Darwin as Epicurean
An Interview with Benjamin
Benjamin Wiker is a lecturer in theology and science at Franciscan
University of Steubenville, Ohio. His new book, Moral Darwinism: How
We Became Hedonists, was published by InterVarsity Press in July.
Wiker was interviewed about the book by InterVarsity Press editor Gary
Gary Deddo: Darwinism is usually associated with biology and the
debate over evolution. What happened that led you to see the connection
between moral issues and Darwinism?
Benjamin Wiker (BW): Well, that’s a rather long story, but most
immediately, it was reading Darwin’s Descent of Man, which is
less well known than his
Origin of Species, but should always be read with the
In the Origin,
Darwin set forth his famous arguments concerning the power of natural
selection to create all biological forms, but he was very careful not to
mention how it all applied to human beings. In the Descent, which
came out about a decade later, Darwin did apply his arguments about
natural selection directly to human beings. It is only then that we see
that Darwin’s evolutionary account had direct and immediate implications
Morality, according to Darwin, is just one more evolved trait caused by
the mechanism of natural selection. I should say that in the
plural—moralities—to be accurate. Many different moralities arise—or
better, evolve—among human beings at different times and places, no one
of them ultimately better than any other (any more than a certain length
of finch beak is better or worse than another). Although Darwin tried to
assert that evolution was somehow aiming at a kind of morality of
sympathy, his efforts were undercut by his own argument. Evolution is
absolutely non-teleological. It can’t aim at anything.
Not only did Darwin relativize morality, but (little known to many) he
drew out the immediate eugenic implications of natural selection: too
many of the "unfit" human beings survived, and the
breeding enough. In fact, Darwin says so much that is shocking in the
Descent that anybody reading it can immediately see the essential
connection between Darwinism and the kind of moral views being touted
today as "cutting edge."
Some don’t appreciate making that kind of connection. How have you
responded to that objection?
BW: Well, I know there’s a well-worn objection that divides Darwin
the scientist who formulated the principles of natural selection from
the use that later Darwinists made of his arguments—such as to provide a
foundation for Social Darwinism or eugenics—but that division is
arbitrarily drawn. Like it or not, it is quite clear when you read his
Descent of Man that Darwin himself was the first Social Darwinist
and the father of the modern eugenics movement. Social Darwinism and
eugenics are derived directly from his principle of natural selection.
I think the real reason for people objecting to someone making
connections between Darwinism and things like eugenics is that they
don’t want the theory to be tarnished by its moral implications. But the
implications are there, not only in the text, but as evidenced in the
social and moral effects Darwinism has had in the century and a half
since it appeared.
What helped you see the connection between Darwinism and our present
moral state of affairs?
BW: There are certainly some very obvious connections, although
oddly enough, they are all too often overlooked. For example, most if
not all of "traditional" morality is based on the assumption that human
beings are a distinct species. Thus, the prohibition against murder is
defined in terms of human nature. Don’t murder! Don’t murder what?
Aphids? Anteaters? Orangutans? No, don’t kill another innocent human
being. With Darwinism, however, that species distinction between human
beings and other animals is completely blurred. There is no longer any
moral line to be drawn because the species line has been erased.
Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer understand this
perfectly. Dawkins argues, in his Blind Watchmaker, that the only
reason that we believe we can derive moral distinctions from human
nature is that "the intermediates between humans and chimps are all
dead." That is, if there existed a smooth spectrum of species connecting
chimpanzees and human beings, with no "missing links," there would be no
foundation for morality.
Once we see ourselves as just one more animal on the evolutionary
spectrum, then we must either affirm that our morality applies to all
living things or deny that our morality has any foundation at all.
Generally Darwinists provide a kind of incoherent stew of both. They
treat some animals as if they had the same moral status as human beings,
and treat human beings, in some respects, as if they were just one more
animal. On the one hand, they will argue for animal rights; on the
other, they assert that deformed or old and infirm human beings should
be "put down" out of the same compassion we show for our pets.
Moral Darwinism you actually see a profound connection to
our present moral climate, which can be traced back to its roots through
Darwin all the way to Epicurus. How did you come to see that more
distant connection? Can such a link to ancient Greece be of interest
beyond merely scholarly curiosity?
BW: We need to realize, first of all, that Darwinism is part of a
much larger theoretical and moral worldview, that of materialism, and
that it can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greek Epicurus. As
I argue, Darwinism is just the modern form of ancient Epicureanism (with
a modern "spin" that makes it hedonistic).
That becomes especially clear when you read the first-century b.c. Roman
Epicurean poet Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, On the Nature of Things.
In Lucretius’s poem you find an extraordinary thing: Darwin’s account of
evolution, written almost two millennia before Darwin! Furthermore,
Lucretius’s evolutionary account is part of his overall materialist
argument about nature and human nature—a materialist cosmology, into
which the evolutionary account fits perfectly. This cosmology
necessarily entails a materialist account of morality, which again looks
In Moral Darwinism I trace that account historically, showing how
it forms the basis of modern materialist thought, not only in regard to
science but also in regard to morality. As it turns out, our present
moral state of affairs, morbid as it is, is the result of having
accepted the entire materialist package, of which Darwinism was an
This larger materialist package supports all kinds of things which are
morally repugnant to Christians, not only (as I mentioned) Social
Darwinism and eugenics, but also sexual libertinism, abortion,
infanticide, euthanasia, cloning, and so on. That certainly makes it of
more than mere scholarly interest!
Your thinking moves to a certain degree along the lines of what has
become known as the Intelligent Design movement, but your connection to
that movement has been rather recent, hasn’t it? Could you relate to us
some of your own intellectual journey along that similar path?
BW: In one sense, my connection to the Intelligent Design movement
has been quite recent. In fact, I didn’t know such a thing existed until
about two years ago. Somehow or other, I picked up a copy of William
Intelligent Design and found an intellectual home, as it were. I
wrote a review of that book—very positive, of course—and contacted Bill
Dembski so that I could send him a copy. One thing led to another, and I
am now a fellow of the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think tank
for Intelligent Design.
In another sense, however, I had been looking for something like the
Intelligent Design movement for about twenty years. From the time I
first read St. Thomas Aquinas’s proofs of the existence of God, I was
convinced of two things. First, that the existence of God could be
demonstrated by natural reason and that the demonstration would be from
the effects of God in nature. Second, that the account of nature upon
which St. Thomas depended was insufficient. Simply repeating his
arguments, however convincing they were in many respects, would not be
enough. Enter the Intelligent Design movement, which brings St. Thomas
up to date, so to speak.
It becomes clear as you read along that your concerns are not just
directed at critiquing secular society. You see certain problems also
within the church. How do you see this book helping the church to be
faithful in its own life and thought?
BW: First, no matter how good the intentions of many Christians,
good intentions are not enough if our understanding of the current moral
situation is confused. As C. S. Lewis rightly said, if you are lost,
going full speed ahead is only going to get you more lost. Sometimes the
only way out of the forest is to retrace our steps.
Following upon this, as I argue in the book, our contemporary moral
debates are defined by two rival and incompatible views of the universe
and of human nature, two irreconcilable cosmological-moral accounts,
that of the materialist and that of the Christian. Much of the book is
spent disentangling the two, tracing them back to their respective
sources, and showing how the two are indeed fundamentally antagonistic.
In fact, we find out by reading Epicurus and Lucretius that materialism
was designed to destroy all religion. When Christianity arose on the
scene, not too long after Lucretius wrote his Epicurean materialist epic
poem, it showed itself to be immediately antagonistic to Epicurean
materialism. This fundamental antagonism can be traced historically over
the next millennium and a half.
But then a strange thing happened. As a result of the rise of a
materialist account of nature and science during the Renaissance and
Enlightenment, Epicureanism and Christianity began to be
indiscriminately mixed. The result was not a true mixture, however—it
couldn’t be, since they were fundamentally irreconcilable. The result
was that the materialism slowly ate away at the Christianity, like a
kind of acid, and the West has consequently become increasingly
secularized (or de-Christianized). But the phenomenon of
secularization—in all its dimensions, including the moral dimension—is
simply the steady victory of Epicurean materialism over Christianity.
Today, unfortunately, we find Christians all over the map, supporting
all kinds of things that were actually meant to destroy Christianity.
For example, we find Christians supporting the entire Darwinian account
of natural selection, an account that makes God completely redundant. We
also find Christians supporting abortion and euthanasia even though,
from the earliest documents of the church forward, such things have been
forbidden. If we trace the materialist account of evolution and the
materialist support for abortion and euthanasia to their historical
source, we find Epicurean materialism, an account of nature and human
nature designed to eliminate religion and to instantiate a purely
this-worldly system of ethics.
Until Christians are far more clear about the pedigree of their
opinions, they will continue to borrow ideas and positions from an alien
source, a source that, especially in modernity, was designed to destroy
This interview originally appeared in "Academic Alert," copyright © 2002
by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, and is reprinted here by
permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515
Copyright © 2002 the Fellowship of St. James. All rights
Touchstone Vol. 15, Number
Eight - October 2002
permission on www.humanitas.org.