I just saw this video (below) yesterday. It shows Roy Moore, who is currently running for Senator for Alabama, commenting on evolution. Apparently, it dates to 1997, and in it Moore criticized evolutionary biology for the things it allegedly could not explain, such as why mammals, reptiles, and bird all had males and females (it can, in fact, explain this), and that there was no evidence that our ancestors evolved from animals that once lived in the water (there is).
Moore is not an evolutionary biologist, so I suppose he could be forgiven for having gaps in his understanding of the subject (though we are probably obligated to make an effort to shore up our knowledge before commenting publicly). However, even though this was twenty years ago, there was another part of his comments that doesn’t sit well with me. Moore also said:
“That’s the kind of logic (biologists have) used in our society today when we have kids driving by shooting each other that they don’t even know each other. They’re acting like animals because we’ve taught them they come from animals.”
The idea that learning about evolution is responsible for society’s ills has a history. As I’ve written before, I think this view is profoundly misguided for a couple of reasons. For one, it is obvious that the human capacity for violence and callousness existed long before evolutionary thinking. The world before Darwin was not a paradise that was ruined by the idea that our species has changed over time or that we are connected to the rest of the natural world.
Secondly, it is also wrong to claim that the rest of the natural world is marked solely by violence and callousness (equating “acting like animals” to violence). Nature is not always “red in tooth and claw.” One can find many examples of other species behaving altruistically toward each other, even toward non-kin and across species, from rats helping each other escape from human traps (even strangers), to tortoises assisting each other, to humpback whales protecting sea lions from orcas.
Furthermore, one could even argue that cruelty is a uniquely human trait because it requires an understanding that others have mental and emotional states (what psychologist call a “theory of mind”). Other species can be violent, but it is debatable whether they know that their violent actions induce suffering in others because it is difficult to know how much insight they have into the minds of others around them. On the other hand, we do have a theory of mind, so when we intentionally cause others to suffer, we are committing an act of cruelty. To quote Jane Goodall:
“Of course, we must try to help suffering human beings. But suppose I ask you why? Why does it matter if fellow human beings suffer? They belong to the same species as you and me, so that we know that they have feelings like our own. We know they can feel pain, as we do. We know they can feel sadness, fear, despair, loneliness, boredom. Well, so can chimpanzees. And so can dogs and cats and pigs and oh! so many others. Don’t you think so? If you agree, then you know why we should care about the suffering of nonhuman beings.
Cruelty is a terrible thing. I believe it is the worst human sin. When you are cruel you cause someone to suffer needlessly. …
We are probably a long, long way from a world without cruelty, but I think we can all help, at least a little bit, to make it less cruel.”
In any case, there are other issues with which I disagree with Moore, but this one fits under the themes I’ve focused on this site. Whether we are religious or secular, I think we can all agree that working toward minimizing cruelty — a (r)evolution of tenderness — is a worthy goal.