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Does our Morality come from our DNA?

Frank, is out of town for a week and has honored me by asking me to post a few blogs in his absence. My name is Neil Mammen, I consider myself a pop-apologist. I see my evening job as taking complex apologetic concepts, and simplifying it such that lay people can take timeless truths and rational arguments and use it in their daily discussions around the water cooler or class.

During the day, I design systems, circuits, ASICs and FPGAs as an engineer in Silicon Valley. I’ve done a lot of work in Video and Networking with about 4 startup companies and a few patents in my background. I grew up in Africa and the Middle East speaking Arabic and spent a lot of my younger life traveling and living around the world.

If you wish to read some of my other writings, and see a picture of the most gorgeous woman in the world (my wife) go over to my website or

The Background

A few months ago I was lucky enough be able to get one of the few non-student tickets to the Chris Hitchens vs. Jay Richards debate in a very crowded auditorium at Stanford University. Ben Stein of Expelled fame was moderating. Now for the sake of full disclosure I have to disclose that Jay Richards is a friend of mine so it makes sense that I’d be biased towards thinking he decimated Chris in the debate. However, you may find it interesting to note that even the founder of the “Atheists of Silicon Valley” agreed that Jay won the debate that day.

I would summarize the debate as such:

Jay: Here’s the evidence for the existence of God. (Lists the Moral, Telelogical, etc)

Chris: I hate religious people. Ad hominems, ad hominems, ad hominems, Mormons are weird and sick (goes off on some other unrelated issues)

Jay: We are not talking about Mormons? Let me expand on my previous arguments. (expands on it, does not take the ad Hominem bait)

Chris: Ad hominems, ad hominems, ad hominems, I have large sexual organs (seriously but uses the 4 letter words a juvenile would use). Religious people have killed lots of people.

Jay: Actually that’s not true (lists why, then provides more information on the previous arguments).

Chris: I have great sexual abilities, my male organ is humongous (says it the 7th grade way again). Jay do you actually believe in the Resurrection and the Virgin birth.

Jay: Yes I do.…. By the way do notice who has been throwing out insults and not really answering any of my arguments.

Chris: Why are you whining about me insulting you. More ad homimes. I live for sex and have lots of kids.

And so the debate ended.

Seriously, that was it. OK OK for a more detailed report see the link at the bottom of this entry by a journalist who attended.

The encounter and the Claim

After the debate was over I went over to chat with Jay. He was busy at first talking to some of the organizers. But up on stage were a couple of Chris’s fellow atheists; one was sporting a very faded “Atheist of Silicon Valley” t-shirt (not the founder noted above).

They seemed to be a in a bad mood and it turned out that they felt that Chris had let them down and not dealt with any of the arguments properly. I’m not sure why they were so antagonistic (sour grapes maybe) but they seemed to want to attack everyone after they attacked Chris for being incompetent. Chris of course refused to talk with them and ran off, probably to meet some of his like minded Stanford professors. I wasn’t going to play since I avoid debating with upset people whenever I can help it. What the point of a friendly discussion if it’s neither friendly nor a discussion?

In those cases, I merely ask questions and register their responses. For some reason that seemed to irritate them more.

One of the statements they made was that “morals don’t come from a “god”, they come from our DNA.” My first question was: Wait, if that’s the case then why do we DO “immoral” things.

The retort back was: Don’t interrupt me! I didn’t say that we are slaves to our DNA, did I (as you can see he was a bit touchy).

“Oh”, I said. “Interesting. I’ll have to think about that.”

Let’s think about this

So now I’ve had time to think about it. It doesn’t seem to make sense, nor does it seem rational. Let me see if I can state the problems I’m having.

First, understand that this was said in the context of the standard moral arguments that had already been made. i.e.

  1. You can’t say something is actually wrong without an absolute moral standard and
  2. You can’t have an absolute moral standard unless there was an absolute moral standard giver.


  1. The absolute moral standard giver has to be someone who has authority over all mankind, as anything else would merely be a cultural value or a preference and wouldn’t be “actually” wrong.

As I put it:

If there is NO absolute moral standard, why was Hitler wrong?

If there IS an absolute moral standard, why do YOU get to decide what that is and not Hitler?

OK given all that, you can see why an atheist may find DNA as a source of morality appealing.

But here’s the problem I see with the DNA theory: If DNA is the source of our morality then can anyone really say that something is ACTUALLY wrong? Why is slavery wrong? After all, for most of the history of the human race, the majority of the human race and human cultures have felt and believed that slavery was acceptable (as long as THEY weren’t the slaves).

Even Africans have had slaves (and still do in Sudan where I grew up), and from what I understand of Native American cultures, they had slaves of other tribes, so did South Americans. In the Indian subcontinent, the concept of discrimination and pseudo slavery still exists in the caste system. And even if you were to find a few exceptions to the rule, you could not argue that a majority of the civilizations in history thought slavery was immoral. So you would have no basis to imagine that any group had DNA that was prompting them to think slavery was bad.

It wasn’t until the 1800’s when a group of (non-enslaved) Christians decided that slavery was immoral and just as importantly, had ALWAYS been immoral. But this was based on what they claimed was a law from God. These religious freaks were so convicted of this that they convinced William Wilberforce to work to change the British laws and ban slavery. This movement came to the states with Christians and the Quakers agitating for freedom for all mankind and eventually to the birthing of the Republican party and the freeing of the slaves in the US.

Note this later resulted in the Civil Rights movement that allowed me to legally marry my gorgeous wife less than four decades years later.

So the question is: Did everyone’s DNA suddenly change in the late 1800’s? How can one fathom such a physical change? Note it seems to me that it’s not sufficient for a few influential people to “feel” slavery was wrong. DNA is a physical thing, and it’s only passed on by direct physical inheritance. Thus it seems to me that the only way an anti-slavery moral value could be passed on would be to one’s kids. But that concept sounds ludicrous, for that would mean, one person would believe slavery was wrong through some genetic drift or  mutation (an abnormal event) and he would pass that “conviction” down to his offspring. This belief would also have to allow those who believed in slavery being wrong to survive better than the slave owners, and eventually those who believed slavery was wrong would become predominant in the population and they would then change the laws and thus the culture or vice versa. But anyone would imagine that oppressing some other culture and forcing them to work for you can only be economically prosperous and advantageous to having larger families. I.e. if I own slaves and have lots of free labor, I can have more kids and they will be richer than those poor genetic freaks whose DNA has made them think having free slaver labor is somehow immoral. Or even those poor self-righteous religious freaks who think all men have rights from some non-existent God.

Another Problem

And that’s just one problem. Another problem is seems is that if the moral code is written into our DNA, doesn’t that appear to refute evolution. After all the moral code seems to go expressly against the concept of selfish self preservation and survival of the fittest. Of course one could argue that our DNA has evolved in the last 6000 years of human civilization so now we “need” to be kind, sacrificial and share to survive. But that still doesn’t explain why sacrificing oneself for the sake of others who are not even related to you is of value. After all if as Dawkins has said, the gene is selfish, how selfish can a gene be if it’s willing to die to save the life of other people’s offspring. And how does that gene then get passed on. It would seem that the DNA of the people who survive would be the DNA that says DO NOT sacrifice your life for anybody but your own offspring.

So I’m curious how the DNA argument can stand. I’m open to suggestions. After all I could be wrong and could have missed something.

[For a journalist’s review of the Richards Hitchins debate go here:

I do not know the journalist, but coincidentally the insightful and articulate person he quotes toward the end of the review, with the last name Mammen is indeed my wife.]

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