The Ethical Consequences of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

Are some people insane or just becoming more consistent? Every day there is a new story of some whacky group protesting some corporate indiscretion like the use of plastic straws and plastic eating utensils. I can assure you that there are more troubling issues to confront.

What’s going on? What’s the root of the problem? Phillip E. Johnson was instrumental in making people aware of the moral consequences of evolution theory. He passed away on November 2, 2019.

Johnson was a UC Berkeley law professor and opponent of the pseudo-scientific theory of molecule to man evolution theory. He was also co-founder of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (CSC). “He described himself as ‘in a sense the father of the intelligent design movement.’ He was a critic of Darwinism, which he described as ‘fully naturalistic evolution, involving chance mechanisms and natural selection.’…  Johnson argued that scientists accepted the theory of evolution ‘before it was rigorously tested, and thereafter used all their authority to convince the public that naturalistic processes are sufficient to produce a human from a bacterium, and a bacterium from a mix of chemicals.'”

His work in this area has been impactful, as the following points out.

The Christian begins with the presupposition that God created the universe and man as a special creation different in kind from both inanimate and other animate creations. In fact, man is so special, the Bible tells us that he is created in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27). One of these image attributes is the existence of the mind and the ability to think rationally (Rom. 12:1-2; Col. 3:10) and to act morally (Eph. 4:24).

The consistent materialist who denies God also denies the existence of the mind and a moral center. For materialistic philosophers, the mind is an “illusion.” “The brain is a machine. We have no selves, no souls. How do they know? It has to be that way, or they must acknowledge that they’re answerable to God, and they can’t have that.”

“The brain,” insists MIT’s Marvin Minsky, is just “hundreds of different machines … connected to each other by bundles of nerve fibers, but not everything is connected to everything else. There isn’t a ‘you.’”1 Such a view of the mind makes man nothing more than an organic machine.

With the advent of the computer, the materialists believe they have found the perfect scientific mechanism to demonstrate that the mind is an illusion. They see the brain as a superior model, somewhat more versatile than the industrial-strength Cray super-computer. The computer analogy is faulty, however. The machine is nothing without the program. The program is the product of the programmer. Who programmed the programmer? Are we to assume, following the materialist’s logic, that an inorganic machine programmed an organic machine? What kind of trust can we place in the random firing of neural synapses? No one has made this point better than C. S. Lewis:

If … I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on bio-chemistry, and bio-chemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.2

There is no accounting for man and the world, between dreaming and waking, illusion and reality if the materialists are right. Of course, if we start with their ultimate presuppositions, how would we ever know?

Daniel C. Dennett proposes that anyone who holds a theistic view of origins should be allowed to live in America but only in “cultural zoos”:

If you insist on teaching your children falsehoods—that the Earth is flat,3 that “Man” is not a product of evolution by natural selection—then you must expect, at the very least, that those of us who have freedom of speech will feel free to describe your teachings as the spreading of falsehoods, and will attempt to demonstrate this to your children at our earliest opportunity. Our future well-being—the well-being of all of us on the planet—depends on the education of our descendants.4

Not only does the State deny the teaching of creationism in public schools, but Dennett wants the very idea of creationism to be blacklisted. Dennett, like Arthur C. Clarke, considers evolution to be the State religion. Those who deny its divinity will suffer swift and sure retribution at the hands of the educational establishment and the power of the State. Phillip Johnson writes that “it is not freedom of speech that worries parents, but the power of the atheistic materialists to use public education for indoctrination, while excluding any other view as ‘religion.’”5 We don’t have to search for long to find similar sinister applications of such a proposal. Nazi Germany can serve as a vivid reminder.

If you want to know how such threats sound to Christian parents, try imagining what would happen if some prominent Christian fundamentalist addressed similar language to Jewish parents. Would we think the Jewish parents unreasonable if they interpreted “at the very least” to imply that young children may be forcibly removed from the homes of recalcitrant parents, and that those metaphorical cultural zoos may one day be enclosed by real barbed wire? Strong measures might seem justified if the well-being of everyone on the planet depends upon protecting children from the falsehoods their parents want to tell them.6

No God … No Law

Some people understood the dilemma of how to account for moral absolutes in a society that officially discounts God. The late Yale law professor Arthur Leff (1935–1981) was perplexed that an agnostic culture even wants enduring values. “Arthur Leff was a professor of law at Yale Law School who is best known for a series of articles examining whether there is such a thing as a normative law or morality. Leff answers this question in the negative and follows the consequences to their logical conclusions. ” In a lecture delivered at Duke University in 1979 (“Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law“), Leff expressed the dilemma:

I want to believe—and so do you—in a complete, transcendent and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe—and so do you—in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individual and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.7

How can a solution ever be found in a random, impersonal cosmos, “governed” (if the word can be used) by chance given Leff’s logic? “[W]ith God out of the picture,” Philip Johnson writes, “every human being becomes a ‘godlet’—with as much authority to set standards as any other godlet or combination of godlets.”8 Any person who utters a moral injunction is most often met with, “Who says? Who are you to impose your morality on me?” Leff continues his logical analysis of the dilemma:

Putting it that way makes clear that if we are looking for an evaluation, we must actually be looking for an evaluator: some machine for the generation of judgments on states of affairs. PhilIf the evaluation is to be beyond question, then the evaluator and its evaluative processes must be similarly insulated. If it is to fulfil its role, the evaluator must be the unjudged judge, the unruled legislator, the premise maker who rests on no premises, the uncreated creator of values…. We are never going to get anywhere (assuming for the moment that there is somewhere to get) in ethical or legal theory unless we finally face the fact that, in the Psalmist’s words, there is no one like unto the Lord…. The so-called death of God turns out not to have been His funeral; it also seems to have effected the total elimination of any coherent, or even more-than-momentarily convincing, ethical or legal system dependent upon final authoritative, extrasystemic premises.9

What is the secularist’s answer? How does the modernist create a moral center in the Darwinian struggle for life? The usual answer is “doing good” that benefits the species. Being kind, for example, has a good result. But is this always true? The claim is made “that a variety of widely accepted norms, including the keeping of certain promises, the abhorrence of unjustified killing of human beings, and perhaps even the sanctity of property rights, promote the adaptation of the human species to its environment. But so does genocide.”10

All the “great” tyrants claimed that what they did was for the betterment of mankind. To Hitler, Jews were a world problem. Mass sterilization was first considered, then more efficient and quicker methods were proposed and carried out to rid the world of the “Jewish problem.” But in the end, it was all done for a “righteous” cause.11

The Birth Control League (later Planned Parenthood) founder Margaret Sanger with her eugenic ideas wanted “to create a race of thoroughbreds” by encouraging births of “more children from the fit, and less from the unfit.”12 She purposely set up birth control clinics in poor immigrant neighborhoods to rid the world of “mongrel races.” Who’s to say, given the presuppositions of today’s Darwinian legal theorists, that any of it was wrong?

While Leff did a masterful job in pointing out the problem, and he evaluated numerous theories in finding a way out of the dilemma created by his “own kind,” he offered no solution: “All I can say is this. It looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us ‘good,’ and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should…. As things now stand, everything is up for grabs” (1249).

Nevertheless,” as Leff continues, he cannot distance himself from a series of moral absolutes that he cannot account for in a matter-only world:

Napalming babies is bad.

Starving the poor is wicked.

Buying and sell each other is depraved.

Those who stood up to and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, [Idi] Amin, and Pol Pot—and General Custer too—have earned salvation.

Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned. There is in the world such a thing as evil.

[All together now.] Sez who?

God help us.


  1. “Is the Mind an Illusion?,” Newsweek (April 19, 1992). []
  2. C.S. Lewis, “They Asked For A Paper,” Is Theology Poetry? (London: Geoffrey Bless, 1962), 164-165. []
  3. On the “flat-earth myth,” see Gary DeMar, America’s Christian History: The Untold Story (Atlanta, GA: American Vision, 1995), 221–234; Gary DeMar and Fred Douglas Young, To Pledge Allegiance: A New World in View (Atlanta, GA: American Vision, 1996), 75–82; Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (New York: Praeger, 1991). []
  4. Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 519. Quoted in Johnson, “Dennett’s Dangerous Idea,” 13. []
  5. Phillip E. Johnson, “Daniel Dennett’s Dangerous Idea,” The New Criterion (October 1995), 13. []
  6. Johnson, “Dennett’s Dangerous Idea,” 13. []
  7. Arthur Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Duke Law Journal (1979), 1229–1249. Phillip E. Johnson, “The Modernist Impasse in Law,” God and Culture: Essays in Honor of Carl F. H. Henry, D.A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 182. []
  8. Johnson, “The Modernist Impasse in Law,” 182. []
  9. Leff, “”Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law.” Quoted in Johnson, “The Modernist Impasse in Law,” 183. []
  10. Richard Posner, The Problems of Jurisprudence (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1990), 235–236. Quoted in Johnson, “The Modernist Impasse in Law,” 184. []
  11. For a chilling reenactment of the plan, see the HBO Film Conspiracy: The Meeting at Wannsee, starring Stanley Tucci, Colin Firth, and David Threlfall. The two-hour meeting on January 20, 1942, essentially sealed the fate of Jews in Europe. The approach taken by the thirty German bureaucrats was medicinal, a straightforward outline on how to solve the Jewish problem without ever using the words “kill” or “exterminate.” The law as it existed in Germany at the time was followed, giving them proper legal cover and justification for their actions. The date of the meeting nearly coincides with the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 (January 22) which has had a more ominous effect. Safe to say that more than six million Jewish babies have been killed legally through abortion since 1973. []
  12. Margaret Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization (New York: Brentano’s, 1922), 126. Quoted in George Grant, Killer Angel: A Short Biography of Planned Parenthood’s Founder, Margaret Sanger, rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Cumberland House Publishing, [1995] 2001), 85. []
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