The Evolution of Morality

The Evolution of Morality

The Hardest Case: The Moral Sense

After the publication of The Origin, research continued to narrow the gap between humans and animals. Fossil evidence, comparative anatomy, and today molecular evidence all document how close we are to our primate cousins. Many characteristics that supposedly were unique to humans, such as language and tool use, have also been observed in chimps and other animals. Even in Darwin’s time evidence was available that showed the difference between human intelligence and other animals’ was one of degree rather than kind. Nevertheless, people continued to maintain that an unbridgeable gap existed between man and animal. Darwin recognized the moral sense as being the most important distinguishing feature of human nature and also the most difficult problem for his mechanism of natural selection. As Wallace had argued, even if selection was capable of producing the beginnings of human reason and the moral sentiment, intensified social and sympathetic feelings would prevent the beneficial culling of the mentally and morally inferior. Therefore, natural selection would become disengaged. Particularly to address the arguments of Wallace, but even in his own mind, Darwin had to make a case that humans were no exception to his theory.

In 1871 in The Descent of Man, Darwin presented a theory of how the moral sense could have evolved. Just as Huxley had done in Man’s Place in Nature, Darwin drew on comparative anatomy and embryology to demonstrate how similar humans were to apes. In The Origin, he had argued that homologous anatomical structures in humans and animals suggested they shared a common ancestor. He continued this same line of reasoning in Descent, but in addition he focused on homologous mental structures. Basic emotions such as courage, fear, affection, shame, and fundamental mental faculties such as imitation, imagination, and reason were possessed by animals as well as by humans. The grief female monkeys expressed for the loss of their offspring, the curiosity of young apes, the jealousy and shame of dogs, and the reasoning abilities of higher animals all illustrated our shared intellectual and emotional heritage with the lower animals.

He then presented his theory of conscience that consisted of four overlapping stages, and which he saw as the basis of morality.

  • First, organisms developed a social instinct causing them to take pleasure in the company of others and bond together as closely related and associated individuals into society. The first social bond to evolve was undoubtedly between mother and offspring.
  • In the second stage, animals evolved sufficient intellect to recall instances when the social instincts such as feeding one’s offspring went unsatisfied in order to satisfy stronger urges such as hunger or sexual drive. Memory was a crucial aspect of intelligence. A mother might have abandoned her baby, but if she remembered that she did so, this would set up a conflict between different urges and could become the basis of a conscience.
  • The development of language in the third stage enabled early humans to become sensitized to mutual needs and to codify principles of their behavior.
  • Finally, habit would come to shape the conduct of individuals so even concerning small matters, acting in light of the wishes of the community would become, in a sense, second nature.

Darwin saw these as sequential but overlapping stages, and devoted most of his energy into the first two. Crucial to theory was an insight that has continued to guide our thinking on research in behavior and that differed from the prevailing sensationalist view in psychology. Most British moral theorists and psychologists argued that sympathy was a learned behavior in response to pleasure and pain. For example, I have sympathy for you if you slam your finger in the door because I have done it myself and can bring up that sense of pain that makes me empathize with you. But Darwin rejected that analysis, claiming that social and sympathetic reactions were instinctive, not learned, and provided many examples of these behaviors in animals. Since the social and altruistic responses of animals were instinctive, why shouldn’t they be so in us? However, there was an important difference between our behavior and that of animals. Humans were not limited to fixed patterns of behavior. For Darwin an evolved intellect played two important roles. First, reason and experience would guide conduct that had been stimulated by the social instincts. Secondly, a sufficiently evolved intellect allowed one to compare past and future actions or motives, approving or disapproving of them. Darwin thought it was highly probable that an animal that had well-developed social instincts would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers approached that of humans. Darwin was not claiming that animals were moral beings. Rather, he was making a continuity argument that the beginnings of the moral sense could be seen in animals.

Research in both animal and human behavior has continued to build on his fundamental insights and has also overwhelmingly shown that there is a continuum between instinctive and learned behavior in both humans and animals. If we define morality as right and wrong behaviors in the context of the rules of a social group, and ethics as the scientific study of and theories about moral thoughts and behaviors in the context of the rules of a social group, is it possible to build a naturalistic ethics based on evolutionary theory? Evolutionary ethic has been plagued by all kinds of problems ever since Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” However, in our final module we will be examining some exciting new research on the brain and consciousness that suggests evolution not only produced a species with a moral sense, but also that nature can provide guidance in defining right and wrong behavior.


Read S. Lyons’s introduction to Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics and listen to the audio file about animal art and The Jealous Lioness, by Paul Meyerheim, c. 1880. Also read Douglas Allchin’s article, “The Evolution of Morality.

Please use the sources provided to write a one page essay about the following.

Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s great defender, wrote, “Is it indeed, true, that the Poet, or the Philosopher, or the Artist whose genius is the glory of his age, is degraded from his high estate by the undoubted historical probability, not to say certainty, that he is the direct descendant of some naked and bestial savage… Is mother-love vile because a hen shows it, or fidelity base because dogs possess it?” Read S. Lyons’s introduction to Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics and listen to the audio file about animal art and The Jealous Lioness, by Paul Meyerheim, c. 1880. Also read Douglas Allchin’s article, “The Evolution of Morality.”

Please start the essay with your interpretation of the four stages in Darwin’s theory of how a moral sense evolved.

I’m sure many of you have pets. Do your pets think; do they know right from wrong? Do they show similar emotions to humans? Share some of your pet stories with the class, arguing for a particular position in light of what both Darwin and Huxley wrote. Please remember this assignment is not to just share adorable pet stories, but to explore the question of how animal behavior might provide insight into the evolution of morality.

In your posting you might want to consider one or more of these questions:
•How does this relate to the four stages in Darwin’s theory of how a moral sense evolved?
•Do you think evolutionary theory can provide guidelines to developing a moral code? Why or why not?
•What is the relationship between instinct and learned behavior? In your responses to classmates, be sure to indicate whether you agree or disagree with their interpretations of pet behavior, and back up your opinions with alternative explanations or corroborative examples. Be sure to relate these examples to your interpretation of Darwin’s four stages.


Answer preview………

The evolution of morality describes the development of moral behavior over the course of the evolution of humans. Morality – the system of ideas regarding right or wrong – is mostly related to human behavior. However, developments in evolutionary biology seem to suggest that the origins of human morality can be found in the behaviors of other animals. Darwin’s four stages of the evolution of morality are, in my view, impressive in breadth. He formulated a position on the nature of morality. He also differentiated between standards such as the greatest benefit for the greatest number and the motives that make people behave in a manner that meets the standards. Darwin’s four stages, in this regard, offer an explanation for the evolution of moral behavior and the psychological framework behind them..

 APA 384 words

Share this paper
Open Whatsapp chat
Can we help you?