Evolution was the basis for laissez-faire capitalism.
I. Moral neutrality of science
Philosopher Philip Kitcher correctly points out that evolution, like all good scientific theories, is morally neutral, but may be co-opted by ideologues for their own selfish uses:
Various people have appealed to the theory of evolution to lend respectability to their appalling moral views...But this fact says very little about evolutionary theory itself. Virtually any morally neutral, or even morally good, doctrine can be misused for evil purposes. (Kitcher 1982:196)
II. Argument form would undermine Christianity
Creationists, most of whom are fundamentalist Christians, should be able to understand the point by considering some of the horrendous moral doctrines others have taken Christianity to be their basis for, and asking whether or not this means that Christianity must therefore be evil or incorrect:
The most popular doctrine for use in rationalizing evil and immoral actions has surely been Christianity. There is a long record of brutalities and atrocities perpetrated in the name of Christ: the Crusades, the persecution of the Huguenots, periodic waves of anti-Semitism, sporadic witch burnings, the Inquisition, 300 years of Irish "troubles"; the list could go on and on. Add to this the explicit racism of some contemporary Christian sects, the repressive moral doctrines imposed by the Church at many times in the past, the denials of justice and human rights in the name of the "divine right of Christian princes."
Yet although the Christian Church has a checkered history, it is evident that Christians can claim — quite justifiably — that the evils result from perversions of religious doctrine. Evil or misguided men have twisted the Gospel to evil ends...But if charity ought to be extended to the Christian doctrine, then it is equally appropriate for evolutionary theory. Both the Bible and evolutionary theory can be misread and their principles abused. (Kitcher 1982:197-198)
(a) Creationists tend to respond to this line of argument by claiming that such acts were inconsistent with Christianity, while the evils they attribute to evolution supposedly were consistent with evolution. However, they are mistaken or otherwise miss the point in at least two ways:
First, evolution does not mandate any particular kind of behavior; evolution, like any scientific theory, describes what is, not what ought to be. Nor does evolution, contrary to common belief, give some special sanction to selfish behavior: natural selection can compel mutualism and even altruism as surely as it can compel selfishness (see Samir Okasha's article on biological altruism).
Second, even if the atrocities cited by Kitcher were inconsistent with Christianity, this is not what the people who carried them out believed: like modern creationists, they were sincere in their beliefs, and did what they thought was mandated by the Word of God. Nevertheless, most people are rightly reluctant to condemn Christianity across the board for such judgments; likewise, they should not condemn evolution just because it was appropriated by others to justify atrocities, however sincere those others were.
III. Actual causes of capitalism at its most ruthless
There are usually many factors at play in the cause of any particular atrocity. Although ruthless capitalists sometimes have appealed to evolution as a justification for their actions, it usually was not the cause but instead something they seized upon to try to justify what they would have done anyway. The late Carl Sagan rightly explains that
Voracious robber barons may explain their cutthroat practices by an appeal to Social Darwinism...But Darwin did not make John D. Rockefeller...Greed, the Industrial Revolution, the free enterprise system, and corruption of the government by the monied are adequate to explain nineteenth-century capitalism...Very likely [this] or similar events would have transpired with or without Darwin. And modern Darwinism makes it abundantly clear that many less ruthless traits, some not always admired by robber barons... —altruism, general intelligence, compassion—may be the key to survival. (Sagan 1997:260)
Kitcher P. 1982. Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Sagan C. 1997. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House.
Last updated: 22 Feb 2016
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