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Darwin’s Views on Morality

There is no reason for guesswork on Darwin’s views of morality. He set them out all too clearly in his Descent of Man (1871), the book in which he applied his theory of evolution to human beings. In it, Darwin very meticulously attempts to explain everything human as an effect of natural or sexual selection — everything including morality.

Before laying out his argument we must issue a couple of pertinent provisos. First, we must distinguish between how Darwin himself may have acted and what personal moral views he may have held dear, from his argument about morality in the Descent. At issue (for example) is not whether Darwin was personally against slavery (he was), but how slavery fit into his evolutionary account of human morality.

Second, Darwin’s account of morality is flawed on its own terms; that is, it is self-contradictory. His account of morality is undergirded by a theory of natural selection that by definition has no goal, yet Darwin attempted to make the evolution of morality “aim” at the production of one key character trait, “sympathy.” The contradiction is even more curious and even more serious because the evolved trait “sympathy” acts directly against natural selection.

We begin with the context of the Descent. Darwin wrote the Descent of Man as the completion of his argument in the Origin of Species. In the Origin he said almost nothing about human beings; in the Descent, he focused entirely on the evolution of human beings. He had been working on his account of human evolution from almost the time he stepped off the HMS Beagle in 1836, but withheld it from the Origin because he knew his radical views would critically damage his general argument for evolution. Once the general argument was accepted, he thought, the more specific argument in regard to human evolution would go down much easier.

But there is more to the context. The Descent was written, in part, to convince Darwin’s closest friends and evolutionary allies Charles Lyell, Asa Gray, and Alfred Wallace (his acknowledged co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection) that natural selection could explain all of human evolution. Lyell, Gray, and Wallace affirmed natural selection as a cause of human evolution, but an insufficient one to account for our moral and intellectual capacities. They believed the evidence of our qualitatively distinct moral and intellectual capacities implied a divine hand in the process.

Darwin vehemently objected. He would not allow any divine causality at all. The Descent of Man was written to show Lyell, Gray, and Wallace that a God-less account, relying on random variation, natural selection, and sexual selection, could explain every aspect of human nature that might appear too elevated, too divine-like, to have been caused by natural processes alone. Morality was just one aspect Darwin attempted to explain, but it is important that it must be understood as an attempt to remove any need for God. Darwin’s is strictly and exactly speaking, a God-less account of morality.

Now to the details. The origin of morality is, of course, natural selection. Certain traits of certain individuals prove beneficial in the struggle for survival. But before anything like “morality” can arise, we must have become social creatures, and this must have been the result of natural selection. Individuals with “social” natures — i.e., those inclined to stick together in a group — were selected over individuals who were loners. Groups beat individuals in the struggle to survive. Thereafter, whatever contributes to making the social nature of one group stronger than another is naturally selected. Here’s a nice summary from Darwin:

When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if the one tribe included…a greater number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would without doubt succeed best and conquer the other….A tribe possessing the above qualities in a high degree would spread and be victorious over other tribes; but in the course of time it would, judging from all past history, be in its turn overcome by some other and still more highly endowed tribe. Thus the social and moral qualities would tend slowly to advance and be diffused throughout the world.

We must not flinch from what all this really entails. Evolution climbs by the struggle for existence, and the losers lose for good. In Darwin’s terse words, “Extinction follows chiefly from the competition of tribe with tribe, and race with race.” Conflict over scarce recourses is the Malthusian core of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. By making tribal and racial conflict the engine of human evolution, Darwin had to baptize racial extermination — not just in the past, but the future as well. The more evolved races (those furthest from the apes) will continue to exterminate the less evolved (the more savage, who are closer to the apes). In his chilling words, “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races,” Darwin wrote with scientific detachment. “At the same time the anthropomorphous apes,” that is, those that look most like the human sub-species lowest on the evolutionary scale, “will no doubt be exterminated. The break [between human beings and apes] will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”

We cannot appeal to some standard of “morality” to stop one race from exterminating another. The extermination of one tribe, one race, by another is the cause of the evolution of morality itself (as it is the cause of all our higher traits). Struggle and extermination allow superior moral traits to evolve. Indeed, what we mean by a superior moral trait is defined solely by its actual contribution to the survival of a particular tribe or race. Thus, whatever trait has contributed to the survival in the struggle for existence of any tribe or race is therefore by definition moral for them, whether it is “nice” (like sympathy) or “nasty” (ruthlessness toward enemies, slavery, infanticide, oppression of women, polygamy). Consequently, there are as many successful moralities as there are surviving societies. Morality is relative in the exact sense that any evolutionary trait is relative. It is relative to the particular conditions of particular societies. Whatever works, works; whatever doesn’t, perishes.

This would seem to be a rather unpleasant conclusion, and Darwin strained to avoid it, but with the result of contradicting his own theory. He attempted to slip in “sympathy” (feeling bad when other people or animals are in distress because we imagine the pain in ourselves, and so we try to lessen their pain) as the highest, most developed moral trait, the very apex of human moral evolution. The obvious problem is that, again, evolution doesn’t aim at any trait. It doesn’t aim, period. A kind of generalized sympathy may prove beneficial for a particular tribe or race, but for others, sympathy toward one’s own tribe or race coupled with ruthlessness toward rival tribes or races may be the key to survival. But Darwin’s choice of “sympathy” is even more curious because it directly contradicts natural selection itself. Given that natural selection itself is amoral, and simply works by rewarding the most fit and eliminating the unfit — the weak, sickly, or malformed — then it follows that a society that seeks to follow natural selection, should likewise eliminate the weak, sickly, and malformed among its own members. In fact, savages obey the laws of natural selection, Darwin argues, because they don’t have the modern means to fight off the ravages of illness and they have a less developed sense of sympathy. As a consequence, “the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health.” And then he sets to complaining:

We civilised men, on the other hand, 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 every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised 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 any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

Darwin pulled back from the obvious implications of his theory, and took refuge in the evolved moral trait of “sympathy.” We could not withhold “our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature,” he maintained. But what if a society suddenly realized that a little savagery goes a long way, and began to eliminate all their imbeciles, maimed, sick, poor, weak members, and allowed only the fit to breed? Wouldn’t they be much more in tune with natural selection, and hence much more natural? It would seems so, and they would certainly win in the struggle for existence against the “softer” society. That’s the way human evolution works.

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.