The book is titled Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists, but it’s really the continuing and very contemporary account of centuries of contentious struggle between two “rival moral universes [that] have nothing in common” (page 311). The Western world’s moral battles are not just differences of preference or opinion. They are the result of living in different worlds entirely. One of those worlds is built on an unsupported and unsupportable set of faith statements about the nature of reality, concocted not from evidence but in support of a particular moral view, which is in turn closely associated with what is believed to be our condition after death. It is a view that extends far back into antiquity but remains enormously influential in spite of modern-day scientific findings to the contrary.
The rival world, the one that is forever at odds with the one just described, is that of the Christian theist.
That is the point of Benjamin Wiker’s book. Unlike what I have just done (almost inexcusably, for those who would be inclined to disagree mightily with it), Wiker supports it with three hundred pages of historical and philosophical evidences. It is not the kind of case that can be condensed into a blog post, so I have not made it my purpose to try to do so.
The first world is that of Epicurus (341 BC – 270 BC). Thousands of years after his death, Epicurus remains astonishingly contemporary as the father of philosophical materialism and what is today known as scientific reductionism. Borrowing from Democritus, he posited eternal changeless atoms as the basis for all of reality; in fact as the only reality, for what we see as persons, animals, trees, houses, and so on, are just various arrangements of these atoms. None of them has any reality apart from their simple, changeless, and practically undifferentiated material bases. The supernatural does not exist, there is no life after death, and morality is a matter of maximizing pleasure or minimizing discomfort.
If that sounds eerily familiar, then this from Epicurus’s disciple and chief popularizer, Lucretius (ca. 99 BC – ca. 55 BC), will seem down right spooky:
Many were the portents also that the earth tried to make, springing up with wondrous appearance and frame…. so that they could do nothing and go nowhere, could neither avoid mischief nor take what they might need. So with the rest of like monsters and portents that she made, it was all in vain; since nature banned their growth, and they could not attain the desired flower of age nor find food for join by the ways of Venus. For we see that living beings need many things in conjunction, so that they may be able by procreation to forge out the chain of generations. . . .
And many species of animals must have perished at that time, unable by procreation to forge out the chain of posterity: for whatever you see feeding on the breath of life, either cunning or courage or at least quickness must have guarded and kept that kind from its earliest existence; many again still exist… which remain, commended to us because of their usefulness. . . .
Variation and natural selection, a century before Christ: how original was Darwin, really? And did his theory depend more on modern-day scientific observation, or on philosophical assumptions that he and Lucretius held in common? Though Wiker doubts Darwin ever read Epicurus or Lucretius, he forges out a clear “chain of posterity” from the ancients to the Origin of Species and the Descent of Man. Part of it is in the denial of Aristotelian or Platonic forms, which leads to Darwinian (and later, Peter Singer-ian) fuzziness over the meaning of species. Another part of it is a moral connection, whether it be the source or the outflow of Epicureanism/materialism. In ancient times the emphasis was on the reduction of discomfort; now it is on the maximizing of “well-being” as Sam Harris would put it, or on pleasure, as others would more honestly describe it. If material reality is all there is, and if that is reducible just to atoms (whether in the ancient or modern sense), then what other moral principle could make any sense?
The chain from Epicurus to the twenty-first century was long interrupted by Plato and Aristotle, then even longer by Christianity, for which everything from material reality to meaning and purpose stand in sharp contrast to Epicureanism. The Epicurean vision began to be picked up again during the Enlightenment, gathering strength through perceived links between Newtonian mathematical formalism and Epicurus’s geometric vision of atomic reality. The modern Epicurean moral revolution received its initial cautious formulations in Hobbes, Rousseau, and Locke; and its attack on Christianity was voiced by Hobbes, Spinoza, and Strauss, all based on mechanistic, materialistic assumptions. From these roots something like Darwinism was bound to spring–including racist, eugenicist, and power-based moral Darwinism as expressed in The Descent of Man and by followers of Darwin like Ernst Haeckel.
This is the account Wiker unfolds, and it becomes the explanation of contemporary social reality for which he argues. It brings us to an unsettling conclusion: there is no space for compromise. There is no middle ground between Epicurean and theistic visions of the world. It is either one or the other. And because the two systems lead to opposing views on the value of life and morality, there is no in-between land on which we can all stand, shake hands, and come to agreement on today’s great issues of morals and meaning.
Wiker thus provides a very long view of what we have only lately come to call the “culture wars.” Part of that long view involves the exceedingly slow process by which Epicureanism has come largely to prevail over Western Christianity. It took centuries. The change was led by thinkers like Epicurus and artists like Lucretius; or thinkers today like Dawkins and artists like those in Hollywood. We Christians will not turn the whole thing around in the next election. We need to think long-term, too, and we need to bring our own thinkers and artists fully into the fray, fully informed by perspectives like these that Wiker brings. I had thought I had a pretty good understanding of the relation between materialism and theism, but Wiker has added to it immensely. Quite readably, too, I might add; the book is by no means a quick and easy read, but it is well-written and engaging throughout.
For those who support the materialist view of reality, Wiker’s book will help you understand your intellectual roots, and give you opportunity to check whether your beliefs are as well supported as you think they are. If anything I’ve written here has left you sputtering, “well, prove it, Tom!” then I acknowledge I have not accomplished that.
My real purpose in writing this was not, after all, to re-state a well-crafted yet lengthy account of the history of ideas. It was rather to motivate you to get involved yourself in that same history by reading this excellent resource on it. Whether you like Wiker’s conclusions or not, you’ll find it well worthwhile to read his account for yourself.
Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists by Benjamin Wiker. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2002. 321 pages plus index. Amazon price US$16.50.