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Jerry Coyne, Infanticide, and the Evolution of Morality


In a recent blog post, already noted by Michael Egnor and Wesley Smith, University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne not only argued  that infanticide and assisted suicide should be permitted, but he insisted that our increasing acceptance of these deeds is a sign of moral improvement in our society. He stated, “This change in views about euthanasia and assisted suicide [i.e., legalization in some states and countries] are [sic] the result of a tide of increasing morality in our world.”

In his book Faith Versus Fact, Coyne made a similar proclamation: “Indeed, secular morality, which is not twisted by adherence to the supposed commands of a god, is superior to most ‘religious’ morality.” (p. 261)

Earlier in Faith Versus Fact, Coyne argued that morality was the product of evolutionary forces, as well as cultural changes.  He denied that morality is fixed and objective and decreed that it is malleable. He even makes a big deal out of this argument, claiming that it disproves the existence of God.

It seems to me that Coyne is talking out of both sides of his mouth. There can be no “increasing morality” and no “superior” morality unless there is some objective moral standard, a point that Coyne rejects. Evolution, we are told again and again, has no goal, so any morality it produces has no objective reality. (That’s why the famous evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson and philosopher of science Michael Ruse called morality “an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes.”)

Of course, one of the other major problems with Coyne’s analysis of morality is that many people see the policies he favors, such as infanticide, as evidence of our moral decline.

So, how does Coyne justify his claim that infanticide and assisted suicide are morally praiseworthy?  He relies on arguments that are based on his understanding of evolutionary biology. He claims humans are not a special or unique species, a point he bases on Darwinism. After thus undermining the sanctity-of-life ethic, he states in his blog: “After all, we euthanize our dogs and cats when to prolong their lives would be torture, so why not extend that to humans?”

Does Coyne really believe that we should treat humans like dogs and cats? Given his desire to see the United States embrace progressive public policies similar to those in Scandinavia, I rather doubt it. But let’s test and see.

I have a modest proposal for Coyne to consider. Picture this: Round up all the homeless people in Chicago, sterilize them, and then incarcerate them until someone comes to provide them a home. If no one is willing to take them in after a few weeks, then we can euthanize them. The problem of homelessness would be solved.

I’m confident Coyne will be outraged by this proposal — as he should be. However, this is exactly how we treat dogs. Apparently, Coyne does not think humans should be treated like dogs. Apparently, he recognizes that some things are objectively immoral.

Coyne, like many secular intellectuals, sees morality as non-objective, because he thinks it is produced by random mutations, natural selection, and also changing cultural factors. He uses this moral relativism as a sledgehammer against morality (and religion) that he doesn’t like. But then he turns around to promote a different “progressive” morality and tries to impose that on everyone. This morality, we are assured, is better and more advanced — hence the term “progressive.” It thus claims to be moving toward an objective moral standard.  You cannot have it both ways, Dr. Coyne.

For further analysis of Coyne, see pp. 84-87 of my book The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life.

Photo credit: Dave Parker, via Flickr.

Dr. Weikart is professor of modern European history at California State University, Stanislaus, and Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.  He has published six books, including The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life and Hitler’s Religion: The Twisted Beliefs That Drove the Third Reich.