Is Darwinian Evolution Compatible with Free Will and Personal Responsibility?

John G. West
Discovery Institute
May 1, 2009

Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly... [including the idea that] human free will is nonexistent... Free will is a disastrous and mean social myth.”—William Provine, Professor of History of Biology, Cornell University.1

In The Descent of Man, Darwin explained human behavior largely as the function of pre-determined—and often anti-social—instincts. For all of Darwin’s praise of man’s sociability, he wrote that “it cannot be maintained that the social instincts are ordinarily stronger in man, or have become stronger through long-continued habit, than the instincts… of self-preservation, hunger, lust, vengeance, &c.”2  What did this mean in practice? “At the moment of action,” wrote Darwin, “man will no doubt be apt to follow the stronger impulse; and though this may occasionally prompt him to the noblest deeds, it will far more commonly lead him to gratify his own desires at the expense of other men.”3 

Darwin tried to soften the implications of his view by going on to claim that men will learn to regret their impulsive actions and eventually this regret will create in them a conscience. However, Darwin did not convincingly explain why the conscience would trump instincts he earlier depicted as so overwhelming. Even if conscience is able to counteract the anti-social instincts in some men, presumably those who act anti-socially are only following their own strongest instincts. If this be the case, how responsible are those who act against society?

Darwin in The Descent of Man doesn’t directly address the consequences of his account for free will and personal responsibility. He was more open in his in unpublished notebooks. There he wrote that “the general delusion about free will [is] obvious,” and that one ought to punish criminals “solely to deter others”—not because they did something blameworthy.4  “This view should teach one profound humility,” wrote Darwin, “one deserves no credit for anything… nor ought one to blame others.” Darwin denied that such a fatalistic view would harm society because he thought that ordinary people would never be “fully convinced of its truth,” and the enlightened few who did embrace it could be trusted.   

There is no question that materialists have found inspiration in Darwin’s view that man’s mental faculties arose through a purely purposeless material process of chance and necessity. In the words of nineteenth-century German physiologist Emil Du Bois-Reymond, “the evolution theory in connection with the doctrine of natural selection forces upon [man]... the idea that the soul has arisen as the gradual result of certain material combinations....”5 Noted evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould expressed the same view, arguing that according to Darwin’s theory “matter is the ground of all existence: mind, spirit, and God as well, are just words that express the wondrous results of neuronal complexity.”6

It should be no surprise, then, that attacks on free will and personal responsibility have featured prominently in Darwinian accounts of human behavior during the past century-and-a-half. For example, Darwinism played a key role in the development of the “new school of criminology” by Cesare Lombroso and others in the late nineteenth century. These criminologists tried to find Darwinian explanations for why people engaged in crime, even labeling some persons “born criminals” because they were supposed to be throwbacks to an earlier stage in evolutionary history. Lombroso and his followers repudiated the traditional idea that “crime involved… moral guilt.” Italian Jurist Enrico Ferri, one of Lombroso’s most celebrated disciples, argued that it was no longer reasonable to believe that human beings could make choices outside the normal chain of material cause and effect given the advent of modern science, particularly the work of Charles Darwin. Ferri looked forward to the day when punishment and vengeance would be abandoned and crime would be treated as a “disease.”7

The diminishment of free will is likewise rampant among today’s purveyors of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. MIT psychologist Steven Pinker, who Arnhart cites with approbation, has argued publicly for more lenient treatment of mothers who commit infanticide. Why? According to Pinker, natural selection made them do it! “[T]he emotional circuitry of mothers has evolved to cope with th[e] uncertain process [of raising children], so the baby killers turn out to be not moral monsters but nice, normal (and sometimes religious) young women.”8  

In his bestselling book The Moral Animal, evolutionary psychology booster Robert Wright goes even further, declaring “free will is an illusion, brought to us by evolution”9  and “[u]nderstanding the often unconscious nature of genetic control is the first step toward understanding that —in many realms, not just sex—we’re all puppets....”10  Wright does add that “our best hope for even partial liberation is to try to decipher the logic of the puppeteer.”11  But if “free will is an illusion,” precisely how can we liberate ourselves from “the puppeteer”? And if human beings truly are “puppets” to their genes, puppets whose “emotions are just evolution’s executioners”12  (again quoting Wright), in what sense can people be blamed if they simply act according to their deepest impulses?

It is true that a number of Darwinists are likely repelled by the implications of their own theory when it comes to free will. Thus, while evolutionist William Provine at Cornell openly proclaims the denial of free will as a corollary of Darwinism, he concedes that “[e]ven evolutionists have trouble swallowing that implication.”13  The real question is not whether some evolutionists are squeamish about denying free will, but whether their scientific outlook allows them any rational basis to affirm it.  Sociobiologist David Barash is more honest than many in admitting the tension between his own subjective experience of free will in daily life and his belief that “there can be no such thing as free will for the committed scientist....”14  Barash is willing to live with what he calls the “unspoken hypocrisy” of preaching materialistic determinism in public even while acting as if he has free will in private. At least he is willing to admit his hypocrisy. The point here is that Darwinists who try to cling to free will do so in spite of their theoretical commitment to materialism, not because of it.

Darwinian political theorist Larry Arnhart wants to do better than Barash and find a way to make Darwinism actually consistent with free will. Recognizing the debilitating impact of what he calls “strong reductionism,” Arnhart does his best to disentangle Darwinism from it, insisting that “[i]n contrast to the reductionism often associated with modern science, Darwinian conservatism affirms the idea of emergence.”15  By “emergence,” Arnhart means there are “special capacities of the human soul... manifesting the emergent complexity of life, in which higher levels of organization produce mental abilities that cannot be found at lower levels.”16 Whether “emergence” truly helps make Darwinism safe for free will, however, is doubtful.

To make his case, Arnhart draws on the work of Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz of UCLA, whose fascinating research seeks to demonstrate that our mental thoughts can produce physical changes in the brain. For Arnhart, the clear lesson of Schwartz’s research is that “the mind that emerges from the human brain can change the brain itself. This emergent power of the brain for mental attention is the natural ground for human freedom.”17  Yet it is not clear what the word “emergent” adds to Arnhart’s description.  Schwartz’s research does try to show the power of the human mind to act on the physical brain. But in and of itself it does not establish how the power of the mind first developed—whether it emerged from a purely purposeless material process, as Arnhart contends, or through a purposeful process directed by a preexisting intelligence, as has been more traditionally believed. Nor does Schwartz’s research demonstrate whether the human mind is purely material (but “emergent”) or the fusion of matter with a nonmaterial entity. Again, the focus of Schwartz’s research is to show that the mind is real by demonstrating its effects on the brain, not to decide the debate over emergence.

 Additionally, it is ironic that Arnhart would rely on the work of Schwartz at all, because Schwartz’s research did not spring from Darwinian theory.  In fact, Schwartz is openly critical of neo-Darwinism and supportive of intelligent design, and he is affiliated with a pro-intelligent design professional society established by mathematician and philosopher William Dembski, one of intelligent design’s most prominent proponents.18  If Darwinism is so compatible with emergence, why couldn’t Arnhart cite research done by a committed Darwinist to establish his idea of emergence? Why is the most convincing research he could find being conducted by a critic of Darwinism?

Arnhart’s championing of “emergence” notwithstanding, the history of Darwinian explanations of human behavior during the past century has been overwhelmingly a history of reductionism. And although Arnhart claims that there is “no reason to fear a Darwinian science of human life as promoting a reductionist materialism that denies human freedom,”19  his own account provides reasonable grounds for such fears.

By Arnhart’s own testimony, Darwin and his acolytes have had an ambivalent record on the issue of reductionism. While Arnhart fails to mention Darwin’s belittling of free will as a “delusion,” he does cite Darwin questioning why “thought, being a secretion of brain, [is] more wonderful than gravity a property of matter,” and he acknowledges the “strong reductionism” advocated by the dean of sociobiology, Harvard’s E. O. Wilson.20  Arnhart even describes emergence as a solution to what he calls “Darwin’s problem” of trying to uphold man’s unique capacities while insisting they can be completely accounted for through an unbroken chain of “natural causal laws.”21 

But if Darwin had a “problem” avoiding reductionism, and if modern Darwinists like E. O. Wilson advocate “strong reductionism,” then perhaps fears of reductionist Darwinism are not so illusory after all. Arnhart concedes this point at least implicitly by urging Darwinists to adopt emergence in order to defend human freedom and dignity against reductionism. Yet as long as there is no proof that Darwinists as a whole have followed Arnhart’s counsel, why should Darwin’s critics relinquish their concerns? If Arnhart wants to add credibility to his claim that Darwinism is compatible with free will and personal responsibility, he first needs to persuade the leading proponents of Darwinism that their reductionistic view of the human person is wrong.


  1William Provine, abstract for “Evolution: Free will and punishment and meaning in life,” talk delivered on Feb. 12, 1998, posted at the Darwin Day Archives, http://eeb.bio.utk.edu/darwin/Archives/1998ProvineAbstract.htm(accessed August 8, 2006).
  2Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871), vol. I, p. 89.
  3Ibid., vol. I, p. 91.
  4Paul Barrett, et. al., Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836-1844 (New York: Cornell University Press, 1987), 608.
  5Quoted in Frederick Albert Lange, History of Materialism, trans. by Ernest Chester Thomas  (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co. Ltd., 1892), vol. II, p. 312.
  6Cesare Lombroso, Crime: Its Causes and Remedies, translated by Henry Horton (Montclair, New Jersey: Patterson Smith, 1968). For a discussion of Lombroso and Social Darwinism see, Mike Hawkins, Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860-1945 (Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 74-80.
  7Enrico Ferri, “The Positive School of Criminology,” in Criminology: A Book of Readings, ed. Clyde Vedder, Samuel Koenig, and Robert Clark (New York: The Dryden Press, 1953), pp. 137-138.
  8Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at MIT, “Why They Kill Their Newborns,” The New York Times Magazine (November 2, 1997).
  9Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), p. 350.
10Ibid., p. 37.
11Ibid.
12Ibid., p. 88.
13Provine, “Evolution.”
14David P. Barash, “Dennett and the Darwinizing of Free Will,” Human Nature Review (March 22, 2003), http://human-nature.com/nibbs/03/dcdennett.html (accessed August 8, 2006).
15Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Conservatism (Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2005), p. 104.
16Ibid.
17Ibid., p. 111.
18Schwartz is a signer of “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism,” http://www.dissentfromdarwin.org/ (accessed August 8, 2006), and he is a Fellow of the pro-intelligent design International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design, http://www.iscid.org/jeffrey-schwartz.php (accessed August 8, 2006).
19Arnhart, Darwinian Conservatism, p. 111.
20Ibid., pp. 104, 106-108.
21Ibid., p. 110.