God cause them? Theology cannot give a satisfactory answer to these questions. Probably no proposals will satisfy the askers. It is like trying to comfort a parent who has lost a child. There is no soothing answer because grief and pain lie under the questioning. Acts may help more than answers. Similarly, theodicy has to do with very deep human passions. Forces lie under the questioning of God to make all answers unsatisfying; other approaches to the human dilemma than answering questions may offer more help. Remember Job.

This essay explores these issues using human sociobiology as a source of ideas. Sociobiology is a new field that takes the application of evolutionary theory beyond the biological into the social. Theologians have paid little attention to the light it might shed on their problems. If they have noticed it at all, they have focused on its status as a science. I will not try to justify sociobiology. Rather, I assume I can build on it and look at what it might say to theodicy. (In Sharpe, 1992, I discuss why theologians should not ignore sociobiology. Parts of the next three sections are elaborated further in Sharpe, 1991; 1992; and In Press. See also Ruse, 1989. Note also Hefner's [e.g., 1991] and others' parallel discussions on sociobiology and original sin.)


Built into the human mind are various patterns or rules by which it works. The sociobiologists Charles Lumsden and E. O. Wilson call them epigenetic rules. Information comes into the mind from the outside plus from internal emotions, and the rules process this. They come in two types. Primary epigenetic rules treat raw emotional and sense data. Secondary epigenetic rules assemble inner mental processes, including conscious and deliberate decision making and the placing of values. Epigenetic rules guide people into thoughts and actions that insure human survival. Genes encode them because they have proved so worthwhile in the struggles of our human and prehuman ancestors (Irons, 1991; Lumsden and Wilson, 1981; 1983; and Ruse, 1989).

Sociobiologists can only assume the existence of epigenetic rules, despite their importance to the theory. Obviously more evidence for their reality and functioning is necessary. In the meantime I too assume their existence (Lumsden, 1988; and MacDonald, 1988).

A second aspect of sociobiology has to do with reproductive success. For evolution, people are successful when they pass their genes to the next generation. One way to achieve this is through cooperative behavior called biological `altruism.' `Altruistic' behavior enhances genetic success at risk or cost to oneself. For example, parents promote their children's success when they have a small family and provide an expensive education, rather than have many children. They are behaving `altruistically.' People also practice `reciprocal altruism' when they do something to help the reproductive success of others. Their reward is that someone sometime may help them more.

Further, humans have altruistic feelings that pressure them to behave `altruistically.' (Note the absence of quotation marks for the normal, non-biological sense of altruism.) These feelings come through epigenetic rules and counter the selfish tendencies that biology has also produced. To encourage humans to behave `altruistically,' genes help to guide feelings and moral reasoning. The rules give morality the feeling of objective truth and thus help promote `altruism.'

While humans feel pressure to behave as biology desires, it does not force them blindly to behave in particular ways. Sociobiology does not dismiss the role culture has in influencing human moral behavior, though it does make biology the key player. Morality is not only a biological adaptation. A society's moral system is a cultural construct, based on biological requirements. The culture determines what is good and what is bad by comparing various epigenetic rules. Culture slowly builds, sorts, and develops the genetic impulses or epigenetic rules into a morality; it has to do this whenever it changes radically. Individual choice has a role too (Sharpe, In Press).

There are three topics concerning evil and theodicy to discuss in the light of sociobiology. I first outline the philosopher Michael Ruse's comparison of Christian morality with that from biology. Then, continuing down Ruse's path, I ask if God need be or is moral. Third, I look at the origin of the passion over theodicy and why it matters so much.


Ruse reflects on sociobiology and religion in many of his publications. Religion does not fare well. Take its understanding of altruism, for instance. `Real Christian practice,' according to Ruse, centers on the commandment `Love your neighbor as yourself' (Ruse, 1989, p. 258). He isolates two interpretations of the command, a weak and a strong form. The latter is `to love everyone: family, friend, nodding acquaintance, and enemy.' Further, people must forgive their enemies `virtually without limit' (Ruse, 1989, p. 265). This is what Christians aspire to, he believes.

The evolutionist differs with the Christian over the importance of this command, Ruse continues. Biological theory and empirical research suggest altruism would exist toward other members of the same kin (people want their relatives to reproduce). It also could exist toward those with whom they could exchange help (`reciprocal altruism'). However, a person feels less responsible for another the less related they are. This contradicts the strong love command, even as an ideal toward which to strive. Thus, while the love command and biology agree on a level of altruism, Ruse concludes that they disagree on strong forms.

Even worse, Ruse points out, the strong love command acts against survival. The biological urge to retaliate, for example, undermines turning the other cheek without limit. Biology encourages frustration at abuse and humans by nature seek to counter it shortly after it starts.

Ruse thinks there are good reasons for adopting the evolutionist's position and not the Christian. For example, a moral dictate must by itself appeal or make sense to people, noting their cultural context, if they are to accept it. Biological morality is also closer to usual practices and instincts than is the strong love command. In fact, responsible people would not allow someone else to sin against them 490 times. Ruse feels uncomfortable with a god who requires morally strange behavior (Ruse, 1989, p. 267).

The use Ruse makes of sociobiologysthough he overstates his casesstarts to question Christian morality and the morality of God. This is because Christians assume the strong love command comes from God and is at the heart of God's own morality. Further, the problem of evil in part arises from Christians thinking God is all-loving. By questioning this all-lovingness, Ruse's use of sociobiology addresses theodicy. (Note that `altruism' is a more restricted term than Christian altruism, and that it is altruism as the strong love command that Ruse cannot accept. For further discussion on altruism and sociobiology, see Sharpe, 1992; and In Press).


Ruse moves beyond all love commands to the heart of this objection to Christianity. He believes he can call all forms of Christian altruism into question. The argument he presents helps us understand God's morality and leads further into the problem of evil.

Ruse's interest lies in the foundation of ethics. For a morality to work, he thinks it should feel natural. It also must have power over its followers; they need to feel it is the right way to behave. Certain epigenetic rules help provide this feeling, but there are others that oppose them and they too have this power. The morality therefore needs additional power for people to follow it. Ruse says this comes from a natural process in which believers project the morality onto their gods. Then they read it off the gods as something to obey. This is what happens when Christians think God is all powerful, all loving, and so on.

Culture plays a part in deciding what believers project onto their god, what onto the god's dark shadow, and what they are not to make divine. Different religions project different qualities onto their sacred beings. Even so, the group of qualities a religion reads off as ideal for humans should promote `altruism' in its own way.

In particular, for Christian morality to work Ruse thinks Christians have to believe in an objective moral code that is true. They must see it as independent, coming from something higher than and outside of themselves. It cannot change or vary with human circumstances. Believers will then feel this absolute, moral other as a force on them and so follow its moral dictates (Ruse 1989, p. 268; see also Sharpe, 1984).


This essay continues to focus on Christians and their God, and it supposes Ruse is correct about them projecting altruism onto God. This helps them be `altruistic.' What results from seeing that morality develops in response to biological needs? Ruse maintains that it undermines morality's traditional support, the belief that it originally came from God (see also Wilson, 1978, p. 3; and Sharpe, In Press). The issue goes even further. What does it mean for theology that God's morality is a projection necessary for human survival? What does this mean for the moral nature of God? This is the direction I follow here.

5.1. For Ruse it means there really is no God. I think, however, that the response need not be this extreme. The consequences of sociobiology that Ruse develops only suggest morality is at root biological. Ruse adds that Christians project their morality onto God to read it off as objectively right. While these ideas do fit with atheism, they also fit with belief in God. (I should add that, in exploring alternatives, ideas about God can only come in response to the world we observe and not to a supernatural realm. Otherwise the atheist and the believer will talk past each other.)

One could make a sociobiological case for atheism, saying that the idea of God arose in the evolutionary history of humanity. It had a use, and may still do so, but need not have a referent. To counter this and argue for the existence of God is not something I attempt here. It is an extensive task. Rather, I suggest that the existence of God is an assumption one might make, and explore the matter from there. This does not prejudge what God is like. It is one thing to say God exists; it is another to say what God exists. This essay attempts a portion of the latter by looking at the moral nature of God.

5.2. Having assumed that God exists, I want to ask about morality and God. Does God have a morality or not? Suppose that God does, whether or not Christians project their own onto God. Biological arguments expose two problems with this position.

For the first point, consider why one would want to say God has a morality. The strongest argument for this is that humans are moral beings. Suppose God is the world's creator and sustainer, and evolution is the way God creates life. The process of evolution will bring out God's qualities, including being moral, because this is God at work. The fingers and intentions of the potter feature on the finished pot.

On the other hand, theologians do not say God has a digestive tract because humans do. The genetic survival pressures that produce human moralities, therefore, need not automatically reflect God's being moral. The theologian who thinks otherwise must say how and why only certain evolved features of the human being reflect God's nature. This may not be possible without assuming a dualism that safely seals God's work from science.

Second, suppose God does have a morality and that the creation reflects this. Since God produced all species, they will all somehow show God's morality. The way they behave should reflect God's moral nature. This does not appear when examining the natural world because different species portray different moralities. Cannibalism (the praying mantis) and incest among many species, for instance, differ from human ideals. Rather, each species evolved a morality for its own social and biological needs (see also Hefner, 1984, p. 187, following the thought of Kummer). Theologians who think otherwise must show how God works to produce a special God-based morality for humans beyond that which evolved naturally. They also must show how evolution, God at work, thwarts God's morality in nonhuman species. It may not be possible to do this in a reasonable way and without resorting to a ridiculous divinity.

These two points suggest God does not have a morality.

5.3. The alternative remaining is to assume God exists, without prejudging what God is like morally. It may even not be proper to project a human characteristic such as morality onto God. Since moralitysnot only the content of moralityscomes from biological evolution, why should God have one? To assume the opposite is to make God perhaps too much like a product of evolution and perhaps too much like a human. It may make more sense to think of God as not having a morality let alone having the highest Christians can conceive. God then is amoral.

That God is amoral affects theodicy, the attempt to understand why God contains or does or allows the evil and suffering of the world. One of the assumptions of theodicy is that God has the morality to which Christians aspire. It assumes God loves people in the same way ideal parents love their children. A person who really loves someone else fervently wants to shield them from evil and suffering if possible, especially from extreme cases. That motives like this do not apply to divinities reduces the force of the problem of evil.

The above argument, if it has any merit, is a challenge to theologians. They cannot start with God's being moral. If they think otherwise and want to defend God's having the highest Christian morality, they need to make a case for it. Such a defense may not gain support from the natural world, but if it does appeal to God's interaction with natural phenomena, it needs to make empirical sense.


The challenge to God's moral nature comes from biology-based sociobiology. I also mentioned that culture plays an essential role in transforming biological `altruism' into altruistic behavior. Does the challenge fade or disappear when we take culture into account? Several scholarssincluding Donald Campbell and Ralph Wendell Burhoesthink altruism so transcends `altruism' as to leave it behind. They stress sociocultural evolution over biological evolution.

Campbell does support sociobiology. Only he thinks it has a more limited role in the rise of human culture than extreme sociobiologists suppose. This is because he believes nature tends not to select `altruistic' tendencies that put an individual at risk. It is more likely to choose those from which the individual selfishly gains. This places limits on genetic evolution and on the development of altruism from `altruism.' Instead, Campbell suggests sociocultural evolution caused the altruism essential for contemporary urban civilization. Only it could overcome the selfish tendencies coming from the genes. Religions, he adds, have a major role in this evolution (Campbell, 1976).

Burhoe's approach to sociobiology similarly says `altruism' can only go so far. It may help explain altruism within a kin group, but it does not explain altruism to those of a different kin. Continuing from where Campbell leaves off, Burhoe says religion is responsible for altruism. He sees societies as shaped by culture-types, packets of information (including religion and language) passed down socially. One could think of them as non-biological cultural genes, what Richard Dawkins calls memes (Dawkins, 1976). Religion arose, Burhoe says, to promote the altruism essential for the development and sustaining of society. Its function is to remember and culturally pass on the society's long-range values and goals. Natural selection works on a religion to remove parts not to the society's advantage, and makes religious and genetic goals come to depend on each other. The two types of genes are independent but in harmony (Burhoe, 1981, pp. 17-21).

Though it stresses sociocultural over biological evolution, Burhoe's theory still leads to God's amorality. Altruism has to do with survival, both a society's survival and an individual's genetic survival. A religion portrays God as the source of altruism and thus instills it in the members of its society. This is the function of God, to parallel Ruse's argument, and morality need have no reference beyond this.

Neither does this conclusion depend on the relation of God to natural selection. Burhoe equates the two and thus his God favors altruism. Others suggest natural selection is a mechanism God uses to forge human beings and society. That this God-created and God-used mechanism chooses altruism, does not make it an inherent part of God. It only means altruism helps the end users, humans and their societies, and not that God has a higher value in mind. It only means what is best for the survival of societies and the individual's genes.

A sociocultural approach still leads to God's being amoral.


Sociobiology helps diffuse the problem of evil. The way developed above is that it is not part of God's nature to have a morality. Of course there are other resources to help with theodicy. Traditionally, Christian theology blames suffering and evil on Satan and believes God abhors them more than humans do. God has relieved this condition of the fallen world by atonement through Jesus' sacrifice. God also will relieve it in the last judgment and in heaven after death.

No answer will fully satisfy the pain and anger. Humans feel overwhelmed by the suffering and evil. It is natural, therefore, to ask about God's responsibility for them. Like Job, Christians continue their cry to the heavens, believing God has the same morality and sense of justice to which they aspire. They also believe God has the power to do anything. If God really loves people, God would not let all this misery happen. So they hold God responsible for evil and suffering. Other questions pale in comparison. Despite all the wisdom poured into theodicy, the questioning persists.

Why? This driving desire needs exploring. Why do Christians have these strong feelings and fervent questions of God?

Biology is responsible. First, they suffer because they are biological beings. They have evolved to give suffering and evil the weight they do. Biology encourages them to want a world free from these negativessthey want this for their survival. Second, biology promotes their belief in a caring power beyond the world. The trumpet call of this power is to a morality in tune with what genetic survival needs. The Christian God is all-loving because that is part of the morality biology prods Christians to project onto God.

For the sake of survival, biology has Christians cry out for release from suffering and evil. It also shepherds them to create an all-loving, all-powerful God. The problem of evil, therefore, comes from these two tactics biological evolution has instilled in them. The force and persistence of their crying out to God in the face of evil and suffering directly reflects human survival. It is the strongest drive in humans.

Biology works in similar ways on people from non-Christian traditions. Note also that this explanation from sociobiology does not remove the crying out. It only says why people feel this way. It does justice, however, to the human experience because it grasps the roots of being human. People feel very strongly about these negative experiences. That is why they keep asking the questions. Sociobiology accepts these strong feelings and makes sense of them: they give power to morality. Their roots are in the human genetic makeup expressed through epigenetic rules. Behind the strength of an individual's feelings is the survival of her or his genes and, finally, human survival.

Sociobiology not only helps answer the problem of evil, it also says why humans ask it.


To look at how theology might respond to sociobiology's insights on theodicy it may help to turn to the writings of the biochemist and theologian Arthur Peacocke. He is one of the few who wrestle with the relations between religion and sociobiology at any length. Possibly, he is the most likely to have addressed theodicy in the light of sociobiology (Peacocke, 1986; see also Sharpe, 1992; and In Press. There are several papers that address original sin in the light of sociobiology, but they do not delve into theodicy. Theissen, 1985, one of the most significant works to date on sociobiology and theology, does not explore it either.)

Unfortunately, Peacocke does not use sociobiology in his theodicy and discusses morality only in the terms of theology. He uses the free-will argument and talks of sin as falling short of what God intends humans to be. As free and self-conscious beings, humans can put themselves at the center of their individual and social lives. Then they can go against God's purpose. In doing so they do not reach their full potential, which Peacocke describes as an image of God (Peacocke, 1979, pp. 192-193; 1971, pp. 153-154).

When he discusses natural evil, Peacocke does turn to evolution. He emphasizes that the world owes every moment of its existence to the work of God. Pain and suffering and the random elements in the world are essential for the universe to evolve. Natural evil is necessary for self-conscious and free beings to emerge (Peacocke, 1979, pp. 166).

John Polkinghorne, another contemporary scientist who is also a theologian, echoes Peacocke. He calls this approach to natural evil the free-process defense. In the free-will defense, God allows human beings to be themselves. In the free-process defense, God allows the world to be itself. The world has the potential to evolve and even to produce human beings. The systems of the universe explore and move toward realizing this potential, but they are also free to go wrong. Natural evil comes from this risk (Polkinghorne, 1989, pp. 66-67).

Both the free-will and free-process defenses are redundant in the face of the implications of sociobiology I offered above. Sociobiology helps solve the theodicy problem by saying morality is not something that applies to God; one cannot say God is perfectly loving, to use Hick's words. Peacocke's and Polkinghorne's defenses of God's goodness assume too much.

While Peacocke does not use insights from sociobiology in his theodicy, he does unknowingly touch sociobiology at one point. He says God has a purpose (for humanity) expressed through (human) evolution. Ideas I raised above help develop Peacocke's thoughts. Sociobiology seeks to help explain, explore and describe human social evolution. In so doing, it helps unearth how God creates, operates and gives humans their morality. The morality that emerges through evolution must, by Peacocke's thinking, reflect God's purpose. So Peacocke's saying sin is going against God's purpose means it is going against the moral base at root developed through evolution and described by sociobiology. Peacocke may not agree with this!

Hick's famous work on theodicy invites further fitting with sociobiology's results. He distinguishes Augustinian theodicy from Irenaean, the chief Christian models for this subject. The Augustinian has people created perfect. They then destroyed their perfection for some reason we cannot now understand, and `plunged into sin and misery.' In contrast, the Irenaean position says God created humanity imperfect and immature. People are to grow and develop morally, finally to reach the perfection God intends for them. In this view, the fall is `an understandable lapse due to weakness and immaturity.' The world is a mixture of evil and good that God set up to help humanity develop toward perfection (Hick, 1978, pp. 214-215).

A theodicy based on sociobiology is neither Augustinian nor Irenaean because it does not raise morality to divine status. (Hick expands the list of possible responses from two to three when developing his original essay into his 1983 statement. The third is the process response which sees God's power as limited. A theodicy based on sociobiology does not fall into this class either. The sociobiology approach outlined above does not address these issues.) On the other hand, it is more Irenaean because of its emphasis on growth and development (read, evolution). It also sees the world as a mixture of evil and good, though they are human judgments.

Theology has barely started to discuss theodicy in the light of sociobiology.


I start with human experience when looking at theodicy. All human beings at times feel negatives: we feel alien, hurt, separated, depressed, angry, and so on. I also want to end with such experiences. Faithfulness to them is one of the criteria for checking this sociobiology-inspired theodicy. How well does it accept the reality of the negative feelings, and of human sinfulness, evil and suffering? Does it make people responsible for their sinning?

By acknowledging the depths and twistedness of evil and suffering, the above discussion tries to answer a most pointed challenge to any theology. So a theology that uses insights from sociobiology faces these experiences. Sociobiology says why humans unconsciously project their morality onto a divine being. It also says why humans then read the morality back as a demand on them. They do this from biological impulse that they have because it increases the chances of their genetic survival. Biology also makes them think and feel there are good grounds for their morality. Through its epigenetic rules, it inclines them, if they are Christians, to believe in an omnipotent, absolutely moral, all-loving, and transcendent God. The feelings and beliefs give the morality depth and power. The force behind the problem of evil has to do with genetic survival.

Sociobiology is a new science and its implications for theology rose only recently. How will theology respond? Since the Enlightenment, theology has retreated before the advance of science. Along the way it has set up camps it feels are secure. Each time it rests, science breaches its walls. After psychology took over the mind from theology, morality has been the refuge. That too is now under attack and religious people have armed themselves, defensive.

I do not want to succumb to warfare as image and reality. Rather, I prefer to see theology and science as co-workers at building a sound but tentative world view (see Sharpe, 1984, for a fuller presentation of this image). If there is merit in sociobiology and its implications for theology, there is much interesting construction to do. Christian theologians face new terrain when the perfectly good separates from God. Many questions rise. What is the relation of God to the world if not one of morality? In what ways ought one to think of God transcending the world? What is the good to which humans might aspire? Where might the power behind the good come from to encourage humans to strive toward it? Underlying these questions and the discussion in this essay is the search for meaning in our world, including for that to which we might ascribe supreme value. Sociobiology suggests that many of our inherited routes are today dead ends. We need to tell a new theological story about God, the universe, and humanity, one that expresses ultimate reality and meaning through the theories of science (Sharpe, In Press).

To explore this area does not mean throwing out the good as a human ideal. Nor does it suggest sociobiology prescribe human behavior. What it does is raise questions for theology to debate and probe with the sciences.


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Ultimate Reality and Meaning 19 (September 1996): 240-250. Copyright 1996 by Kevin Sharpe.