Is Passing Genes to the Next Generation a Good Basis for Morals or Values?

A couple of days ago, I received the Humanist newsletter. It links to an article on the American Humanist Association website entitled “The Humanist Ten Commandments” by the inappropriately named Christian Hagen who is the communications assistant for the American Humanist Association.  Mr. Hagen (for I cannot call him “Christian”) has decided to propose a new set of commandments (complete with the use of the archaic “Thou Shalt” at the outset of most of the commandments to give them gravitas) to take the place of what he apparently views to be those poor, outdated Judeo-Christian commandments. Why? Well, according to the introduction to the article,

At a summit of Nobel Peace award winners in Warsaw, Polish Nobel Peace laureate Lech Walesa called for a “secular Ten Commandments,” a guide for universal values that transcend religious beliefs. The response has been a heated debate among secularists about what could constitute such a guide. And while some have criticized the idea for being too dogmatic, others have embraced the notion of a set of rules which might bridge the gap between evangelicals and nonbelievers.

There is so much wrong with the idea of creating new commandments to “bridge the gap between evangelicals and nonbelievers” that I hardly know where to begin breaking this down.  Let’s start with this: for believers, the Ten Commandments are the Word of God. Neither Jews nor Christians (except those in the most liberal denominations, i.e., those who have shown a tendency in the past to disregard the Scripture when it does not coincide with their secularized understanding of what God seeks) are apt to believe that they have the freedom to change what God has said. Thus, if the goal is to get us to seek out our common ground on universal values, working out these areas of agreement should not be put into terms of a new “ten commandments.”

Second, and more importantly, I don’t understand how a secularist could believe in universal values. It seems to me (and the Secularist Ten Commandments back this up in Commandment number 7) that the secularist who is committed to the world of matter that can be tested (what Mr. Hagen refers to  as “[s]cience, knowledge, observation, and rational analysis” independent of any supernatural causes) as the sole means of true knowledge must necessarily conclude that any so-called “universal values” arose by nothing more than natural selection and cannot truly be universal. Instead, the secularist must conclude that these values really are simply pragmatic activities that arose because they best enabled one generation to pass its genes along to the next generation.

Allow me to give an example. If the goal is to pass along the genes to the next generation, then the secularist must explain in those terms where traits such as unselfishness or altruism come from. They do try. Thus, the “kin selection theory” posits that altruism arose as a means of indirectly passing one’s genes on to the next generation. According to an article on entitled “Where does good come from?:

[The kin selection theory] says that an organism trying to pass its genes down to future generations can do so indirectly, by helping a relative to survive and procreate. Your brother, for example, shares roughly half your genes. And so, by the dispassionate logic of evolution, helping him produce offspring is half as good for you as producing your own. Thus, acting altruistically towards someone with whom you share genetic material does not really constitute self-sacrifice: It’s just a different way of promoting your own genes.

Humanist Commandment number 2 notes, “Thou shalt be curious, for asking questions is the only way to find answers.” So, I believe it is appropriate to ask the underlying question: why should we conclude that simply because the act results in passing along one’s genetic material to another generation that the act is necessarily a good thing that we ought to promote? After all, I can think of several ways to pass along genetic material to the next generation that would not be considered consistent with what most people would believe to be moral, in line with “universal values” or even remotely acceptable. One could consider, as examples, father-daughter incest or rape (both of which violate Humanist Commandment number 3). After all, both result in the genetic material being passed along, but neither is considered good or moral by secularists or virtually anyone else. So, it cannot be the case that simply because the act achieves the goal of passing along genes to the next generation that it makes the act a good.

A secularist could respond that the passing along of genetic material is not the absolute measure for determining value. Rather, there are other competing values that limit the number of ways that acts which pass along genetic material can be considered good. For example, we know that incest leads to genetic issues. Thus, one could argue that passing along genetic material in a manner that is likely to result in genetic problems cannot be considered an act to value. Rape violates another principle that we ought not hurt other people in our group (Humanist Commandment number 3) which is considered a value because we need to be cohesive as a society and not hurting others in our society is the best means of the society going forward and, hence, passing the inhabitants’ collective genes along to the next generation.

Both of these seem okay on the surface until other questions are asked, such as "Why does the one value supersede the other?" Looking at the passing along of genetic material through incest, is it necessarily true that not passing along defective genetic material is a good that we ought to be promoting? It is certainly true that genetic defects are more readily passed along when the individuals are related Yet, if we are really concerned with passing along genetic material that is free from defects, why do we not oppose people with Learning Disabilities marrying and having children? After all, some learning disabilities are hereditary, so if our sense of morality or universal values are based on whether non-defective genes are passed along to the next generation then we should feel the same value revulsion from reproduction through people with learning disabilities as we do with incest. But we not only reject the notion that a person with a learning disability should not marry, we promote marriage and pro-creation by individuals with disabilities. See, e.g., Personal and Sexual Relationships for people with Learning Disabilities: A guide for parents and carers. How can that be if morality or values are based on the risk of passing genetic defects?

As far as the case of rape, let me start by saying that I totally agree that rape is wrong and repugnant. In making the point in this paragraph, I am not advocating that rape is good or that the rapist should not be punished. However, history has shown that societies can and do survive if the women in the society are treated as little more than baby-producers. Rape, while degrading and likely harmful to the woman, is an effective way for the stronger males to pass along their genetic material to the next generation. Yet, the secularist who believes that values such as altruism and care for others arose from the desire to pass along genetic material has not explained why the promotion of care for others in the group (such as women, and thus opposing rape) should be more important than preventing rape if both arise as an evolutionary means of passing along genetic material. Why does the first supersede the second from a purely evolutionary standpoint?

The secularist may argue that our views of the acceptability of both rape and incest have changed over time showing the evolutionary nature of the process. I certainly agree that time has changed the rules about incest and how women are treated. But simply saying that it occurred is not the equivalent of showing why it occurred. Saying that we know secular-based evolution of the views of incest and rape have occurred because the rules have changed is a clear example of begging the question. As a Christian, I have a basis for explaining the changes in the way we treat both incest and rape and a reason for saying that these changes are good. I am not sure that the secularist has either. Certainly, the reason that they put forth (passing along genetic material) seems to not have sufficient explanatory power to answer the questions that I have posed throughout this post.

I welcome someone to explain this to me in the comments. 


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