Beware the Procrustean Bed: Evolutionary Explanations of Love and Compassion

Magazines cast limit

Union of Faiths

Anna Manja Larcher's Talk on behalf of Professor Richard N. Williams at the 3rd International Conference on the Origin of Life and the Universe

Brigham Young University  Procrustes, a legendary robber in ancient Greece, had the peculiar habit of either stretching or cutting off the legs of all his guests so that they would perfectly fit his bed.  This was undoubtedly hard on his guests, since each was distorted in order to fit the bed exactly.  However, this practice did have the virtue of saving on beds.  Procrustes needed only one bed so long as he was content to distort whoever was to be fit into it.

     Moving from the realm of legends and beds to the realm of human behaviors and theories that explain them, the spirit of Procrustes, it seems, is still with us. Genetic explanations of behavior (derived from evolutionary theory) have become a Procrustean bed.  Genetic explanations are taken to be the naked truth to which human behaviors, and our understandings of them, must conform.  Proponents of these (genetic) explanations have become quite expert at stretching and cutting as need be to make the facts fit the theory.  Often there seems to be little regard for what ultimately becomes of the behaviors, concepts, and meanings that are forced into the Procrustean bed of evolutionary theory.  If such things must be cut off from the rest of human history and understanding, or have meaning and morality stripped away from them so that they become distorted, this is simply the price these theorists are willing to pay so long as the theory itself is preserved.  Even if the behavior as explained by evolutionary theory no longer makes contact with our own experience, we are asked to reject our experience in favor of the genetic explanation.

     The price of preserving genetic explanations of our behavior is too high.  We are asked to disbelieve our own understandings of our behavior.  In order to fit and preserve the Procrustean bed of evolutionary theory, we put in question our agency, our sense of responsibility for ourselves and others, and our most important relationships.  When genetic explanations are applied to human and family relationships , the consequence is the loss of our very humanity, and, even more importantly, beyond that, it means the loss of our divine, God given, eternal natures.

     Someone convinced of the truth and value of evolutionary theory in general and genetic explanations of human behavior in particular might accuse us, or anyone who would lament the loss of meaning and morality in our behavior, of being an incurable “romantic.”  They would say that we are just trying to hold on to a romanticized but false view of ourselves in order not to have to face the hard fact that meaningless genes are the reality/or sole/ meaning behind our behavior.  Certainly, to refuse scientific facts of our biological natures in order to preserve an image of ourselves that we are more comfortable with would be foolish.  Indeed, if there were overwhelming scientific or logical evidence for genetic/evolutionary explanations of our behavior, such as for example compassion or love, it would be futile to hold out against it.

                  However, we will argue in this essay that there is no such compelling evidence.  And explaining human behavior in mere evolutionary/genetic terms creates problems.

Is there compelling evidence that such things as/compassion, love, or anger are determined by evolution or genes?

                  The idea that love and compassion in human relationships are governed by biological structures or evolutionary forces is not scientific in the sense we usually use that term.  We usually consider scientific facts to be those that are discovered through careful experimentation giving rise to unambiguous results.  An example of this sort of scientific work is found in the famous Michelson and Morley experiments, in which it was shown that the speed of light is constant.  This constancy was demonstrated, and the experiment was of such a quality that the results were not easy to refute.  This work is often cited as one of the few examples of a truly decisive scientific demonstration.  Ultimately our conception of the nature of light and its speed had to be reworked to take account of the experimental findings.  Scientific work on which evolutionary explanations of human behavior are based is of quite a different sort.  No such decisive work has been done, and , given the very nature of the subject matter, must be considered in principle impossible. Some evolutionary theorists (might) argue that at some future date when technology has advanced and when they are given permission to manipulate human genes, genuine scientific validation will be available.  It is axiomatic in science, however, that one relies on or claims credibility from what might someday be done.  To argument in this way moves one from science to science fiction.

                  Of course scientific studies in the field of genetics are very sophisticated and careful.  They have provided us a convincing picture of what genes are and what they do and have resulted in hybrid strains of plants and animals, and in new, and even patented, life forms.  However, all this work demonstrates only that genetic material is responsible for a number of physical structures and attributes. 

Everything genetics is trying to explain beyond that, certainly at this point, looks to end up as a fairy tale:

For example, a number of studies have reported that children who live with one or more stepparents are much more likely to be abused than are children who live with both of their biological parents.  Some evolutionary theorists will claim that this statistic supports evolutionary theory because .. biological parents will protect their own off-spring better to maximize getting their own genes into the gene pool of the next generation.  Aren`t there more immediate factors involved? It seems obvious that factors that contributed to the breakup of the birth family in the first place are likely to continue with both parents and children into subsequent family arrangements: for example unloving relationships between parents, stresses from the breakup, economic troubles, and any number of other social and cultural factors.  It seems that the evolutionary account of the abuse of these children is quite far removed from the immediate and compelling circumstances of the actual family.  Evolutionary theory does not seem--even by common sense--to be the most direct or obvious explanation of the phenomenon.

It should be noted that there is no scientific test that could possibly separate evolutionary causes from the host of social and personal causes of this sort of child abuse.  It would be impossible to design and conduct an experiment that could control for all social and personal variables and establish evolutionary forces to be the cause of the increased child abuse.  Evolutionary theory is not scientifically testable.  Its support depends entirely on the persuasiveness of the evolutionary theorist who tells the story in a way that agrees with the social facts. 

                  Darwin's work was essentially this sort of storytelling. He reported no sophisticated scientific demonstration of the validity of the theory. This is not to belittle the work of Darwin. But, post hoc “accounting for” does not make evolutionary theory true, nor scientific. 

The Logic Status of Most “Scientific” Arguments for Evolutionary/Genetic Causality: The danger of affirming the consequent. 

The logic of the problem is illustrated by the classical logical fallacy of “affirming the consequent.” It goes as follows:

  1. If evolutionary/genetic explanations are true, then we should observe that humans do X (some phenomenon).
  2. We observe that humans do X (this phenomenon).
  3. Therefore, evolutionary/genetic explanations are true.

                  This style of reasoning by affirming the consequent is not sound, because an unspecifiable number of other things might account for the same phenomenon instead of the evolutionary/genetic explanation.  Evidence generally martialled in favor of evolutionary/genetic accounts of human behavior is not genuinely scientific.  Rather, it is a case of argument and deduction.  And, as has been demonstrated, most often it is not a sound argument.

                  The criterion of falsifiability

At least since the publication of the influential work of Karl Popper (1959), a philosopher of science, it has been accepted in most scientific circles that a good, genuinely scientific theory--must be of the type that can be proven false.  That is, sound scientific practice demands that a theory must be capable of being tested in such a way that if the results do not turn out to be consistent with the predictions of the theory, then it can be concluded that the theory is false.  There is no experimental test that can settle the question of validity in the direct causal power of genetic material to produce non-material meaningful phenomena such as love, compassion, and meaning..

Most proponents of evolutionary/genetic theories of human behavior do not even attempt to formulate or explain their theories in a way that can be falsified. By contrast, the work of most experimental geneticists is sophisticated and scientifically sound.  Their experiments are routinely set up so that their predictions can be falsified by actual outcomes, and the mechanisms that connect genetic material to material outcomes are well-known. 

                  There is little argument that our genetic material plays a major role in such things as eye color, physical stature, and certain diseases.  These are physical characteristics and have a recognizably physical/chemical foundation.  What is not established by any careful scientific work is a) that psychological or mental events and behaviors (such as /love and compassion) can be produced by genetic material, and b) that there is some influential, abstract, cosmic force like evolution that controls such non-physical phenomena as meaningful human events, and governs their development and their manifestation. 

 Divine Nature and free agency: Examples of our own bias and story telling

                  The arguments we have just made thus far claim that evolutionary/genetic explanations are more examples of intellectually-motivated bias than scientific fact.  In the spirit of objectivity and fair play, we should be clear about the biases that form the foundation of our research and our accounts of human actions.

I have a slide here that talks about transparency. I like the word game of our bias is to be transparent in research, this creates transcendence. I think it fits well with what Dr. Köchler talked about earlier about getting to know and learning from other religions, other cultures. We have to be aware of our bias and be open, and be transparent about it. And that creates transcendence within cultures to a higher level, where we can all learn from our experiences.


The present writers` bias is that because family relationships have been ordained by God from the beginning of this earth life, human relationships have meaning that goes beyond anything genes could ever explain. We are God's creation and further His children or spiritual offspring. Our Heavenly Father gave us as most precious gift our use of free-agency, the gift to be agents unto ourselves and chose responsibly to change our nature to become more Christ-like, or God-like in our probation on earth. This gift of agency stands in direct opposition to the notion of us being mere marionettes or victims to any outside or genetic influences and this is central to what might be considered our intellectual and spiritual bias. We believe that we were agents in having chosen God's plan and that His plan would never require the dissolution of our agency. Further, using this agency rightly makes us free. This is why we call it “free” agency. We have chosen everything from the beginning. We chose to accept God’s plan to come to this earth to learn and grow.   We chose to accept our ordination to be born to our families. We chose to go through distinct trials to learn more about ourselves and about God, and to serve others. In like manner, we believe that WE CAN CHOOSE to love, we can choose compassion, and we can choose not to engage in anger or jealousy, or any of this kind of things. Only as agents do these qualities have true meaning for us.

                   Maybe any of you ever prayed to overcome anger in a moment of great emotion, when anger seemed so strong like a train already running on high speed and the only option for you was to jump on that train? Have you in that moment maybe shared with our Creator your feelings and pleaded for relief? Have any of you perhaps then felt and experienced a miraculous relief, from an unseen, yet real and true power that was beyond all initial logic? Have you perhaps experienced the miracle of love washing over you, being able to forgive someone and even show compassion? Even more so, have the windows of your understanding opened and you have perhaps seen things about the other person, or maybe even about yourself that you did not see before?

There is no record in history of a single scientific study that proved supernatural explanations of the living world to be false and evolutionary explanations to be true.  It is inconceivable that any experiment might ever be able to prove such a thing. The truth or falsity of evolutionary theory is not a scientific question. There are alternative methods of knowing besides the scientific method that yield sound knowledge or surety, if used in their proper context, even for such experiences with anger and compassion as just mentioned. While we cannot go into depth about this topic in this paper, it should be said here that supernatural explanations must be studied with methods that are congenial to the spiritual realm of reality. William James, in a very insightful essay in defense of human free will (1897/1956), argues that, when the validity of theories cannot be established with certainty based on scientific or conceptual grounds, then it is not only reasonable, but important to evaluate them on other grounds, including moral grounds.  He argues that rejecting a theory because of the moral consequences to which it leads is entirely legitimate.  Such a rejection is not simply religious or moral dogmatism, but it is an intellectually valid and responsible position.  In the spirit of William James, and given the lack of solid scientific and conceptual evidence for evolutionary/genetic theories of human behavior, it is important to be clear about the moral implications of those theories.


In conclusion, the story of evolutionary theory has become so popular that it has taken on a life of its own.  Before long, its very popularity convinces many that there is no alternative explanation of our behavior.  And people find it quite relatively easy to make the story fit the data of the world. 

                   If we accept evolutionary/genetic accounts of our behavior, then the love of parents for children, and spouses for each other, is the result of merely automatic and mindless processes.  We can feel hurt--emotional creatures that we are--but it is meaningless to do so.  Evolutionary/genetic accounts of our behaviors demolish the meaning of positive or negative experiences equally.       As we have argued above, evolutionary/genetic accounts of our behavior are not based in firm scientific findings; they are more story-telling than fact.  The logic on which they rely, is largely fallacious, relying as it often does on affirming the consequent.  Humans – and their intrinsic humanity -- are chopped off so they are less than humans and, at the same time, genes are stretched until they become much more than mere chemical molecules to fit the Procrustean bed of current evolutionary explanation. In the face of the lack of any compelling reasons to accept such explanations, we should yield to the weight of the very most important reasons for rejecting them--so that we can maintain and redeem our morality, or religion, and our very humanity.  Because we have a God-given eternal identity and purpose, human love, compassion, or anger take on a different meaning, especially when these qualities are exercised or rejected by one`s own free will and choice.

We should not agree to spend even one night in Procrustes' bed.

Thank you.



James, W. (1897/1956). The dilemma of determinism. In W. James, The will to believe and other essays in popular philosophy, (pp. 145-184). New York: Dover.

Popper, K. (1959). The logic of scientific discovery. New York: Basic Books.


Sign up via our free email subscription service to receive notifications when new information is available.