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Index to Creationist Claims,  edited by Mark Isaak,    Copyright © 2008
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Claim CB411:

Evolution cannot explain moral behavior, especially altruism. Evolutionary fitness is selfish; individuals win only by benefitting themselves and their offspring.


Dembski, William A., 2004. Reflections on human origins.
Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. 1985. Life--How Did It Get Here? Brooklyn, NY, p. 177.


  1. The claim ignores what happens when organisms live socially. In fact, much about morals can be explained by evolution. Since humans are social animals and they benefit from interactions with others, natural selection should favor behavior that allows us to better get along with others.

    Fairness and cooperation have value for dealing with people repeatedly (Nowak et al. 2000). The emotions involved with such justice could have evolved when humans lived in small groups (Sigmund et al. 2002). Optional participation can foil even anonymous exploitation and make cooperation advantageous in large groups (Hauert et al. 2002).

    Kin selection can explain some altruistic behavior toward close relatives; because they share many of the same genes, helping them benefits the giver's genes, too. In societies, altruism benefits the giver because when others see someone acting altruistically, they are more likely to give to that person (Wedekind and Milinski 2000). In the long term, the generous person benefits from an improved reputation (Wedekind and Braithwaite 2002). Altruistic punishment (punishing another even at cost to yourself) allows cooperation to flourish even in groups of unrelated strangers; the abstract of Fehr and Gächter (2002) is worth quoting in full:

    Human cooperation is an evolutionary puzzle. Unlike other creatures, people frequently cooperate with genetically unrelated strangers, often in large groups, with people they will never meet again, and when reputation gains are small or absent. These patterns of cooperation cannot be explained by the nepotistic motives associated with the evolutionary theory of kin selection and the selfish motives associated with signalling theory or the theory of reciprocal altruism. Here we show experimentally that the altruistic punishment of defectors is a key motive for the explanation of cooperation. Altruistic punishment means that individuals punish, although the punishment is costly for them and yields no material gain. We show that cooperation flourishes if altruistic punishment is possible, and breaks down if it is ruled out. The evidence indicates that negative emotions towards defectors are the proximate mechanism behind altruistic punishment. These results suggest that future study of the evolution of human cooperation should include a strong focus on explaining altruistic punishment.

    Finally, evolution does not require that all traits be adaptive 100 percent of the time. The altruism that benefits oneself most of the time may contribute to life-risking behavior in some infrequent circumstances.

  2. This claim is an argument from incredulity. Not knowing an explanation does not mean no explanation exists. And as noted above, much of the explanation is known already.


  1. Fehr, Ernst and Simon Gächter, 2002. Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature 415: 137-140.
  2. Hauert, C., S. De Monte, J. Hofbauer and K. Sigmund, 2002. Volunteering as Red Queen mechanism for cooperation in public goods games. Science 296: 1129-1132.
  3. Nowak, M. A., K. M. Page and K. Sigmund, 2000. Fairness versus reason in the ultimatum game. Science 289: 1773-1775.
  4. Sigmund, Karl, E. Fehr and M. A. Nowak, 2002. (see below)
  5. Wedekind, C. and V. A. Braithwaite, 2002. The long-term benefits of human generosity in indirect reciprocity. Current Biology 12: 1012-1015.
  6. Wedekind, C. and M. Milinski, 2000. Cooperation through image scoring in humans. Science 288: 850-852. See also Nowak, M. A. and K. Sigmund, 2000. Shrewd investments. Science 288: 819-820.
  7. Wright, Robert, 1994. (see below)

Further Reading:

Netting, Jessa, 2000 (20 Oct.). Model of good (and bad) behaviour. Nature Science Update,

Sigmund, Karl, Ernst Fehr and Martin A. Nowak, 2002. The economics of fair play. Scientific American 286(1) (Jan.): 82-87.

Vogel, Gretchen, 2004. The evolution of the golden rule. Science 303: 1128-1131.

Wright, Robert, 1994. The Moral Animal New York: Pantheon Books.

Henrich, Joseph. 2006. Cooperation, punishment, and the evolution of human institutions. Science 312: 60-61.

Nowak, Martin A. 2006. Five rules for the evolution of cooperation. Science 314: 1560-1563.
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created 2004-9-30, modified 2008-1-4