Darwin and the Descent of Morality

Originally published at First Things

An important part of the current controversy over the theoretical status of evolutionary theory concerns its moral implications. Does evolutionary theory undermine traditional morality, or does it support it? Does it suggest that infanticide is natural (as Steven Pinker asserts) or is it a bulwark against liberal relativism (as Francis Fukuyama argues)? Does it rest on a universe devoid of good and evil (as Richard Dawkins has bluntly stated) or can it be used to provide a new foundation for natural law reasoning (as Larry Arnhart contends)?

The obvious place to go in the debate is to the source. Darwin himself considered morality of whatever stripe to be a byproduct of evolution, one more effect of natural selection working upon the raw material of variations in the individual. Nature did not “intend” to create any particular type of morality, any more than nature intended to create one certain length of finch beak. Nor does nature “judge” any particular type of morality as long as it does not violate the principle of natural selection. That, as we shall see, allows for such moral leeway that it creates insuperable problems for conservatives who might solicit Darwin’s help in their cause.

We find Darwin’s account of morality in his Descent of Man, a work published after his more famous Origin of Species. As should be no surprise, the arguments of the Origin provided the theoretical foundations for his natural history of morality in the Descent.

True to his naturalist bent, Darwin’s natural history of morality (or more properly, moralities) assumed evolution to be true and sought to explain how the existing moral varieties could have evolved in the same way that natural selection had brought about the great variety of existing species.

For Darwin the “moral faculties of man” were not original and inherent, but evolved from “social qualities” acquired “through natural selection, aided by inherited habit.” Just as life came from the nonliving, so also the moral came from the nonmoral.

From the beginning, then, Darwin rejected the Christian natural law argument, according to which human beings are moral by nature. Instead, he followed the pattern of the modern natural right reasoning of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which assumed that human beings were naturally asocial and amoral, and only became social and moral historically. That is why Darwin called his account a natural history of morality.

For Darwin, in order to become moral we first had to become social. “In order that primeval men, or the ape-like progenitors of man, should have become social,” Darwin reasoned, “they must have acquired the same instinctive feelings which impel other animals to live in a body.” As with all animal instincts, the “social instincts” of man were the result of variations bringing some benefit for survival.

What we call “conscience” was also the result of natural selection. Darwin described it as a “feeling of dissatisfaction which invariably results . . . from any unsatisfied instinct.” Since the “ever-enduring social instincts” were more primitive and hence stronger than instincts developed later, the social instincts were the sources of our feelings of unease when some action of ours violated them. Such feelings of unease, Darwin explained, we now call “conscience.”

It might seem that Darwin’s arguments for human sociability and the moral conscience could be marshaled to support a conservative moral position. Yet mere “sociality,” even with a conscience grounded in evolutionary imperatives, does not at all mean that nature has created a definite moral standard, such as natural law. Quite the reverse. At bottom, everything is variable. As Darwin writes:

“If . . . men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless the bee, or any other social animal, would in our supposed case gain, as it appears to me, some feeling of right and wrong, or a conscience. . . . In this case an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed one impulse rather than the other. The one course ought to have been followed: the one would have been right and the other wrong.”

The same variability holds as well within the natural history of human moralities as they actually evolved. So, for example, the “murder of infants has prevailed on the largest scale throughout the world, and has met with no reproach.” Indeed, “infanticide, especially of females, has been thought to be good for the tribe, or at least not injurious.” As for suicide, in “former times” it was “not generally considered as a crime, but rather from the courage displayed as an honorable act. . . . For the loss to a nation of a single individual is not felt.” Neither did infanticide or suicide cause the “feeling of dissatisfaction which invariably results . . . from any unsatisfied instinct.” Monogamy, too, Darwin informed the reader, was a fairly recent evolutionary phenomenon.

Yet Darwin balked at embracing the relativism he created, and insisted on ranking evolved moral traits. The unhappy result, however, was his espousal of views we would today call racist, and his justification of a program of eugenics.

Ranking evolved moral traits meant ranking the races accordingly. Thus Darwin cheerfully asserted that the “western nations of Europe immeasurably surpass their former savage progenitors and stand at the summit of civilization.” As a member of the favored race, Darwin embraced a typically nineteenth-century view of moral progress. “Looking to future generations,” he wrote, “there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger, becoming perhaps fixed by inheritance . . . [so that] virtue will be triumphant.”

But the engine of evolution, even moral evolution, is natural selection. Therefore, Darwin believed that the evolution of morality would require the extermination of “less fit” races and individuals—a process that could be helped along by artificial selection, or eugenics.

This unsavory conclusion was derived directly from the principles of evolution. We see in animals that, “in regard to mental qualities, their transmission is manifest in our dogs, horses, and other domestic animals. Besides special tastes and habits, general intelligence, courage, bad and good temper, etc., are certainly transmitted. With man we see similar facts.” Since different races, like different breeds of dogs or horses, develop different capacities, it followed that distinct gradations in moral capacities would be found among human races.

Whereas St. Thomas’ natural law account began from the assumption that all human beings belonged to the same species (and were therefore all subject to the same moral demands), Darwin tried to determine whether human races should be considered distinct species. In the end, he was unsure whether to rank the races “as species or sub-species” but finally asserted that “the latter term appears the most appropriate.”

Whether races are species or sub-species, it is easy to see how such reasoning allowed Darwin to rank the races on an evolutionary scale. Because natural selection must be the cause of the existence of different races, Darwin argued that the various races would necessarily have varying intellectual and moral capacities. So that, for example, the “American aborigines, Negroes, and Europeans differ as much from each other in mind as any three races that can be named.” As we have seen, the Europeans came out on top.

Darwin argued further that the different races created by natural selection were necessarily and beneficially locked in the severest struggle for survival. As he put it in the Origin,

“It is the most closely allied forms . . . which, from having nearly the same structure, constitution, and habits, generally come into the severest competition with each other; consequently, each new variety of species, during the progress of its formation, will generally press hardest on its nearest kindred, and tend to exterminate them.”

This argument translated directly to his assessment of the evolutionary history of human races, and the necessary and beneficial extinction of the less favored races.

The civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes . . . will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope . . . the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the Negro or Australian and the gorilla.

The European race will inevitably emerge as the distinct species “human being,” and all the transitional forms—such as the gorilla, the Negro, and so on—will be extinct.

Furthermore, natural selection functions not only between races, but also among individuals within races. Here, oddly enough, Darwin maintained that savage man has an advantage over civilized man. In savage man, the intellectual and moral qualities are not as developed, but such lack actually works to weed out the unfit: “With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health.” Unfortunately, the very development of human compassion which serves to mark the Europeans as more civilized also works against the principle of survival of the fittest.

“We civilized men . . . do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. . . . Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”

What could be done to prevent the European race from devolving under the influence of the weak and the sick? Let the principles of natural selection be applied without obstruction. “Man, like every other animal, has no doubt advanced to his present high condition through a struggle for existence,” Darwin reminded the reader, “and if he is to advance still higher he must remain subject to a severe struggle.” Turning to the wisdom of animal breeders, Darwin proclaimed that “there should be open competition for all men; and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring.” The worst, of course, should not be allowed to breed at all.

How forcefully ought this program to be carried out? Darwin was vague, but ended with the remark: “All do good service who aid toward this end.”

What may we gather from Darwin’s evolutionary account of morality? To begin with, Darwin rightly understood that bare sociality allowed for a startling variety of moralities. In contrast to the very determinate list of requisite virtues, definite commands, and established ends in the traditional natural law account, evolution brings forth many different modes of group survival. Just as male lions, when taking over a pride, kill the young that were fathered by the ousted dominant male, so also human societies have flourished quite well with the murder of rivals to regal authority. And just as many female animals will let the runt of the litter die by refusing it nourishment, so also many human societies have survived for hundreds of years by exposing their unwanted and deformed babies. Merely having “social instincts” includes so much that it excludes almost nothing considered morally reprehensible.

Although many today would shudder at Darwin’s racism, we must concede that Darwin’s conclusions were correctly drawn from his evolutionary principles. If evolution is true, and the races themselves are the result of the struggle to survive, then how could intellectual and moral qualities not be diversely acquired by different races?

As for the survival of the fittest, contemporary liberals have attempted to separate Darwin from Social Darwinism, but Darwin’s own words advocating severe struggle show us quite clearly that he was the first Social Darwinist. Conservatives (who are often early modern liberals in outlook and temperament) sometimes look fondly at the purifying effects of “severe struggle,” substituting economic for natural battle. Such fondness is not rooted in the natural law of Aquinas, but, as Leo Strauss argued, in the modern natural right theory of John Locke (as filtered through Adam Smith). But modern natural right theory has led to the world according to Pinker and Dawkins.

Larry Arnhart, in particular, seems to have blurred this fundamental distinction, for he quotes Aquinas (“Conservatives, Darwin & Design: An Exchange,” FT, November 2000) as saying that “natural right [emphasis added] is that which nature has taught all animals,” when Thomas actually said that “hose things are said to belong to the natural law [lex naturalis] which nature has taught to all animals.”In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas does not mean to say that natural law is shared by all animals including human beings—the natural law, as the “participation of the eternal law in the rational creature,” pertains only to human beings (I-II, 91.2)—but that natural law includes natural inclinations shared by other animals, “such as sexual intercourse, education of offspring, and so forth.” But for Darwin, we don’t just share some aspects of our nature with animals. We are ultimately indistinguishable from other animals, and therefore subject to the very same laws of evolution.

The effort of Arnhart and others to affirm the premises of evolution, and to affirm at the same time a morality grounded in natural law, inevitably fails. Natural law doctrine only makes sense in a universe governed by a benevolent Creator. Nor will it do to affirm both Darwinian evolution and a vague theism, for the engine of such evolution is, on principle, incompatible with any design or direction from above—and that includes moral design and direction. The Darwinism of Pinker and Dawkins, one must conclude, is much more coherent than that of Fukuyama and Arnhart.

Benjamin Wiker teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and is a fellow of the Discovery Institute.

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Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 117 (November 2001): 10-13.

Benjamin Wiker

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Benjamin Wiker holds a PhD in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, he has taught at Marquette University, St. Mary's University (MN), and Thomas Aquinas College (CA), and Franciscan University of Steubenville.