Theology and Evolutionary Psychology

Article excerpt


LONG VIEWED AS THE BASIS FOR MODERN THEORIES of biological evolution, the ideas of Charles Darwin have recently begun to have a significant impact in psychology as well. In the last two decades, interest in innate, evolution-produced behavioral traits in humans and "other animals" has spread through academia and reached a level where even critics of this approach--such as Andrew Ferguson of The Weekly Standard--are now forced to describe it as the hottest field of science. Advocates of the Darwinian approach naturally use even more optimistic language. The Spectator of London headlined its review of a recent neo-Darwinian book "A Revolution Under Way" and The New Yorker described this field as "the territory on which the coming century's debate about human nature will be held." The optimism seems well justified because the belief in innate traits is rapidly becoming part of popular culture. Indeed, one can hardly open a newspaper without finding a headline announcing the discovery of yet another gene-controll ed behavior. Most readers are now familiar with the "fat gene," the "gay gene," and the "hap piness gene'

Many religious readers have reacted to this Darwinian revival with a mixture of concern and criticism. This attitude is understandable because Darwin's theory of the origins of life contrasts sharply with traditional Christian ideas, and many advocates of evolutionary psychology are openly hostile to religion. Yet, this mutual antagonism may not be entirely warranted; in fact, seen from a different point of view, the new psychological Darwinism is actually one of the more religious fields in modem academia. To understand why, we will look at some findings of evolutionary psychology from a historical perspective to argue that these ideas are neither new nor as opposed to traditional religion as is commonly assumed.


According to the current view, evolutionary psychology has its roots in the 19th century when Darwin's work created a surge of interest in the study of innate behaviors. This original enthusiasm abated in the 1930s with the rise of cultural determinism--a trend helped by the tremendous influence of Margaret Mead's now-discredited 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa (see SKEPTIC, Vol. 5,No. 3). The view of human nature as totally malleable dominated in the behavioral sciences through the 1950s and 1960s, thanks to the popularity of B. F. Skinner's theories of environmental conditioning. The revival of interest in genetic influences began with the work of ethologists such as Konrad Lorenz's On Aggression (1966), Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape (1967) and, especially, E. 0. Wilson's Sociobiology (1975). Spurred by these pioneers, ethologists and evolutionary biologists have in the last two decades collected so much evidence to support the existence of innate influences on behavior that even their staunchest critics now have to acknowledge a certain validity of their argument The rise to the bestseller list of books such as Robert Wright's The Moral Animal (1994), Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works (1997), and E. 0. Wilson's Consilience (1998) shows how the neo-Darwinian view of human nature is now becoming the dominant paradigm. Indeed, Wilson's work maybe a harbinger of the future, because he argues that evolutionary psychology should become the unifying clearinghouse field of all behavioral sciences since it explicitly focuses on understanding human nature.

For a historian of early modern religion, this "standard" view of the origins of evolutionary psychology is chronologically restricted and departmentally insular. Far from being a 19th-century innovation of Darwin, the idea that human nature contained innate drives similar to those in animals was a central element of the traditional Christian view of human nature. According to the religious view--taught from every pulpit in early modern Europe--people consisted of a rational mind and an animal part variously called "the flesh," "concupiscence" "sensual appetite," or "the old Adam. …