In chapter 6 of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asks, “Why are we good?” and offers an explanation for the origin of morality without God. He, like most modern atheists, attributes human morality to an evolutionary process which favored altruistic behavior. We try to be “good” because we evolved in an environment in which helping our kin group made it more likely that our genes (either in ourselves or in relatives) would survive long enough to reproduce, carrying this instinctive altruism into the next generation. Today, in a more complex and interconnected world, those inherited ethical instincts still drive us to “do unto others” even when those others are no longer related to us.
So, Dawkins concludes, “our Good Samaritan urges,” such as “the human urge to adopt a child,” are really just evolutionary “misfirings.” However, he immediately adds, in possibly the two most striking sentences in the book, “I must rush to add that ‘misfiring’ is intended only in a strictly Darwinian sense. It carries no suggestion of the pejorative.” What is surprising is not that Dawkins wanted to quickly dispel any thought that he might be dismissing the value of moral behavior, but that he failed to see that those two sentences dynamited the carefully constructed argument which preceded them.