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Does Darwinism Support Traditional Morality?

“Morality… is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends… In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.”—Michael Ruse and E.O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics.”1

The question of whether Darwinian evolution supports traditional morality is an old one. In a famous essay on “Evolution and Ethics,” Darwin’s “bulldog” Thomas Huxley vigorously argued in the negative: “the practice of that which is ethically best—what we call goodness or virtue—involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence.”2 In Huxley’s view, “the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process [of evolution]… but in combatting it.”3

Darwinian conservatives such as James Q. Wilson and Larry Arnhart beg to differ. In his book The Moral Sense, Wilson draws on Darwin’s evolutionary account of morality in The Descent of Man to reinforce the conclusions of traditional morality.4 In his book Darwinian Conservatism, Arnhart likewise insists that “rather than assuming that Darwinism subverts morality, conservatives should recognize that a Darwinian view of human nature reinforces the conservative concern for cultivating moral character.”5 Indeed, Arnhart seeks to persuade conservatives that Darwinism can be enlisted to refute “cultural relativism.” “As far as I can see,” he writes, “the only escape from such cultural relativism is to argue that there is a universal human nature of natural instincts and desires,” and Darwinism supplies the scientific proof of that universal nature, enabling us to “judge some societies… as satisfying those natural desires more fully than other societies.”6

To justify these claims, Arnhart—like Wilson—highlights Darwin’s belief that human beings have a natural “moral sense” that instructs them about right and wrong. He argues that Darwin’s “moral sense” provides a biological grounding for the teachings of traditional morality. There is something to be said for this argument. Darwin claimed that man’s social instincts arise out of his biology, and that these social instincts “naturally lead to the golden rule, ‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise.’” According to Darwin, this maxim “lies at the foundation of morality.”7 According to Darwin, then, it would seem that evolution ultimately promotes the morality of Jesus rather than the law of the jungle.

However, before one rushes to install Darwin in the pantheon of defenders of a natural moral law, one needs to scrutinize the account of morality Darwin gave prior to his conclusion supporting conventional morality. While according to Darwin nature has led to the golden rule, it did not do so because the golden rule is somehow intrinsically right. It did so because the golden rule ultimately is connected to self-preservation. At the base of the golden rule in Darwin’s view are the social instincts, and these developed primarily because they promote survival: “Those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.”8 In the conclusion to The Descent of Man, Darwin made this point even more clearly, stating that “the… origin of the moral sense lies in the social instincts, including sympathy; and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained, as in the case of the lower animals, through natural selection.”9

But what happens in cases where traditional morality does not happen to promote survival? If human morality is ultimately grounded in the struggle to survive, it seems optimistic in the extreme to think that the by-product will always be something akin to traditional Judeo-Christian morality. Darwin himself provided exhaustive evidence on this point. While he tried to show that traditional virtues such as courage and love were products of nature, he also demonstrated that a great many vices are no less a product of the struggle for existence. Maternal instinct is natural, but so is infanticide.10 Care toward family members is natural, but so is euthanasia of the feeble, even if they happen to be one’s parents:

That animals sometimes are far from feeling any sympathy is too certain; for they will expel a wounded animal from the herd, or gore or worry it to death. This is almost the blackest fact in natural history, unless indeed the explanation which has been suggested is true, that their instinct or reason leads them to expel an injured companion, lest beasts of prey, including man, should be tempted to follow the troop. In this case their conduct is not much worse than that of the North American Indians who leave their feeble comrades to perish on the plains, or the Feegeans, who, when their parents get old or fall ill, bury them alive.11

Throughout his discussion of morality, Darwin repeatedly referred to “higher” and “lower” moral impulses as if there were some transcendent standard of morality to which he compared human and animal behavior. Darwin wrote as if conventional virtues such as kindness and courage were objectively preferable to conventional vices such as cruelty and lust. But it is difficult to make sense of such comments in terms of Darwin’s own system, which clearly portrayed morality as ultimately reducible to that which promotes biological survival.

In the current set of circumstances Darwin could believe that his view meant the extension of benevolence “to the men of all races, to the imbecile, the maimed, and other useless members of society, and finally to the lower animals.”12 He could even hope that “looking to future generations, 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… and virtue will be triumphant.”13

But even Darwin would have to acknowledge, if pressed, that given a different set of circumstances, a radically different conception of morality might be dictated. At one point, he said as much: “If, for instance… 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.”14 Although this passage references the behavior of hive bees, it is making a point about human morality and how it is ultimately a function of the conditions of survival. Whenever those conditions change, Darwin seems to say, so too will the maxims of human morality.

Temperate and considerate in his own life, Darwin may have sincerely believed that his biology supported traditional morality.15 Nevertheless, the internal logic of his theory did not allow any permanent foundation for ethics other than the struggle to survive, and for that reason his attempt to square a biological understanding of ethics with traditional morality is ultimately unpersuasive. Far from defending a traditional conception of morality, Darwin’s account of the moral sense supplies a basis for the very relativism that Arnhart fears.

I would like to add here that I am not quarelling with Arnhart’s attempt to enlist biology to support traditional morality. I actually agree with him that showing a biological basis for certain moral desires could conceivably reinforce traditional morality—but only if we have reason to assume that those biological desires are somehow normative. What Darwinists like Arnhart fail to appreciate is how the Darwinian account of the origins of biological traits fundamentally undercuts their effort to treat our biological desires as normative. If one believes that natural desires have been implanted in human beings by intelligent design, or even that they represent irreducible and unchanging truths inherent in the universe, it would be rational to accept those desires as a grounding for a universal code of morality. But Darwinism explicitly denies that natural desires are either the result of intelligent design or an unchanging nature.

Arnhart acknowledges that human morality needs to be grounded in a human nature that he variously describes as “universal,” “unchanging,” or at least “enduring,” in order to avoid the twin challenges of relativism and utopianism.16 The problem is that Darwinian theory does not allow for such a human nature.17 According to Darwinism, human nature forever evolves according to the immediate dictates of the environment. Whenever the environment changes, human nature has the potential for changing too. As previously discussed, the ultimate basis for these changes to human nature is self-preservation or physical survival. According to Darwin, specific moral precepts develop because under certain environmental conditions they promote survival. But once the conditions for survival change, so too do the dictates of morality. That is why we find in nature both the maternal instinct and infanticide, both courage and cowardice, both honor and treachery. In short, natural selection “chooses” whatever traits best promote survival under the existing circumstances. Sometimes that may include traits we consider “moral,” but other times it will include shocking immoralities. This is the natural morality of Hobbes and Machiavalli, not Aristotle and Aquinas.

It should be pointed out that the Darwinian view makes it very difficult to condemn as evil any human behavior that has persisted among human beings, because every trait that continues to exist even among a subpopulation has an equal right to claim nature’s sanction. Presumably even anti-social behaviors such as fraud and pedophilia must continue to exist among human beings because they were favored at some point by natural selection and therefore have some sort of biological basis. While we can say that desires to perpetrate fraud or engage in pedophilia are not right for those of us who do not have those desires, on what basis do we morally condemn those who do hold such desires? Their desires were implanted in them by natural selection in the same way that our desires were implanted in us. And who are we to condemn what nature has sanctioned? As a matter of self-preservation, we certainly can try to stop such behaviors by force if we have sufficient power to do so, but that is not the same thing as being able to condemn pedophiles or tax cheats as morally blameworthy.

According to the Darwinian conception of morality, the rules of conventional morality can only be said to be obligatory on those whom natural selection has granted a conventional moral sense. This becomes clear in Arnhart’s extended discussion of psychopaths in his book Darwinian Natural Right, where Arnhart says “[w]e cannot properly blame psychopaths for lacking the moral sentiments natural to us” and concedes that “psychopaths are under no moral obligation to conform to the moral sense, because they lack the moral emotions that provide the only basis for moral obligation….”18 Thus, according to Arnhart, a particular moral obligation exists only insofar as natural selection has implanted that obligation in a specific person.19

But this means that anyone programmed by natural selection with desires contrary to traditional morality cannot be judged by traditional morality. “By the logic of the case,” writes J. Budziszewski, “everyone whose desires are significantly different than the rest of us gets his own morality.”20 Does this result not encourage the very relativism that Arnhart seeks to oppose? Of course, Arnhart says with regard to psychopaths that we can still restrain them by force as a matter of our self-preservation.21 True, but that is a far cry from Arnhart’s original proposal of using biology to combat relativism. It is also a far cry from traditional natural law theory, which provides a basis for condemning as objectively wrong any violation of the moral law.

  1. Michael Ruse and E.O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics” in James Huchingson, Religion and the Natural Sciences: The Range of Engagement (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993), p. 210.
  2. Thomas Huxley, “Evolution and Ethics,” in Thomas H. Huxley, Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1925), p. 81-82.
  3. Ibid., p. 83.
  4. James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense (New York: The Free Press, 1993). For example, “[e]volution has selected for attachment behavior in all species that nurture their young after birth… Theories of natural selection and inclusive fitness explain why caring for one’s own young has been adaptive—that is, useful—for the human species. People who care for their young leave more young behind than those who do not; to the extent parental care is under genetic control, caring parents reproduce their genes in the next generation at higher rates than do uncaring ones.” Ibid., p. 126.
  5. Arnhart, Darwinian Conservatism (Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2005), p. 35.
  6. Ibid., p. 23.
  7. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), vol. I, p. 106. This is a reprint of the the first edition, and hereafter cited as Descent (1871).
  8. Ibid., p. 82.
  9. Ibid., vol. II, p. 394.
  10. Ibid., vol. I, pp. 83-84; vol. II, pp. 363-65.
  11. Ibid., vol. I, pp. 76-77.
  12. Ibid., p. 103.
  13. Ibid., p. 104.
  14. Ibid., p. 73.
  15. For an account of Darwin’s kindly and sympathetic nature in private life, see Francis Darwin, editor, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters (New York: Dover, 1958), especially pp. 303-04.
  16. “Universal human nature,” appears to be Arnhart’s term of choice; see in particular p. 23 of Darwinian Conservatism (“the only escape from… cultural relativism is to argue that there is a universal human nature….”). But on p. 8 of the same book, Arnhart uses the term “unchanging human nature” to approvingly summarize Thomas Sowell’s account of the “realist vision,” and on p. 130 he talks of “an enduring human nature” (“Darwinian science presents an enduring human nature that cannot be treated as mere matter to be shaped by social planners….”).
  17. For Arnhart’s effort to grapple with the question of the permanency of Darwinian human nature in the area of sex differences, see Darwinian Conservatism, pp. 54-55.
  18. Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature (New York: State University of New York Press, 1998), p. 229.
  19. For a similar critique of Arnhart’s view on this point, see J. Budziszewski, “Accept No Imitations: The Rivalry of Naturalism and Natural Law,” in William A. Dembski, editor, Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2004), pp. 109-110.
  20. Ibid., p. 110.
  21. Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right, p. 229.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.