The Testimony of Biology to Religion

THE doctrine called materialism, current thirty years ago, was the product of imperfect science, and it has been the duty of a science less imperfect to crack the clay feet of that unpleasing image. Similarly, it was held by many, not long ago, that science had finally disposed of the validity of religion, which must henceforth be styled superstition; but the advance of science has entailed grave criticism of this view, and is gradually substituting for it another view still in need of exact formulation. In making the attempt to contribute to this desirable end, it is obviously necessary for a professed student of science to begin by recognizing the rational demand that he define his terms.

Now it may easily be demonstrated, as by reference to the breasts of any subhuman mammal, that morality is older than what we commonly understand by religion; and as easily, by reference to not a few brutal and immoral religions, that morality is not a necessary ingredient of all religions. A perfect definition of religion is very difficult to obtain, and, at a recent meeting of the Sociological Society of Great Britain, the collected opinions of many distinguished British and Continental thinkers showed much agreement in the view that such a definition cannot be framed. Nevertheless, it is unquestioned that morality does enter into all the higher religions, without exception, — a fact upon which we must later ponder, — whilst it is agreed by nearly all scientific students of religion that this great fact in the history of man is not essentially an assertion of any dogmas whatever, but is rather a psychic tone or quality, — in other words, a state of emotion.

Now the occurrence in this connection of these two words, morality and emotion, suggests one of the most famous of all the many definitions of religion. In his remarkable book, Literature and Dogma, Matthew Arnold coined two memorable phrases. He spoke of the “power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness,” and he defined religion as “morality touched by emotion.” Certainly all the higher religions, all those that have helped to make human history, answer in some measure to this latter definition. At least, they issue in a system of “morality touched by emotion.” In considering the manner in which the cardinal truths of biological science, as revealed by Darwin and Spencer, bear upon the function and destiny of religion, I propose to accept this definition of Matthew Arnold. Bearing it in mind, let us endeavor to consider the outstanding facts of the history of life upon our planet.

The writer of the first chapter of Genesis perceived a cardinal truth when he put into the mouth of his God the command, “Be fruitful and multiply.” The more we contemplate life as a whole, seeking to discover its main tendency, the more certain does it appear that the chief concern of life is to multiply and magnify itself. I would insist upon the distinction between these two verbs. Many writers have noted the fact that life tends ever toward multiplication. In gratifying its consistent tendency to increase and endure, life has tried innumerable experiments,

— the biologist calls them variations, — has ruthlessly cast aside its failures or fed them upon its successes, careless of everything but their survival-value. But the mere multiplication of life, were that the completest means of achieving the greatest amount of life, would have led toward the production of bacteria and lice, and the like, alone. Every effort — so to speak — would have been concentrated upon the production of species of bacteria and lice yet more fertile than their predecessors. But this kind of experiment, as we may say, on the part of life, did not actually satisfy its end. As Spencer put it, life must increase not merely in length, but also in breadth. It must be magnified, as I have said, as well as multiplied. The command in Genesis does not express the whole fact. To it must be added the words of Tennyson, “’Tis life whereof our nerves are scant, more life and fuller that we want.” Life must be not only multiplied, but also magnified, if Nature is to attain her supreme want, which is indeed ever “more life and fuller.” “To prepare us for complete living” (not long living), says Spencer, “is the function which education has to discharge.” Hence, Nature has ever been seeking for living forms in which not only would life last longer, but into which more life could be crowded, even though its mere multiplication might be less rapid.

In fact, as has been said by my friend, Mr. Curtis Brown, to whom I owe the utmost help in the preparation of this essay, Nature seems, at some point of evolution, to have come to a parting of the ways over this question of quality or quantity. She could make progress toward her end by two routes, — the development of species whose individuals would display a full but relatively less prolific life, or of species which would multiply with extreme rapidity, though their individuals, in consequence, would each display a smaller amount of life. This thought of my friend is abundantly verified by Herbert Spencer’s great discovery of the “law of multiplication,” which asserts that there is an “antagonism between individuation and genesis,” so that, as life ascends in quality or fullness, the rate of reproduction falls. This is a truth of the first importance, and serves to show how Nature has tended ever toward the sacrifice of mere numerical quantity, if thereby she might gain fullness and higher quality of life.

We have been speaking largely in metaphor, regarding Nature as a person with conscious designs. Let us now translate our statements into rigidly scientific language, such as the biologist would approve. The chief tendency of living matter is a tendency to live. That sounds like a truism, but it is a leading truth. Every race and every individual seeks to live or to survive; every new organism, microbe or man, inherits the necessity to “struggle for life,” as Darwin said, or “struggle for existence,” as Wallace said; “there is no discharge in that war.” The individual survives and reproduces itself if it can; there are no other terms. It must be master of its environment, lifeless and living. The wind and the dust and the lightning care nothing for it. Its fellows are fighting, each for its own hand: there is only a finite quantity of food; and the little fishes are a most nutritious diet for the big. Each must fight for himself, and the devil or death will assuredly take the hindmost. Up to a certain point in the history of living matter these statements are true and adequate. Hence we observe that, of any physical, mental, or moral character possessed by any organism, — of any limb or eye or emotion or creed or claw, — there is but one final criterion from which is no appeal : has it survival-value ? If it has not survival-value, it and its possessor must go. If it has survival-value, it and its possessor will survive thereby, and will survive in exact proportion to the measure of that value. Life has one consistent purpose, which is to have life and have it more abundantly. Never does it swerve from this purpose. In the last resort every character of every living organism, past, present, or to come, is judged and dealt with according as it does or does not serve this supreme and exclusive end, — according as it does or does not possess survival-value.

Nature has no prejudices, so to say. Her purpose being abundance of life, she will accept whatever means serve that purpose. If there be evolved a new muscle which makes for speed, and thereby for skill in escaping enemies, or in gaining food, — Nature welcomes that muscle. It has survival-value, and so it may endure. The creature in which this variation has arisen is more likely than its neighbors to live and to reproduce itself, transmitting the new muscle to its progeny. Or if there be evolved some measure of intelligence, some power of discrimination or memory, Nature will sanction this variation as she sanctions anything that makes for survival and for abundance of life. Unquestionably the human intellect has been evolved “by and for converse with phenomena,” and has survived because it enables its possessor to appreciate and control and predict the course of phenomena, — in other words, because it has survival-value. Obviously its value will be greater in proportion as its beliefs approximate more and more nearly to the truth. “Magna est Veritas, et prevalebit,” said the Roman; and where is the servant of truth who does not hold this noble creed ? But why will truth always prevail at the last ? Why but because it is the true belief that has the greatest survival-value ? Truth must ever prevail at last, because it is the true belief that aids and extends and magnifies the life of the believer. Whatever has survival-value “will prevail” in proportion to its value, and thus the ultimate victory of Truth is a necessary inference from the first law of living Nature. If nowadays she shows signs of preferring truth or intellectual development to muscle or physical development, this is simply and solely because she finds intellect to be more precious than muscle in relation to her supreme end.

If these things be admitted, we are now prepared to return to our subject, which some readers may perhaps accuse me of having forgotten. We have accepted, for our present purpose, at any rate, Matthew Arnold’s definition of religion as “morality touched by emotion.” Let us now consider morality and emotion in the light of our doctrine that abundance of life is the first object of living Nature, and that survival-value, or value for life, is the sole and final criterion of every character and appanage of life.

It is but a few decades since dogmatic theology found itself confronted by the theory of organic evolution. There became necessary what Nietzsche would call a “transvaluation.” Everything had to be reconsidered and rejudged. Dogmatic theology claimed morality as a creation of its own, having no sanction save in divine revelation. Hence it was inevitable that, during the reconstruction or reinterpretation of dogma, some should hold that morality was merely a superstition. Nietzsche, indeed, declared that the law of natural selection ran counter to morality and the law of love, and that, if man was to advance, he must leave this childish weakness behind him. Others said that morality — as its name historically implies — is merely a matter of custom, and that it has, and has had, and can have, no sanction but convention, — the poorest and least sanctified of all sanctions that I, for one, can conceive. The evolutionary psychology rapidly transformed the science of mind, and showed that what was called the “intuitional theory of ethics” is utterly untenable. The whole character of man is the product of ages of evolution, and he has an intuition of duty no more than he has an intuition of the existence of Deity. There thus remained only one theory of morality, which we call the “utilitarian ethics.” It asserts that the sanction and origin and object of morality are to be found in its utility,— that very utility which Nietzsche, seeing but one half of the truth, sought to deny. Now what is meant by utility ? What, indeed, but survival-value, value for life? Every system of morality, except the pessimistic system of Buddhism, which declares that life is a curse, has accepted, implicitly, at least, the principle that life is worth living, or may be made worth living. We must accept this view, else, as I have said elsewhere, murder is avirtue,and Napoleon, the incomparable murderer of eight millions of lives, is the supreme saint of history. Morality, then, has its sanction in the services which it renders to life, — to the multiplication, preservation, and amplification of life. In the study of this dictum let us observe the main facts of the origin, history, and progress of morality, as these have been revealed by the author of the theory of universal evolution.

If we consider morality from the lowest standpoint of mere physical utility, without any reference to its spiritual value, to the nobility it evokes, to the supreme achievements of love or heroism, we may see that the evolution and persistence of morality is explicable by some such theory as the survival of the fittest. All the conditions of the environment, despite the more obvious and plausible advantages of pure selfishness, have favored the survival of this most fit and noble thing. To put it on the lowest ground, morality pays, — “honesty is the best policy, ” — because union is strength,and without morality there can be no union. This principle may be illustrated even in a somewhat paradoxical way; for the burglar is more likely to succeed, and will prefer to work, with a fellow whom he can trust, showing the value of a moral element even in the conduct of an immoral enterprise. When rogues jall out, honest men come by their own.

As we trace upwards the history of life, at every succeeding stage we find the scope and the “mere utilitarian” importance of self-sacrifice increasing, —in the worker bee, in the vertebrate kingdom, with ever-increasing emphasis, until we arrive at man, not one solitary example of whom has ever lived for seven days without the indispensable aid of morality. Thus I not merely deny that morality is a product of man, but assert that man is the highest product of viorality. In consideration of the facts of infancy, who will dispute this propositfon, No morals, no man ? In the breasts of the mammalian mother, which serve no purpose of her own, and, indeed, are the common site of cancer which kills her in tens of thousands, we see the development of organs which are outward and visible signs of Nature’s demand for morality. Natural selection, as Nietzsche chose not to see, actually selects morality.

In other words, Nature is still consistent in her demand for fullness of life. What has survival-value, that she selects. If muscles were of higher survival-value than morality, Nature would select them. But morality, implying the strength which is in union, has supreme survival-value, and so Nature is ever more and more giving it her favor. There is a “power, not ourselves,” said Matthew Arnold, “that makes for righteousness, ” — that is to say, for morality. But this power is, indeed, none other than an expression of the lifeforce of Nature. Fullness of life is her demand, and since righteousness makes for fullness of life, Nature’s demand for life is the explanation of the power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness. The struggle for life is sanctioned by Nature, but so also is what. Drummond called the “ struggle for the life of others,” since thereby her supreme purpose is served. Morality has taken origin, and has increased, because it has survivalvalue.

Morality touched by emotion is the definition of religion that we have accepted for our present purpose; and we must consider this emotion which is thus related to morality. The living unit which has merely the inherent desire to struggle for itself will not lend help to others unless there be established the possibility of some immediate reward. In the last analysis, every action has its egoistic side, — even the most heroic and suicidal act of self-sacrifice is determined by a motive which suffices for the noble soul. In order that we may not fail to eat, there has been evolved the sensation of pleasure which accompanies that act; and it is so with morality. The reward of morality is the emotion that arises from selfdenial for the sake of others. If self-denial engendered a painful emotion, there would be no self-sacrifice. Nature, indeed, went further, — to continue the use of a convenient metaphor, she evolved penalties for the failure to alter the inherited tendency to struggle for self alone, and to gratify every selfish instinct without thought of others.

The combination of morality and emotion is thus sanctioned by Nature: it has survival-value, value for life and its amplification; and since it serves Nature’s supreme end supremely well, she has set upon it the mark of her supreme approval. What, then, of religion and religions ? They have intellectual, emotional, and moral elements. Each and all of these will endure exactly in so far as it possesses survival-value. The intellectual elements, the dogmas of the various religions, will survive or disappear according to the principles laid down when we were discussing the evolution of the intellect and the inherent necessity that Truth — having the greater survival-value — must prevail. The emotional and moral elements must follow the same law. I have said that there are and have been brutal and immoral religions. Once possessed, as might easily be shown, of some poor survival-value as means of discipline and social integration and stability, they have yielded, and will continue to yield, to those higher religions whose survival-value is greater because they inculcate a truer morality. indeed, we are now possessed, it seems to me, of a criterion of all religions. They are all products, or characters, or appanages, of living creatures, living men. Like every other character of every living thing, Nature judges them according to their worth for her supreme purpose, — fullness of life. Many she has already judged, — those entailing human sacrifice, whether upon a bloody altar, or in the form of a meaningless asceticism, are already decadent. They run directly counter to her supreme purpose, and she will have none of them. In consonance with our view is the recent study of religion by a young English anthropologist, — Mr. Ernest Crawley, a distinguished pupil of Dr. J. G. Frazer of Cambridge, author of the Golden Bough. He argues that the common element, both in primitive religions and in the higher religions, is the working of the primary instinct of human nature, the vital feeling, or what has sometimes been called the will to life. He thinks that the distinctive psychic state called religious is a product of this instinct, and that it induces, perhaps as its most essential character, an attitude of seriousness toward the great facts of existence. He believes that religion is a permanent growth from human nature, consecrating life and the living of life, and helping us to live. In the light of what we have been saying concerning survivalvalue, it is plain, then, that religion is sanctioned by Nature.

Finally, we should now be able, I think, to forecast the future of religion. In time to come, as to-day and in the past, Nature will continue to demand of every product of life, such as religion, that it possess survival-value. The religion of the future will be that religion the dogmatic assertions of which are true (being therefore dogmas of science as well as of religion), and the morality inculcated by which is such as best serves Nature’s unswerving desire, — fullness of life. It is evident, for instance, that Buddhism cannot be the religion of the future, since it preaches the worthlessness of life, and thus is possessed of very low survivalvalue. It is evident, also, that the religion of the future, following the general tendency of religion to-day, will concern itself more and more with this present, sublunary, indisputable life of ours, and ever less with what lies beyond the human ken. It is evident that selfish asceticism, seeking the eternal salvation of its own petty soul, will not enter into the religion of the future. It has scarcely any survivalvalue, and Nature will have none of it. But I need not multiply examples. If the principle I have advanced be sound, we are now free to study all the religions of the past and present, and to predict the characters of the religion of the future, by the help of the two unfailing guides, — Nature’s consistent desire for fullness and ever greater fullness of life; and her consequent demand of every character of living things, and every product of their minds, that it possess survival-value, which is none other than value for life.