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Evolution, Religion and Free Will

The most eminent evolutionary scientists have surprising views on how religion relates to evolution

Gregory W. Graffin, William B. Provine

Human Free Will

Charles Darwin recognized the importance of free will to evolutionary biology. He first wrote about human free will in his M & N notebooks as he became a materialist in 1838, soon after the voyage of the Beagle:

The general delusion about free will is obvious because man has power of action, & he can seldom analyses his motives (originally mostly INSTINCTIVE, & therefore now great effort of reason to discover them.…)

Darwin saw punishing criminals for any reason other than deterring others as morally wrong: Criminals should be pitied and rehabilitated rather than hated. Revenge he abhorred. Further, "this view should teach one humility, one deserves no credit for anything (yet one takes it for beauty and good temper)." And finally, he said, a "believer in these views will pay great attention to Education."

Our questionnaire offered evolutionary scientists only two choices on the question about human free will: A, all organisms are locally determined by heredity and environment, but humans still possess free will; B, all organisms are locally determined by heredity and environment, and humans have no free will. To our surprise, 79 percent of the respondents chose option A for this question, indicating their belief that people have free will despite being determined by heredity and environment. Only 14 percent chose no free will, and 7 percent did not answer the question.

Belief%20in%20free%20willClick to Enlarge ImageSome philosophers have come to the view that human beings are entirely determined but still possess free will—see, for example, the views of Daniel Dennett or Ted Honderich—but we doubt the evolutionists polled have read carefully this genre of modern philosophy. This view was not mentioned in the interviews nor in the many comments generated by the free-will question. Instead, we think there is a conflation of free will with choice.

We anticipated a much higher percentage for option B and a low percentage for A, but got just the opposite result. One of us (Provine) has been thinking about human free will for almost 40 years, has read most of the philosophical literature on the subject and polls his undergraduate evolution class (200-plus students) each year on belief in free will. Year after year, 90 percent or more favor the idea of human free will for a very specific reason: They think that if people make choices, they have free will. The professional debate about free will has moved far from this position, because what counts is whether the choice is free or determined, not whether human beings make choices. People and animals both certainly choose constantly. Comments from the evolutionists suggest that they were equating human choice and human free will. In other words, although eminent, our respondents had not thought about free will much beyond the students in introductory evolution classes. Evolutionary biology is increasingly applied to psychology. Belief in free will adds nothing to the science of human behavior.

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