Evidence for common descent: DNA redundancy


I am not a biologist. The experiment I conducted is based on a preliminary knowledge of molecular biology. I welcome criticism and am open to be corrected on misconceptions. 


Anyone who looked into the subject of molecular biology knows that DNA forms some sort of "code" that is translated into proteins. Even creationists do not dispute that. Now the process how this is done is that the DNA is copied to mRNA (messenger RNA) which is identical to the DNA, except that the nucleotide T (thymine) is replaced by U (uracil). The translation mechanism then scans the RNA for a "start codon". A "codon" is 3 consecutive nucleotides (each of which can be A (adenine), U (uracil), C (cytosine) or G (guanine). The start codon is AUG. Whenever this codon is encountered, the mechanism starts translating the RNA one codon at a time to amino-acids and these amino-acids are chained to become the protein.

Since there are 3 nucleotides in a codon, and each nucleotide can be one of 4 possibilities, the number of codons that can be formed is 64 (i.e.. 4x4x4). However, there are not that many amino-acids that we find in our proteins. It so happens that some amino-acids are chosen from multiple codons. A table of which codon translates into which amino-acid can be found in the followin table (copied from the Wikipedia entry for "Genetic code"):

DNA redundancy

The genetic code and resulting proteins differs between organisms. These differences have often been used to create a phylogenetic tree indicating common descent. The objection from creationists is that these differences matter and that the creator made the proteins the way they are necessary for the organism. Even though I don't subscribe to that notion (as there have been experiments where proteins of organisms were replaced by similar proteins of wildly different organisms without a clear drawback), I am willing to grant that for the sake of argument. However, this defense does not hold for a variation in DNA that leads to the identical amino-acid. If common descent is false, we should not see a pattern where organisms that are more closely related according to the evolutionary theory show more similarity  than organisms that are further apart in said tree. There is no reason why there should be a variation in the first place and if there is a variation, it should be assumed to have formed after the creation of the organisms so we should not expect to find a pattern in this variation. If we do find a pattern, we can only come to two viable conclusions: either common descent is true or the creator of the organisms purposefully added a pattern where none was needed. The latter case is was I would qualify as deceptive.


Genetic information is freely available on the net. I followed the instructions by YouTube user "C0nc0rdance" in his video "The Joy of Phylogeny: How To Make Your Own Phylogram", to retrieve both protein and mRNA sequences for the same gene in different organisms in FASTA format. For my experiment I edited both files so that similar organisms have identical  FASTA labels in both files (I used easier names like "man", "chimp" and "roundworm" i.o. the official Genus-Species name, but it was also necessary since the protein and mRNA sequences use different FASTA labels. Where multiple versions of the gene were present in the genome, I appended a digit to the label. For the sake of completeness, here is the list of labels that I used for the different organisms and the official Genus-Species name:

bread_mouldNeurospora crassa
chimpPan troglodytes
cotton_mouldAshbya gossypii
cowBos taurus
dogCanis lupus familiaris
fission_yeastSchizosaccharomyces pombe
fowlGallus gallus
fruitflyDrosophila melanogaster
manHomo sapiens
mosquitoAnopheles gambiae
mouseMus musculus
ratRattus norvegicus
rhesus_monkey  Macaca mulatta
rice_fungusMagnaporthe oryzae
riceOryza sativa
roundwormCaenorhabditis elegans
thale_cressArabidopsis thaliana
yeast_klKluyveromyces lactis
yeast_saSaccharomyces cerevisiae
zebrafishDanio rerio

The first step is to find the common amino-acids in the protein. I used the program "ClustalW" to do a multiple alignment of the protein sequences. ClustalW adds a "summary" line indicating the similarity between amino-acids in the same position among the organisms. If all organisms share an identical amino-acid in the same position, it is denoted with an asterisk (*).

I wrote a perl script that will take both the output of the protein alignment as well as the mRNA file as input and will generate a new FASTA file containing only those RNA segments that code to amino-acids that are identical among all organisms. By building a phylogenetic tree based on these strings, only the variation between codons that code to the same amino-acids is measured. I used ClustalW to align the generated strings and calculate a phylogenetic tree. The resulting trees are screen dumps of the TreeView program.

The proteins I used are GAPDH, Actin Beta, Actin Gamma, Catalase, HPRT and UBE2K.

Resulting trees

Actin, Beta

Actin, Gamma


Even though the data set is not very large, a clear pattern emerges that organisms that are more closely related actually are more similar in the redundant nucleotides of the DNA. As far as I can tell, the necessity for this cannot be explained given a creation model where species do not share a common ancestry.

Data availability

The data used for this experiment has been retrieved from the HomoloGene database from NCBI webpage (select HomoloGene from the pulldown menu and search for the protein name). A zip file containing the RNA and protein sequences, the ClustalW output, the script output and the ClustalW output on that for all genes displayed here, as well as the script itself can be found via this link. Content of the zip file: the perl script is named "sameacid.pl". For each gene we have the following files:
<genename>_prot.txt: protein sequence, retrieved from NCBI
<genename>_rna.txt: mRNA sequence, retrieved from NCBI
<genename>_prot.aln: protein alignment output from ClustalW
<genename>_prot.dnd: protein tree output from ClustalW (Newick format)
<genename>_strip.txt: mRNA subset, output from sameacid.pl
<genename>_strip.aln: mRNA subset alignment by ClustalW
<genename>_strip.dnd: mRNA subset tree by ClustalW (Newick format)

The reader is encouraged to try this with other genes, preferably long genes with a high conservation among organisms.


South American men are APES!

Yes, you read that correctly. All men born in South America are apes. Just consider their posture, their limbs, their hips and their heads, clearly the posture, limbs, hips and heads we see in all apes. How could anyone not see the resemblance?

OK, let's be clear: the title is just a pun to grab your attention. I myself am male and born in South America and I too am an ape. And besides the South American males, so are all other human males and females in the world, and that includes you. We humans are just as much apes as all ducks are birds. Not all apes are humans but all humans are apes, just like not all birds are ducks but all ducks are birds. Ape is a more encompassing group that includes chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and humans. Now many people might argue that humans do not belong in this category since "apes" are hairier and have smaller brains than humans. These however are quantitative differences and not qualitative. Humans do have hairs all over their body with the exception of the palms and soles, but the hairs are thinner than that of other apes and our brains are bigger but their make-up is similar to that of other apes. Furthermore, biological taxonomy groups together organisms based on their similarities, not their difference.  The following is an elaboration that is based on a 2003 post to the Usenet group "talk.origins" by L. Aron Nelson (a.k.a "AronRa" from YouTube fame).

Humans are metabolic organisms.

That means that we can harvest and utilize our own energy that is needed for living. We share this trait with all animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, etc. Viruses don't have their own metabolism but depend on the cellular mechanism of host cells to multiply. For this reason many biologists do not consider viruses to be alive.

Humans are eucaryotes.

All the cells in our bodies contain a nucleus (which contains the nuclear DNA) and a number of organelles which have specific cellular functions (like the mitochodria which are essential for the cellular energy utilization and which contain their own DNA). The eucaryotes comprise one of the three domains of the tree of life, and the procaryotes (cells without a nucleus) comprise the other two domains, namely bacteria and archea. The latter were formerly mistaken to be bacteria but molecular biology has determined that they are a domain of their own.

Humans are animals.

Unlike the former two categories, some people have issues accepting this. Their idea of taxonomy is usually "plants, animals and humans", but as stated before, biological taxonomy is driven by similarities, not differences. Humans contain all traits that the animals have in common and that makes us an animal. All animals are heterotroph, which means that we have no means of producing our own energy and depend on killing other live to harvest it. Animals are multicellular (at least in their adult stage) and the cells consist of thin membranes, unlike the other multicellular organisms (plants, fungi and algae) which contain rigid cell walls. Animal cells are contained in collagen and glycoproteins. Not all animals are motile - sponges (porifera) are not - but all multicellular motile organisms are animals. That includes us.

Humans are craniates.

This simply means that we have a skull and a spinal cord. Having a spinal cord also makes us a chordate but unlike us, not all chordates are craniates.

Humans are vertebrates.

This means that our spinal cord is contained in a spine. All animals with a spine contain a skull and a spinal cord, but hagfishes contain a skull and spinal cord without a spine. That includes them in the craniates but not in the vertebrates. The fact that we have a skull with a jaw makes us part of the gnathostomata. There are vertebrates without a jaw (like lampreys) but all craniates with a jaw are vertebrates and thus contain a spine, as do we.

Humans are tetrapods.

We are jawed vertebrates with four limbs. Some tetrapods like snakes and whales have lost some or all of their limbs but these may still be present as vestigial organs and are also visible during part of the embryonic stage. The earliest lobe-finned fishes which seem ancestral to the amphibians (like tiktaalik rosea) were tetrapods as well. Since we are vertebrates with four limbs we qualify as well.

Humans are mammals.

Our females have mammary glands which produce milk to feed the young.We also have three middle-ear bones and our brains contain a neocortex. Most of the mammals give birth to live young except for the momotremes (like the platypus) which lay eggs, and some mammals carry their young in a pouch to complete the fetal stage (the marsupials). Placental mammals have a placenta where the fetus is kept until the end of the fetal stage when the young is born. Humans qualify in the latter category and are thus placental mammals.

Humans are primates.

We have two mammary glands on the chest i.o. on the abdomen, males have a pendulous penis, all limbs have five distinctive digits, the thumbs and big toes have flat nails, we have color vision and an enlarged cerebral cortex and we lack the ability to produce our own vitamin C. It's noteworthy that Carolus Linnaeus, the inventor of the biological taxonomy that is still in use today included humans in the group of primates even though he was a Christian creationist.

Humans are apes.

And here we complete the list with our starting statement. We have shoulder joints that allow for much movement of the arms, we have a bony stub instead of a tail, we have a dentition that includes incisors, canines, premolars and molars. We share these traits with all other apes along with all other traits that they have in common. That makes us an ape.

Note that both morphologically and genetically chimpanzees and humans have more in common with each other than each has in common to the gorilla. So if it makes sense to qualify both the chimpanzee and the gorilla as apes, it makes no sense to exclude humans from that group.

Next time someone makes you out to be an ape, confirm it and hit back by making him or her out to be a fungi, or next time someone claims not to be descendent to an ape, specify that you are and respectfully question if they happen to be descendent from a turtle instead.

Sources used:

AronRa's 2003 posting:
and his superb page on taxonomy:

Tree of Life web project:

The source of all knowledge:


My mini prayer experiment

I frequently listen to the podcast of the Unbelievable radio show from the London based station Premier Christian Radio. The program has frequent debates between Christians and non-Christians. In September the host of the show, Justin Brierly, initiated the Atheist Prayer Experiment, where atheists are challenged to pray 40 days for 2 to 3 minutes a day for God to reveal himself. This experiment is based on a paper by Christian philosopher Tim Mawson titled "Praying to stop being an atheist"(1). In the paper Mawson opted that Atheists who consider the possibility of God existing to be non-zero have no reason not to pray for God to reveal himself (the paper is written from a clear Christian perspective, referring to the deity as "God" and capitalizing the personal pronouns but states that the prayer should be sufficient for any god). Mawson compares the exercise as entering a dark cave of which you hear that a wise man is in the cave. He argues that even if you're not sure that is the case, there is no reason not to call out to the man to see if you get a reaction.

As I made clear in another (old) log post, I lack believe in anything supernatural and I actually disbelieve in the existence of the Christian god. In that regard, I consider myself a strong atheist. Still, I do not have an undeniable proof that the Christian god (or any other god for that matter) does not exist, so in my opinion I qualify the type of atheists that Mawson referred to. I think the far majority of atheists qualify, even Richard Dawkins, one of atheism's primary advocates wrote in his book "The God Delusion" that he is not absolutely certain that no gods exist(2). I think Mawson has a point. It is also common argument from theists to ask "have you asked God to reveal himself to you?". Well, now there was an opportunity to do just that.

I wrote an email to Justin Brierly, requesting more information about the experiment. In the email I gave an example of what I would consider a verifiable experiment. I wanted the experiment to be specific so anyone could verify if the revelation happened or not. Justin read my email on air(3). In response Justin said that the idea was to make the request broad which is in line with Mawson's paper where he stated that you should not request to "turn this water into wine". In this I disagree with both Justin and Tim Mawson as you then leave the interpretation open to confirmation bias and I doubt that the term "experiment" can be justly applied. For this reason I decided to forego participation in the experiment. I think there is a biblical precedence for clear verifiability of God's revelation. The examples of Gideon and his woolen fleece (Judges 6:36-40) and of Thomas who wanted clear evidence of the resurrected Jesus (John 20:24-28) come to mind. What's more, like the "water into wine" example by Tim Mawson, these examples require an unnatural act. I do not need that, but I need something specific that is determined up front, not retrospectively, to consider it a revelation.

I also frequent the site http://www.biblesupport.com that makes modules available for offline bible study software on Windows PC's (e-Sword), Windows Mobile phones (Pocket e-Sword) and Android devices (MySword). There I go by the handle "Atheist Rob". The reason for this handle is not to stir conflicts but to make clear where I am coming from. I have written a few scripts that can convert one type of module into another and made those available on the website. If any user of the site wants to steer clear from any "atheistic product", he or she should be aware of that. That said, I have mostly positive experiences of my interactions on that site, even if I disagree with the members on theological issues.

With one of the users I had a conversation that touched on the prayer experiment. He suggested to have a prayer experiment of our own, where not only I but he and some other Christians would also pray for God to reveal himself to me. I made it very clear what I would consider a revelation and after some prayer on his side, he concluded that the experiment should continue. He suggested that we try the praying for a week. The first day of praying would be September 15th 2012 and on September 23th we would evaluate if God had revealed himself. If what I prayed for would happen, I would believe in God's existence without a single doubt in my mind. That would not mean that I would believe in every Christian doctrine (like a young earth) and it would not even necessarily mean that I would worship God, but I would surely believe that he existed. I created a document with the specifics that I would pray for. I encrypted the document and made the encrypted version available online. I also calculated a SHA-256 hash of the unencrypted document and posted that in a tiny blog post named "Verifiability". I posted that so that when I would write this blog post, readers of this post could verify that the content of my prayer was made up front.

I prayed for 8 nights, sincerely, for God to reveal himself. The texts varied slightly from night to night, but my prayer went something like this (in Dutch but translated here):
Dear God, I don't believe in you, but many people do. If you do exist I want to ask you to reveal yourself to me. The way I know you revealed yourself is if a specific person reacts to me on the website www.biblesupport.com. This should be someone that I went to the "J.C. de Miranda" high school with in Paramaribo, Suriname. It should be someone who I knew at the high school but who I have not had any contact with since my departure from Suriname in 1990. This person should place a reaction on my blog page on the website where I write about the argument from morality. He should react surprised by my open proclamation of my atheism and should have expected that I would either be religious or spiritual, given my interest in religion when attending high school. If this happens, I will believe you are real and proclaim that believe. This I pray in Jesus' name.
 Not too bad for an atheist is you ask me. On the 23th of September I checked the website one last time before revealing the password to the document. Even while writing this blog post, no such reaction of an ex-schoolmate has been made. I revealed the password to the encrypted document (MJEOMDmrWj427P6CecA4, decryption can be done with AEScrypt) and made the unencrypted version available online. Anyone who is interested can verify the sha256 hash to this document and can verify that I have written the document before September the 16th, when I posted the "Verifiability" blog entry. Windows users could use the "md5deep" tools for this, Linux users (and I assume Mac users as well) can use the sha256sum command.

I shouted, there was no answer.

What do I conclude from this experiment? Not that God does not exist. I can conclude however that either he does not exist, or he does but does not want to reveal himself to me, at least, not yet. It has strengthened my disbelief though. I think I played by the rules of the Christian doctrine except maybe that I did not interpret random signs with an extremely strong Christian bias. That last part is a bridge too far for me. So if now a Christian says to me "why don't you ask God to reveal himself to you", I can honestly say that I have and that there was nothing there. If the Christian god does still exist and has the attributes of omniscience and omnipotence as the Christian claim, he is perfectly capable of convincing me. I will keep studying the bible and other religious material, purely out of interest in the subject matter, but regarding the answer to the question if God exists, I think I am justified to take on a passive stance and assume the null hypothesis.

  1. T.J. Mawson:  Praying to stop being an atheist
    International Journal for Philosophy of Religion
    June 2010, Volume 67, Issue 3, pp 173-186
    Abstract at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11153-010-9227-8
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spectrum_of_theistic_probability
  3. The audio of the episode is available at http://media.premier.org.uk/unbelievable/aa266028-8748-4d6b-8024-88f44b49f7b6.mp3. The relevant part is in the feedback section at the 1:12:30 mark)



Just for the record, I'm posting a hash to a document. I'm posting it up front so that everyone can verify later when the document is made available that it is unchanged as of now. In a week it may be of significance.



The myth of an objective morality


The moral argument for the existence of God is presented by many Christian apologists as strong evidence for their case, spearheaded by the famous Christian philosopher and apologist Dr. William Lane Craig. The argument takes the form of the following syllogism (Dr. Craig's version1):
  • Premise 1: If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  • Premise 2: Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.
The syllogism is logically sound. If the premises at true, the conclusion logically follows. It is also clear that the argument has appeal; recently a vocal atheist blogger named Leah Libresco2 converted to Catholicism, basing the reason for her conversion on the argument from morality. As with any syllogism, the conclusion only follows if the premises hold. In this article I propose that neither of the premises do and focus the meat of the article on the second premise.

Premise 1

Some atheists like Matt Dillahunty from the Atheist Experience TV show in Austin, Texas3 accept premise 2 (the existence of an objective morality) but see no need to posit a god to explain it. I agree that in so far that objective moral or immoral acts would exist, it is hard to see how a god would be necessary to determine if and how those acts are moral or not. The Euthyphro dilemma4 comes to mind here. Either the morality is subjective (as it depends on God's opinion) or it is objective but then there is no god necessary for that determination5. And if, for the sake of argument we would grant that an objective morality exists and that a god is needed to lay the foundations for that objectivity, how exactly are these communicated to us? If we look at how the moral zeitgeist has shifted in the past 20 centuries, one can only conclude that either the Christian god has a sloppy way of communicating his foundations or morality is far from objective (for the sake of brevity I disregard the possibility of non-Christian gods, but in general the objection to those is analogous). Less than 2 centuries ago, slavery was still commonplace in Christian countries and Christians claim the credits for its abolishment (contrary to their own scriptures). Then women had to gain equal rights, then the same had to happen for non-caucasian races and we are at the brink of granting equal rights to homosexuals. If history is any indicator, in a couple of decades Christians will claim the credits for that grant as well.

But even though all previous objections to premise 1 are valid in my opinion, those are not my primary objections to the argument from morality. I primarily take issue with premise 2. I don't believe in the existence of an objective morality.


Unlike most apologists I've encountered, Dr. Craig makes a distinction between moral values and duties, the former indicating what is good or bad and the latter indicating on what is right or wrong. The distinction deals mainly with the presence or absence of an obligation to act or not to act. I disagree with Dr. Craig that values (good or bad acts) are within the scope of morality, the reason for which will become clear later. The second distinction that Dr. Craig makes is between objective and subjective. He defines objective as an independence of anyone's opinion. Even though this is enough for my case against the moral argument, I think he sells it short. To be objective it should also be independent of circumstances. If an act is moral in one situation but the same act is immoral in another situation, I have a hard time to understand it as objectively moral or immoral.

Now let's study a few examples to see if the act is moral. Dr. Craig has a favorite example: torturing babies for fun is objectively morally wrong6. I don't think so and will get back to that example, but let's start easier.

Example 1: is lying morally wrong?

Of course, you'd say. The Christian bible made that such an important issue that it is even named as number 9 from the 10 commandments: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour" (Exodus 20:16). Imagine that my colleague lost his wallet containing a few hundred euros and I found it. If on request I would lie and tell him that I haven't seen his wallet so I can keep the money, it would pretty much constitute an immoral act. Now in another situation, imagine that I had an affair outside of my marriage and ceased having the affair. If my wife would ask me if I had an affair and I would lie by telling her I didn't, it's not so clear that the lie is an immoral act. Telling the truth would hurt her feelings and could cause a breakup of the marriage which could be detrimental to all parties involved, not only me. The drawback of lying in this case is that an earlier immoral act goes unpunished but that is irrelevant to the evaluation of the later lie. So would this lie be an immoral act? I'd say the jury is out there. (Please note that all examples are purely hypothetical, this one included!) Now let's go one step further. Let's assume that your neighbor stands at your door covered with cuts and bruises and she seeks refuge at your home because she is afraid that her husband will kill her. You grant the refuge. Now if some time later the husband rings your doorbell holding a baseball bat and asks if you've seen his wife, would it be immoral to lie to him? I think quite the contrary, it would be immoral not to lie to him.
This example shows that the same act, namely purposefully lying to someone else, can be judged as immoral, moral or ambiguous depending on the circumstances. So is purposefully lying to someone else objectively immoral? I'd say no.

Example 2: is purposefully causing someone else physical pain morally wrong?

In general you'd say yes, but here too it depends on the situation. If I'm angry at someone and hit her in the face (unprovoked), it should be considered an immoral act. If you spank your child you are also causing physical pain. Many Christians would say (based on the bible book Proverbs) that this is the moral thing to do for it is part of properly raising your child. I'm not so sure and I am not alone in this hesitation. As a parent I think I've not done all too bad in raising my children and I can remember only once that I spanked one of them. In retrospect I don't think even that was necessary and in general I think it's not. If I take into account that spanking has gone horribly wrong in a few infamous cases and the fact that it does not seem to be a necessary part of good parenting, I'd say that the morality of spanking a child is at least ambiguous. What about physical pain caused by a tattoo artist? Here the pain is inflicted by request and the act is generally not considered immoral. Some people, like those who interpret the KJV translation of Leviticus 19:28 literally, might consider it immoral but that consideration is based on the aversion towards tattoos, not on the affliction of pain (here too the moral zeitgeist has shifted).  What about a surgeon who inflicts wounds on someone's abdomen for being able to remove a tumor? Here we'd say that it is the moral act to inflict the wound. This theme, doing something bad for a greater good, is a general theme in (Dutch) jurisprudence and is named "absence of material illegality" (translated literally). In Dutch jurisprudence this is established in the 1933 case in front of the Dutch supreme court where a veterinarian purposefully exposed healthy cows to the disease during an epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease, an act which is forbidden by law. But by doing so, he exposed the cows to a light form of the disease to boost their immune system so they could resist the heavy form if and when it would arise. For aforementioned reason the court acquitted the veterinarian7.
Again we see that in the case of inflicting pain the morality depends on the circumstances.

Example 3: the expensive Chinese vase.

The two previous examples show acts that can be judged as moral or immoral depending on the circumstances. That was not included in Dr. Craigs distinction between objective and subjective.  Now let's use look at two examples would qualify his distinction. If I have a verbal fight with someone and my anger raises to a point where I take an expensive Chinese vase belonging to the other person and throw it on the ground where it breaks, I clearly commit an immoral act. Now what if a baby who has barely learned to walk picks the vase and throws it on the ground to see if it bounces, and it breaks? I can hardly think of anyone who would consider it immoral. Why?  Because the baby lacks the capacity to make a moral judgment about the act.  That would not make the act any less bad, a very expensive vase has just been destroyed, but here is a clear example that bad does not constitute immoral.  For this reason I think that Dr. Craig's  distinction between moral values and moral duties is superfluous. The primary parameter to determine if an act is moral or not is the actor's ability to make the moral judgment on the act.
So yes, personal opinion does matter and here is a clear example which is not objectively moral by Dr. Craig's own definition of objectivity.

Example 4: torturing babies.

This is an example that Dr. Craig has used a few times in debates.  Quoting Dr. Craig:
It seems to me far more plausible that there is objective right and wrong; for example, torturing babies for fun is wrong. And if you agree with me tonight that that is objectively morally wrong, then you would agree with me that therefore God exists.8
Now just like in the previous example, even this extreme example is immoral if and only if the torturer is capable of making the moral judgment. What if the torturer has an extreme form of narcissistic personality disorder and actually thinks that torturing babies is funny while seeing no harm in the act of torturing? Such a person is an extreme danger to society and we would lock him up in a mental institution to prevent such acts of happening, but we would not conclude that the act was immoral for the same reason that we do not consider the baby's act in the previous example to be immoral: the actor lacks the capacity to make a moral judgment. It is not without reason that judges do not penalize small children or mentally handicapped people for acts that get mentally healthy adults convicted. We as a society will take measures to prevent repetition of the act which might include forcibly hospitalizing the person, but we do not judge the act as immoral, not even an extreme act as this example. Even torturing babies for fun is not objectively immoral.


We've seen a couple of examples showing that either the circumstances or the actor's opinion is influencing the moral evaluation of an act by the society at large. Limiting the scope of such acts to only those situations that the rule generally applies to or only to people who have the capacity to make a moral judgment would move the goalpost, which is a fallacy. Such a limitation has nothing left in common with objectivity.

On the other hand, even though I think I have shown that these examples are not objective in their morality, I have not disproved premise 2. Doing that is impossible, since that would constitute proving a negative. All I can do is to evaluate examples from the other camp, like Dr. Craig's "torturing babies" example. The positive statement is being made by the apologist so the onus is on him or her to provide an example that is objectively moral or immoral. I take the null hypothesis and lack believe in the existence of an objective morality until such is proven.

Secular morality

In many debates where Dr. Craig uses the argument from morality, he presents a false dichotomy by claiming that without a god-ordained objective morality, everything is permitted. As an example I again quote him from the Pigliucci debate:
What about objective morality? Here Dr. Pigliucci is clearly in a deep existential dilemma: he affirms that morality is not objective--it is the invention of human beings--, but he cannot bring himself to say that therefore anything goes. He wants to cling to moral values. But, you see, for an atheist these values are floating in the air: they have no objective basis.8 
This is such a misrepresentation of secular morality that I wonder if his misrepresentation is accidental or intentional. Yes, on a per person level one could actually say that anything goes, but we are not living on deserted islands. We are part of communities and within those communities, a consensus on morality is reached. In general this consensus seems to thrive on minimizing harm and promoting happiness in the community. Dr. Craig's examples of crimes in Nazi Germany, the killing fields in Cambodia and the like are straw men arguments. One could say that according to the morality of the perpetrators the actions were moral (even though I doubt even that: in power structures people can be made to do things that are contrary to their own morality, see e.g. the Stanley Milgram experiment9), but more important than that, the moral judgment of the victims is left out of the equation.

Secondly, if the argument: "without a divinely ordained objective morality, anything goes" would hold any water, then there should be at least be a minor positive correlation between communities where the religious adherence is low and a morally detriment society. It seems that the contrary is observed. A cursory survey of the religiosity of the prison population in the U.S. shows that atheists are underrepresented in comparison to the demography of the total population10.  Another example is that in comparing various European countries and the Unites States, the countries with lower religious adherence tend to have happier and more empathetic societies11. Even comparing various states in the United States12 in similar ways show the same trend.

So if not divinely ordained, where exactly does morality come from? The answer is not evident, but I strongly adhere to the theory that morality is a product of natural selection. We see primitive forms of morality in other animals species, e.g. the reciprocal altruism we find in the blood sharing between blood sucking vampires13 but also empathetic behavior among chimps14. Dr. Craig often quotes philosopher Michael Ruse15 who also holds the position that morality is an evolved trait and quotes it (slightly mockingly) as if it should be self-evident that the position is wrong, but he offers no rebuttal to it. He just goes back to his premises and assumes they are proven. They are not. Also, from an evolutionary perspective, kinship is important. That's why we are more likely to lend a helping hand to closely related individuals than we are to do that for others that are not that closely related, especially when the help we provide has an impact on our own lives.  I could imagine donating both my kidneys to one of my children, but I don't think I would donate a single kidney to a stranger unless I would be terminally ill (or dead).  This makes perfect sense from Richard Dawkins' "selfish gene" evolutionary perspective.

From a personal perspective, I would say that my morality is mostly based on selfish reasons: I would not want to live in a society where it is commonplace to treat others immorally our unjustly because I wouldn't want to be a victim of such treatment myself. That's why I will contribute my part in preventing such a society of getting a foothold. The general rule that I use to determine when to contribute or not, is the Platinum rule (a variant on the Golden rule): treat others the way they themselves wish to be treated. This is not an absolute rule though. It is more of a guiding principle and is limited by some factors like reciprocity and personal cost. As an example of the first: I will not help a convicted criminal to escape his sentence since he/she did not treat society likewise. As an example of the second, I will not help my neighbor in doing something that will endanger myself or others.


  1. Described on Dr. Craig's article "The New Atheism and Five Arguments for God" under section 3, "The Moral Argument Based upon Moral Values and Duties", retrieved on August 8th, 2012
  2. Leah Libresco blogs at "Unequally Yoked". The blog on her conversion is at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked/2012/06/this-is-my-last-post-for-the-patheos-atheist-portal.html
  3. The Atheist Experience: http://www.atheist-experience.com/
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthyphro_dilemma
  5. I am aware of the objection to the Euthyphro dilemma, i.e. that there is a third option: morality is part of God's nature. Dr. Craig has a paragraph in the article mentioned in note 1 where he makes this exact point. Dr. Garret Merriam, a philosopher at USI, dealt with this on his YouTube channel. The third option triggers a next-level dilemma, i.e. "is God in control of his nature or is God not in control of his nature". In the first case we are back at subjective morality. In the second case, something other than and outside of God is the true source of morality and we are at risk of getting into an infinite regress.
  6. One debate where Dr. Craig used this example is the 1998 debate with Dr. Massimo Pigliucci, transcribed on his website "Reasonable Faith"  (retrieved on August 8th, 2012)
  7. This case is known as "Huizense veearts" at is available in the journal Nederlandse Jurisprudentie NJ 1933.918.
  8. The same section as linked to in note 6: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/does-god-exist-the-craig-pigliucci-debate#section_5
  9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment
  10. This is the result of an 1997 inquiry by Rod Swift from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, online available at http://holysmoke.org/icr-pri.htm (retrieved on August 8th, 2012). It would be worthwhile if a formal study on this subject would be conducted.
  11. This is clear from the 2005 study by Gregory Paul, published in the Journal of Religion and Society, online available at http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.pdf
  12. Visually represented in the following table: http://i.imgur.com/kpb5A.png. The studies used for this image are given in the image, some of these are no longer online.
  13. Gerald S. Wilkinson, Reciprocal food sharing in the vampire bat, published in Nature, Volume 308, Issue 5955, pp. 181-184 (1984), abstract available online at http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1984Natur.308..181W
  14. See the article "The Evolution of Empathy" by Dr. Frans de Waal a primatologist from Emory University (retrieved on August 8th, 2012)
  15. http://www.reasonablefaith.org/does-god-exist-the-craig-pigliucci-debate#section_1