Misunderstanding Evolution: Confusing Is with Ought

Recently I was speaking to a Catholic friend about evolution. I cannot remember how we stumbled upon this topic, but when he first brought it up he referred to evolution as “Darwinism”. I pointed out to him that the correct term is actually “biological evolution” and that “Darwinism” was a derogatory remark created by certain religious people who are against evolution. He responded indicating that he was aware that it was derogatory, saying that that was the intention. His specific problem with evolution was that he thought that evolutionary biology made the moral prescription that society should encourage the weeding out of the less fit. Basically, he had the notion that evolutionary biology encouraged the artificial selection of favoured people (e.g., actively prioritizing the breeding of smart people over less intelligent people, for instance). I quickly addressed the misunderstanding. What I pointed out was that evolutionary biology is a science, not a moral philosophy. It simply says what happens in nature, or what Is. What happens is that certain traits (i.e., those that favour reproduction) are more likely to be passed on and become more prominent in subsequent generations. Evolutionary biology does not say what Ought to be. Nowhere in the description of population dynamics is there a statement that not only is this the way it Is, but that this is the way it Should be. Evolutionary biology is simply not about Ought. As a comparison, I pointed out that biologists have also discovered that rape occurs in non-human species, but the fact that this does happen in nature does not mean that it is a good thing. That non-human organisms rape each other does not mean that they Should rape each other, or that we Should be allowed to rape each other. Morality is irrelevant here. We’re simply talking about what happens.

It appeared that I managed to clear up the misconception. Hopefully the clarification translated into a long-term re-orientation of his beliefs on the subject. 

12 Responses to “Misunderstanding Evolution: Confusing Is with Ought”
  1. JohnO says:

    ““Darwinism” was a derogatory remark created by certain religious people who are against evolution”

    Actually the church was the first people to support Darwin’s theory, while all of science mocked his theory. Strange…

  2. evolution says:

    There are so many misconceptions of Darwinian theory: “we come from monkeys” etc that it’s good to clear things up.

    Good article on it here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/feb/09/darwin.myths

  3. Juanito Epstein says:

    It reminds me of the nativism versus empiricism debate in cognitive science. The empiricists think that the nativists are racists because they are afraid that if there are some innate about us some people may have “better genes” and have an advantage. They believe that if empiricism is correct our experience completely shapes us, and then no one has an advantage. Science tells us that some things are innate, and some are developed, but the empiricist refuses to accept that evidence for moral reasons.

    It is a bother that people miss that science is an explanation of what happens, and not an explanation of how things “should” happen or “ideally” would happen.

  4. ronbrown says:

    JohnO: Can you provide links for your point on the church being the first to accept evolution?

    Also, I should say that science being slow to accept a radical new theory isn’t necessarily something a bad thing. It takes some time to do research to address the new idea.

    Lastly, regardless of 19th century history, it is true that today “Darwinism” is a term used primarily by those who are strongly opposed to evolutionary theory. If you go to an ID website, you’ll see the word used constantly. Apparently the goal of using this term is to create the impression that scientists view Darwin as some sort of messiah—a Darwinian religion of sorts. I always find it funny when religious people try to criticize atheists by saying (incorrectly) that atheists, too, are religious. It’s like they have an implicit understanding of how full of anti-intellectual dogmatic crap they are. A second motivation for using the term “Darwinism” might be to try to act as if evolution is little more than what Darwin said it was, ignoring much of the reseach done since his time.

  5. ronbrown says:


    I’ve read a precis of Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” and he makes good points. Firstly, yes, there are individual differences between people in terms of innate endowments relevant to intelligence, dexterity, and so on. But, that doesn’t mean that we should actively engage in eugenic practices. Does the person with the IQ of 130 deserve to live more than the person with the IQ of 110? There’s no reason to believe that these sorts of innate cognitive differences have any such consequences.

  6. Stoobs says:

    I think the question of does a person with an IQ of 130 deserve to live more than a person with an IQ of 110 is a little disingenuous. The correct question would be does a person with an IQ of 130 deserve to breed more than a person with an IQ of 110, or even better, does a person with an IQ of 130 deserve to breed more than a person with an IQ of 70.

    Of course the answer is no, there’s no deserve about it. But there’s no question that the long term future of the human race is better served by people with high IQs breeding than by people with low IQs breeding. That’s just common sense. The question of how much moral weight that fact carries is one that is, or at least should be, open to debate.

    On a somewhat irrelevant, but amusing (at least to me) note, just yesterday I sat across the isle from two people on the bus, who were discussing evolution and christianity. One was explaining that she didn’t see why both couldn’t be true. The other responded with her own theory, explaining that the dinosaurs were killed by the flood, because they were too big to fit on the arc, and that scientists had carbon dated a live mollusk to 60,000 years, so obviously science was wrong about everything.

    I don’t know about the mollusk, but you’d think the aquatic dinosaurs would have survived a flood…

  7. MJ "revoltingpawn" says:


    Another great post that I would think any person who is ignorant on evolution could read and learn something.

    JohnO, even if your comment is true how is it relevant now?

  8. ronbrown says:


    Your reproducing argument is a good addition. I did the deserve to live thing as it was part of a list of moral considerations (e.g., deserve to live, reproduce, gain rewards, avoid suffering, have respect, etc.). I just went with one of them, but would have been better to go with all.

    Another thing is that it’s not like eugenics didn’t occur before Darwin. And it’s not like humans needed a formalized evolutionary theory in order to prioritize smarter, stronger, better looking, and more socially skilled individuals over others when it was of benefit to do so. It’s not like before evolutionary biology or in the present day in religious fundamentalist circles we see people hiring CEOs without consideration for their intelligence, social skills and confident appearance, that people seek a mate without considering how good looking they are, and respecting people irrespective of the list of qualities just mentioned. Evolution is just a description of these sorts of considerations in nature. Nature (including humanity) have been engaging in these processes well before Darwin, and continue to do so even in ignorance or contempt of evolution.

  9. jmjorat says:

    Good post.

    In terms of evolution, propagation of ‘desired’ traits in species is in plain sight. Stronger, more dominant male animals end up with females and, hence, produce off springs. Just about any abnormality in animals will most likely result in death and, hence, does not further propagate onto off springs (for instance, an antelope that cannot run as fast as others will likely fall pray sooner than others – on average). Nature propagates what seems to us to be ‘desired’ traits with brutal efficiency. The ‘desired’ traits appear to be those that are necessary in species long-term adaptation and propagation. Evolution does not explain where life came from. It merely describes the interaction of life forms.

    Interestingly, we (humans) have somewhat altered evolution of our species – for better or for worse. I wear glasses. I know people in wheelchairs. I know individuals with Asthma. None of us would have survived the wrath of nature or evolutionary biology in pre-modern history.

  10. bentolove says:

    Which is why it is hilarious when people who are anti-evolution get all uppity because you can’t quote them every verse of their bible.

    So many people are anti-evolution yet they don’t even understand the basic central tenets of evolutionary theory.

    Sad world

  11. BD says:

    I’ve completed a series on the whole ‘thing’, the start of it can be found at: http://decorouslydraconian.wordpress.com/2008/01/03/i-hear-youre-getting-into-zen-and-you-have-a-buddhist-friend/

    Good post, interesting comments. I’d also be interested in seeing the documentation on early religious acceptance of Darwin.

    It’s all just interpretations…

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