Playing Games with Good and Evil: The Failure of Darwinism to Explain Morality

In the struggle to survive, the fit win, and so it is also the fit who breed. The winners pass on their winning characteristics to the next generation, and on marches Darwinian evolution.

Nothing could be simpler. Yet Darwin thought this process could account not only for the most stunningly complex biological organs, such as the human eye, but also for the just as stunningly complex moral nature of humanity. From Darwin’s Descent of Man down to the present day, most evolutionists have assumed that natural selection has produced all moral codes, beliefs, and actions. The question was, how?

The newest approach for research in this area involves game theory. Game theory, as conceived and executed by evolutionists, tries to understand the essence of moral judgments by submitting research participants to variously contrived games. The results are then construed according to the dictates of natural selection. Karl Sigmund, Ernst Fehr, and Martin Nowak outline the whole project in the January 2002 issue of Scientific American in an article titled “The Economics of Fair Play.” Realizing that such contrived games are defined by “artificial constraints that rarely apply in real-life interactions,” game theory proponents claim that “such constraints, rather than being a drawback, let us study human behavior in well-defined situations, to uncover the fundamental principles governing our decision-making mechanisms. The process is somewhat like physicists colliding particles in a vacuum to study their properties.”

Allow me (since we are going to be playing games for rather high stakes) to lay my own cards on the table. I find this sort of talk absurd. Darwinian game theory is not new but simply a rehash of liberal political theory disguised as cutting-edge science. Give it a few vigorous scratches and we find Thomas Hobbes, the very father of modern political liberalism, back to haunt us from the 17th century. Hobbes was also the father of modern materialism, and his political liberalism was rooted in his mechanistic account of nature and human nature.

In truth, Darwinian game theory is not even science, for its mode of investigation (the crudely simple game) is entirely disconnected both from its Darwinian presuppositions and its subject matter (i.e., actual people living real lives). These presuppositions are undemonstrated and pernicious; they undermine the only source of sanity in human morality, the natural law.

Let the Games Begin

So exactly what are the Darwinian game theorists up to? The Darwinian game theorists play two research games more than any other, the Ultimatum Game and the Public Goods Game.

The Ultimatum Game is painfully simple, especially considering how much it claims to explain. There are two players, a proposer and a responder, and a sum of money. The players may share the money if they can agree on the portions, but it’s a one-shot deal. The proposer makes an offer. If the responder accepts, they split the money accordingly. If, however, the responder rejects the offer, then neither player gets anything.

The Public Goods Game is a tad more complicated. Each of four players is given an equal amount of money at the outset. Each player must decide, independent of the others, how much he will contribute to the common pot. The experimenter then divides equally whatever the players have decided to put in, and the game begins again. To spice things up a bit, the rules allow the punishment of other players. If Henrietta thinks Finley is a freeloader, she can fine him a dollar—but it will cost her 30 cents.

Seems harmless enough, doesn’t it? Not a bad way for a lab-coat and some willing mouseys to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon. But remember: By using games with fewer rules than Candy Land, the Darwinian game theorists are claiming “to uncover the fundamental principles governing our decision-making mechanisms.” We’d better take a closer look, starting with their presuppositions.

To begin with the Ultimatum Game, Darwinian game theorists assume for the sake of simplicity that at bottom man is not to be defined as Homo sapiens but as Homo economicus— “a rational individual relentlessly bent on maximizing a purely selfish reward.” And Homo economicus is, at bottom, Homo darwinianus, relentlessly bent on the desire for self-preservation—or, rather, the preservation of his genes.

In an article in Science called “Fairness Versus Reason in the Ultimatum Game,” Martin Nowak, Karen Page, and Karl Sigmund write that the only “rational” thing for the proposers to offer in the Ultimatum Game is as little as possible. Rational responders, on the other hand, “should accept even the smallest positive offer, since the alternative is getting nothing.”

The Theory Evolves

Did the Ultimatum Game reveal the Homo darwinianus in its players? Clearly disappointed, the researchers report that “the outcome was always far from what rational analysis would dictate for selfish players.” Participants were plagued by “the irrational human emphasis on a fair division.”

The Public Goods Game was spoiled as well. The “canonical prediction” based on the idea of man as Homo darwinianus “is that everyone will free-ride, contributing nothing?’ writes Joseph Henrich in the American Economic Review (“In Search of Homo Economicus,” May 2001). If nature really is red in tooth and claw, and gene is set against gene in mortal combat, it is only rational to be a first-class welcher and contribute nary a penny to the community.

But alas, “Real people don’t play that way,” concede the authors of “The Economics of Fair Play.” What happens? At the beginning, contrary to expectation, everybody throws about half his money into the kitty. If free-riders are discovered, then everyone tends to stop feeding the pot in subsequent rounds.

So strong is the attachment to fairness that participants would rather punish freeloaders than maximize profits. According to the rules of the Public Goods Game, players can punish others, but both the fines imposed and the cost of punishment go to the mediator in charge of the experiment, not the common pool. So the rational thing to do—if all that counts is the selfish reward—is to forgo punishment of freeloaders. Actual human beings, however, invariably nail the loafers until they shape up, whatever the cost.

Seeking an out from these embarrassing results, the Darwinian game theorists reasoned that perhaps the problem was that they were using only university students as subjects. So off they went on a hunt for the noble savage who had no notions of nobility—to the Machiguenga of Peru, the Hadza of Tanzania, the Quichua of Ecuador, the Khazax in Mongolia, the Mapuche in Chile, the Sangu of Tanzania, the Orma of Kenya, the Ache of Paraguay, and the Lamelara of Indonesia.

Did their assumptions fare better abroad? “We can summarize our results as follows. First, the canonical model is not supported in any society studied,” Joseph Henrich writes. Backed into the corner of common sense, Henrich admits that, contrary to the expectations of researchers, “preferences or expectations [of players in these games] are affected by group-specific conditions, such as social institutions or cultural fairness norms.” Translation: No society consists of relentless profit pursuers, unconsciously trying to flood the gene pool; rather, individuals are almost invariably governed by a desire for fairness as filtered through the particular conditions of their society.

Rather than give up and look elsewhere for a more suitable theory, Darwinian game theorists assume that their failure to substantiate the theory is a sign of its enviable plasticity. How, then, to incorporate irrational desires for fairness into a theory that assumes we are all merely selfish genes writ large?

The solution, evidently, is to say the irrational desires that contradict Darwinian presuppositions are also the result of natural selection. So Henrich conjectures that “long-run evolutionary processes governing the distribution of genes and cultural practices could well have resulted in a substantial fraction of each population being predisposed in certain situations to forgo material payoffs in order to share with others, or to punish unfair actions, as our experimental subjects did.”

“Yes, but how do we know natural selection was really the cause?” one asks.

The answer seems to be that whatever has survived must be the most fit; therefore whatever exists must have been the result of natural selection. Fairness exists; therefore, it must be the result of natural selection. Q.E.D.

It is always convenient to have a theory that cannot possibly be proved wrong. And so the Darwinian game theorists forge ahead, unshaken in their confidence that the theory stands firmer than ever, whatever the results of their research may indicate. “Many of us prefer to explain our generous actions simply by invoking our good character. We feel better if we help others and share with them. But where does this inner glow come from? It has a biological function.” So it must be the case that “social emotions such as friendship, shame, generosity and guilt prod us toward achieving biological success in complex social networks” (“The Economics of Fair Play”). Undaunted by the failure of their predictions, the authors triumphantly announce that as a result of their efforts, humanity has reached a new scientific plateau, “a stage at which we can formalize” the effects of natural selection governing our decision-making mechanisms by using “game-theory models that can be analyzed mathematically and tested experimentally.” Moral science has finally come of age!

The Search for Homo Hobbesianus

Contrary to the claim of Darwinian game theorists that they are on the cutting edge of science, the ultimate source of their presuppositions and procedures is modernity’s first great materialist and avowed enemy of the natural law, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).

Like the new Darwinians, Hobbes tried to wipe away the complexity of human morality by reducing human beings to desire-driven machines. We can “put for a general inclination of all mankind,” wrote Hobbes in his Leviathan, “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” This desire for ceaseless power is, at heart, the desire for physical self-preservation at all costs.

Homo hobbesianus is the source of both Homo economicus and Homo darwinianus, the first expressing the desire for self-preservation through the desire for profit, the second through the desire to propagate. Darwinism is often spoken of as if it were an entirely original discovery; in fact, it is merely part of the peculiar current of modern thought that has its headwaters in Hobbes’s work. Darwin did not empirically verify the struggle for survival in nature at large and then apply it to human nature. Quite the contrary: He read Hobbes’s materialistic account of human nature back into nature at large.

This becomes clearer when we examine Hobbes’s famous “state of nature,” a fictional condition in which human beings, abstracted from all actual social, natural, and moral connections, relentlessly pursue individual self-preservation. “Notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place,” Hobbes wrote. Such moral niceties are no part of our natural condition. Indeed, the state of nature is really “a state of war” in which “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

According to the tenets of Darwinism, the categories of right and wrong are epiphenomena of genetic drives: Nature is itself amoral. In Hobbes’s “state of nature”—and it is remarkable how often Darwin used this same phrase in his Origin of Species—the only rule is self-preservation at all costs, and this ceaseless conflict is the fuel firing the engine of evolution.

This explains why the Darwinian game theorists hoped to flush out the real causes underneath the apparent moral complexity of human beings by colliding human particles in a moral vacuum—that is, under the abstract conditions of contrived games. These games merely aim at constructing newer models of the abstract and unreal conditions that define Hobbes’s state of nature. Like Darwin and Hobbes, Darwinian game theorists assume that the desire for fairness must ultimately be the result of the amoral desire of organisms to preserve and reproduce their genes.

The Darwinian game theorists are also animated by the very Hobbesian ambition of constructing a new moral science. Hobbes was in a swoon over the precision of Galileo’s new mechanistic account of motion. He thought that by reducing human beings to inert projectiles hurtling through a vacuum he could instill moral science with a similar precision.

Reading the game theory literature, one sees a similar desire—the desire to discover the “fundamental principles governing our decision-making mechanisms” so that they can be “analyzed mathematically and tested experimentally.” The literature is filled to overflowing with abstract, impenetrable mathematical and logical equations standing in the place of ordinary speech about human things.

The Darwinian game theorists do not seem to understand that their gain in precision comes about only as a result of jettisoning the actual complexity of human moral desires and actions. Simply invoking mathematical formulae does not a moral science make. The various sciences are defined by what they study. If scientists distort what they study in an effort to gain precision, that does not make them either more scientific or more precise. If human moral desires and actions are actually complex, it is the moral scientist’s duty to take that complexity as his beginning point rather than to deny it in an effort to shoehorn the facts into a cherished theory.

Over and above all of this, there is no evident connection between the Darwinian assumption that human beings are relentlessly driven to propagate their genetic line and the actual structure of the game theorists’ experiments. The games, as games, could just as easily be used to (1) test the strength of a nun’s vow to poverty, (2) demonstrate the tendency to sin unless punished, (3) show that human beings, even under the abstract condition of games, exhibit a natural desire for fairness, (4) undermine Darwin’s theory that natural selection drives all moral decisions, and so forth.

Natural Selection vs. Natural Law

Perhaps the most remarkable feature in the literature about Darwinian game theory is the tenacious unconcern expressed by the theorists themselves whenever the facts uncovered by their games run counter to the expectations of their theory. This continued confidence in the face of the evidence plagues Darwinism at large. Even when faced with strong contradictory evidence—such as the lack of intermediate species in the fossil record, the stark differences in embryological development, the speed with which evolution would have to work given the time available, the inability to give convincing accounts of morphological transformation, and, above all, the complex nature of actual biological structures—Darwinists remain convinced that, whatever the facts, the simple principle of natural selection must be the cause.

But when Darwinian game theorists carry this habit of confidence into the moral arena, much more is at stake. The result is pernicious. If, as Sigmund, Fehr, and Nowak assure us in “The Economics of Fair Play,” behind all moral complexity “stands the evolutionary program commanding us to survive and to procreate,” so that “social emotions such as friendship, shame, generosity and guilt” can safely be reduced to sub-moral impulses that “prod us toward achieving biological success in complex social networks,” then we ought to latch directly onto the real principle at work—biological success—and cast off the moral window dressing. In short, we ought to take evolution into our own hands. That is just what the bravest of the Darwinians are now counseling us to do.

In contrast to Darwinism, the theory of natural law assumes that human beings are distinct from all other animals. As St. Thomas Aquinas argued in his Summa Theologiae, human beings alone among the animals have “a share of the Eternal Reason,” since they are made in the image of God, and “this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law.” Such reasoning assumes that human nature is permanently defined and that all human beings are of the same species, subject to the same moral dictates of the natural law. Thus, for example, “Do not murder” is a moral command rooted in and defined by the nature of the human species.

Darwinism, on the other hand, must treat the human species as something accidentally cobbled together by natural selection. The result: Species distinctions can no longer provide moral distinctions. That explains why cutting-edge Darwinians like Peter Singer reject the natural law assertion that human beings are morally distinct. According to Singer, a full-grown gorilla has more rights than a newborn human baby especially if the newborn is somehow deformed or handicapped, in which case he may be dispatched without compunction as “unfit.”

The insane simplicity of attempting to explain human morality by means of natural selection results in the inability to make moral distinctions at all. In Darwinian game theory, this amorality is hidden perhaps even from the game theorists themselves—by the abstract conditions of the game. But the abstraction itself is no game. By making self-preservation-at-all-costs the only intelligible virtue, the theorists leave behind the actual complexity of human nature—a complexity that includes the desire for fairness.


  • Benjamin D. Wiker

    Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His website is

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