Darwin as an Ethical Theorist

by Mark Anthony Signorelli (May 2011)

In these days of economic stagnation, it is good to know that there is at least one boom market out there yet – the market for books on evolutionary theories of ethics. The last decade or so has seen an absolute deluge of works pouring from the presses, purporting to locate the key to human ethical behavior in Darwin’s theory of natural selection.  In the academies, the evolutionary approach to human behavior has risen to something like an orthodoxy among a certain class of professor, according “Darwinism” now the same academic status that “Freudianism” and “Marxism” held in the ‘70’s and 80’s.  Prominent psychologist Jonathan Haidt exults in the fact that moral theory is enjoying a “renaissance…a golden age,” all thanks to the alleged insights on offer from the camp of evolutionary theory,[i] and in this matter, he certainly speaks for a very large contingency. 

So with all of this enthusiasm in the air, it seems like an appropriate task to go back to the source of all this purported wisdom – Darwin himself – to see what sorts of things he had to say about morality. After all, if it turned out that his thoughts on this topic were extremely sloppy or ill-informed, it would make a modern-day project of “Darwinian” ethics appear terribly misguided. Ethics is not entirely, or even predominantly, an empirical discipline; much the greater work to be done in the field involves conceptual and dialectical reflection.  No amount of empirical data discovered between Darwin’s time and ours could remedy any conceptual flaws in his theory, if they existed. And in fact, if we turn to the parts of his work which bear upon the subject of ethics – specifically, chapters two through five of The Descent of Man – we will discover that the man’s thoughts on this topic are extremely sloppy and ill-informed, that they are – to put it mildly – a complete mess. Let us take a look.

For one, Darwin was not above engaging in that trick which his modern disciples have raised to a veritable art, namely, the presentation of pure speculation as a matter of the historical record. So, for instance, he writes the following: “our early semi-human progenitors would not have practiced infanticide or polyandry, for the instincts of the lower animals are never so perverted as to lead them regularly to destroy their own offspring, or to be quite devoid of jealousy. There would have been no prudential restraint from marriage, and the sexes would have freely united at an early age.”[ii] Then there are the confident assertions of what everybody can recognize as naked falsehoods, such as when he claims that “the murder of infants has prevailed on the largest scale throughout the world, and has met with no reproach,”[iii] or “all the other and more important differences between man and the Quadrumana are manifestly adaptive in their nature, and relate chiefly to the erect position of man,”[iv] or his repeated contention that the history of the human race is a story of linear moral improvement, throughout which man’s vicious qualities are in a process of constant elimination.[v]

These are but passing faults in the argument; to identify the structural defects in Darwin’s theory, we must look a bit closer.  Some of the most ludicrous passages in the book are the ones in which Darwin assumes that he possesses some perfectly unproblematic and substantive access to what is taking place in the mind of non-human animals. Thomas Nagel famously pondered the fact that we could never have access to the subjective experience of a bat, but such philosophical caution could not impede the speculations of the sage of Down House.  To be sure, he refers to “the impossibility of judging what passes through the mind of an animal,” but then proceeds to glide blithely by this “impossibility,” claiming, for instance, that “All animals feel Wonder,” and “There can, I think, be no doubt that a dog feels shame, as distinct from fear, and something very like modesty when begging too often for food.”[vi] or “who can say what cows feel, when they surround and stare intently on a dying or dead companion; apparently, as Houzeau remarks, they feel no pity,”[vii] or, “There must be something special which causes dogs to howl in the night…Houzeau thinks that their imaginations are disturbed by the vague outlines of the surrounding objects, and conjure up before them fantastic images: if this be so, their feelings may almost be called superstitious,”[viii] or, rising to a crescendo of hilarity:

The feeling of religious devotion is a highly complex one…No being could experience so complex an emotion until advanced in his intellectual and moral faculties to at least a moderately high level.  Nevertheless, we see some distant approach to this state of mind in the deep love of a dog for his master, associated with complete submission, some fear, and perhaps other feelings.[ix]

A game of fetch and the Te Deum – at bottom, the same kind of thing. Truly,I suspect that even the most dogmatically-hardened Darwinists giggle at such passages, when they are alone and unobserved.

Going one step further than assuming a knowledge of other creatures’ subjective states, Darwin occasionally attributes conceptual knowledge to non-human animals, such as in the following: “a monkey, which had weak teeth, used to break open nuts with a stone, and I was assured…that after using the stone, he hid it in the straw.  Here then, we have the idea of property, but this idea is common to every dog with a bone, and to most or all birds with their nests.”[x] Or again, “when a dog sees another dog at a distance, it is often clear that he perceives that it is a dog in the abstract.”[xi] Or when he quotes Leslie Stephen to the effect that “a dog frames a general concept of cats or sheep, and knows the corresponding words as well as a philosopher.”  Nor do these passages constitute a slip of Darwin’s pen, for he affirms the conceptual understanding of non-human animals in the most explicit terms:

Several writers…have lately insisted that the use of language implies the power of forming general concepts, and that as no animals are supposed to possess this power, an impossible barrier is formed between them and man.  With respect to animals, I have already endeavored to show that they have this power, at least in a rude and incipient degree.[xii]

This attribution of conceptual knowledge to non-human animals is part and parcel of Darwin’s larger aim of establishing the rationality of such creatures. He likes to repeat that there is no “fundamental difference” between man and brute, and so he begins his demonstration on the “fundamental” moral similarity of man and brute by attributing the faculty of reason to non-human animals: “Only a few persons now dispute that animals possess some power of reasoning…It is a significant fact, that the more the habits of any particular animal are studied by a naturalist, the more he attributes to reason and the less to unlearnt instincts.”[xiii] He goes on to provide several examples of bestial reason, for instance:

The promptings of reason, after very short experience, are well shewn by the following actions of American monkeys, which stand low in their order.  Rengger, a most careful observer, states that when he first gave eggs to his monkeys in Paraguay, they smashed them, and thus lost much of their contents; afterwards, they gently hit one end against some hard body, and picked of the bits of shell with their fingers.  After cutting themselves only once with any sharp tool, they would not touch it again, or would handle it with the greatest caution.[xiv]

The implication is quite clear; whatever faculty man possesses is possessed by other animals as well, if in a less exalted or complex condition.  So even if we attribute morality to man’s rational faculty, this will not serve to demonstrate that the origins of morality lie outside of evolution and its selective processes, since such faculties can be identified throughout the animal creation.

Anybody who imagines that Darwin is making any sort of scientific discovery when he avers such things, or even that he is writing in a particularly original vein, need only turn to the Apology for Ramond Sebond by Montaigne.  In that work, the great French essayist sets about chastening the untoward presumption of human grandeur in a manner that perfectly anticipates the stock rhetoric of our modern materialists and atheist propagandists: “Is it possible to imagine anything more ridiculous than that this miserable and puny creature, who is not so much as master of himself, exposed to shocks on all sides should call himself Master and Emperor of the universe?”  In the course of this exercise in salutary humiliation, Montaigne makes a long comparison between man and the non-human animals, in which the latter come off as by far the more attractive kind of creatures; certainly, he tells us, there is no faculty of human nature, no matter how exalted we may regard it, which is not displayed by other species in nature:

After all, which of our arts do we not see in the activities of animals? Is there any organization regulated with more order, with a better distribution of charges and functions, and more consistently maintained, than that of bees?  Can we imagine that so well-ordered a disposition of activities and occupations could be carried on without reason and foresight…Do the swallows that we see at the return of spring, ferreting out all the corners of the houses, conduct their search without judgment? Do they choose without discrimination, out of a thousand places, that which is most commodious for their lodging…Why does the spider thicken her web in one place and slacken it in another? Why does she use now one kind of knot, now another, unless she possesses thought, deliberation, and the power of inference?

The only difference between such passages and those to be found in Darwin is the infinitely more pleasing literary style in which the former are presented.  But as no one supposes that Montaigne was doing serious science when he wrote such things, so there is no reason to suppose that Darwin is doing any serious science when he makes assertions that are identical in all respects.

As a matter of fact, the recognition of a certain kind of rudimentary rationality in non-human animals, while not a scientific assertion, ought nonetheless to be a rather uncontroversial one. Such a recognition dates back at least to Plutarch, and is perfectly compatible with the most traditional and rigidly realist schools of ethical theory.[xv]  But while Darwin emphasizes this fact in order to blur the distinction between human and non-human animals – that “fundamental difference” which he obviously regards as immensely obstructive to his case – he does not notice that by identifying rationality as the origin of moral behavior, he has effectively eliminated natural selection as a possible explanation for that same behavior. For what natural selection is, or at least what it purports to be, is a theory about how exclusively mechanical and material forces create the exclusively mechanical and material traits of biological organisms. But to act according to reason is to act according to knowledge, and knowledge is not a material entity; its effect on our behavior cannot be accounted for by wholly mechanical explanations. There is no DNA sequence that codes for “love thy neighbor as thyself;” there are no patterns of neuron firing that correlate to “honesty is the best policy.” Rational knowledge is a category of subjective reality, and if morality has its roots in this category of being, then it is clear that natural selection – it is clear that no scientific theory at all – could suffice to explain the phenomenon.[xvi]

I have claimed that Darwin failed to recognize the subversive tendency, for his own theory, of locating the origins of morality in reason, yet he must have intuited such a thing. For no sooner does he insist on this proto-rationality of non-human animals than he turns around and attributes their moral behavior to the “social instincts”: “in the case of the lower animals it seems much more appropriate to speak of their social instincts, as having been developed for the general good rather than for the general happiness of the species.”[xvii] And of course, he uses “instincts” here because it sounds vaguely like it refers to some mechanical cause. In fact, it is obvious that Darwin has no idea whether to locate the origins of morality in the reason or in the instincts. In one place, he even refers to animals’ “instincts or their reason” as being the operative source of specific behavior, as though there were no difference in the world between the two things.[xviii] He generally splits the difference, referring continually to “the moral sense,” such as in the following: “this conclusion agrees well with the belief that the so-called moral sense is aboriginally derived from the social instincts, for both relate at first exclusively to the community.”[xix] Or he conjures up “moral rules” out of instincts, such as, “man can generally and readily distinguish between the higher and lower moral rules. The higher are founded on the social instincts, and relate to the welfare of others. They are supported by the approbation of our fellow-men and by reason.”[xx] Though of course, the moral rules are not “supported” by reason, but apprehended by reason. Moreover, to say that rules are “founded” on instincts is a wonderfully misleading form of assertion; rather, the cultivation of certain instincts is prescribed, on occasion, by rules which are apprehended by reason. As Jacques Barzun was to note, “the same habit of mind – one might almost say the same habit of words – repeatedly leads him into tautology, as when the origin of conscience and the moral sense in man is explained by ‘well-developed social instincts’ which ‘lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows,” to which Barzun adds, “When Darwin begs a question it is not at first obvious because the begging generally covers pages of circumlocutory matter.”[xxi] What is evident to all fair-minded persons is that an ethical theorist who has not made up his mind on the basic question of whether morality is a product of the reason or the instincts is a theorist that has not even made the most elementary progress in his inquiry.

What Darwin simply cannot grasp is that no “instinct” or “sense” adds up to a moral faculty. Undoubtedly, man is possessed of an instinctive, pre-rational tendency to cooperate with his neighbor for the good of the community, or to show him kindness in the hopes of reciprocation. But it is equally certain that man is marked by an instinctive tendency to seek his own, to do violence to his neighbor when it is to his benefit, along with a host of other unseemly habits.  All human behavior can be traced to something in our biology, something instinctive, but not all human behavior is moral. So an account of morality that merely locates the origins of that faculty in our biology is severely inadequate, to say the least. To be a moral person is to cultivate certain aspects of that biological endowment, and to systematically frustrate others, but such an exercise presupposes an ability to pass judgment on our instincts and decide which ones should be thus cultivated, and which ones should be thus frustrated. The faculty which arrives at such judgments cannot itself be instinctual, for no instinct has an authority or priority over the other instincts, and it is quite obvious that an identification of the moral faculty with a mere instinct or “sense” is a clandestine denial of the authority of moral reasoning. Talk of a “moral instinct” merely invites the question: what makes this “instinct,” alone among all the others, moral? And the answer to that is either nothing, or, something genuinely rational that provides us with grounds for regarding the “moral instinct” as truly moral. And if the latter case, then the “moral instinct” cannot be explained through appeals to natural selection, for the reasons stated above.

To adequately distinguish between the better inheritance of our nature and the uglier portion of our evolutionary legacy necessarily presupposes some form of conceptual knowledge. Whether or not non-human animals possess this kind of knowledge in some fashion, it is quite evident that, without a language, they cannot improve that knowledge by making their concepts more precise and accordant with reality.  But we can; indeed, we must, if we are ever to develop in any morally satisfactory way. If I am ever to understand that actions emanating from motives of jealousy are to be avoided, I must have in my mental possession a sound concept of “jealousy.”  Or if I am to respond adequately to admonitions in my youth to display honesty, I must have some way of understanding the concept of “honesty.” Above all things, an authentically moral actor will require some notion of “the good,” the transcendent principle ordering the virtues and their proper exercise.  And anybody who will reflect for a moment upon this matter, will realize that the task of propounding a clear formulation of these concepts, and arranging them in a consistent, systematic fashion, is a work of momentous intellectual labor. That is the true labor of ethical philosophy. We are indebted for all time to Plato for demonstrating the crucial importance of this dialectical task; read the exacting (one is tempted to say tedious) assay at a definition of piety in the Euthyphro, or the similarly careful discussion of courage in the Laches, and you will understand what a high standard of conceptual rigor has been established for philosophy by the master of the Academy. What these dialogues serve to affirm is that the first defect which the ethical philosopher must divest himself of is the mental indolence which accepts, without questioning, the conventional signification of moral terminology.

Yet no one could have demonstrated more intellectual sloth in this respect than Darwin. Throughout his discourse, he recruits the vocabulary of moral concepts with nary a glimmer of realization that he must adequately define these concepts first, and that an adequate definition necessarily requires some philosophizing. We have seen already how carelessly he elides “rationality” into a “sense” or an “instinct,” nowhere in his discourse providing sufficient parameters for the interpretation of these terms which, after all, are absolutely central to his argument. Nor does he ever tell us exactly what would make a difference “fundamental,” though again, his argument hangs on this very issue. And his work is littered with statements like the following: “A great dog scorns the snarling of a little dog, and this may be called magnanimity,”[xxii]where he displays no recognition that the attribution of “magnanimity” to a dog invites all sorts of questions, that need to be addressed: is the term purely behavioral, or does it have a subjective facet, and if the latter, how can we confidently assert it in the case of any non-linguistic creature? As for the meaning of “the good,” its reference is simply settled by scientific fiat: “the term, general good, may be defined as the rearing of the greatest number of individuals in full vigor and health, with all their faculties perfect, under the conditions to which they are subjected.”[xxiii] What fools were Plato and Aquinas to have sweated so long at their tedious metaphysical deductions of “the good,” when they might have appropriated the title of “scientist” – confident that modern man would bow his head accordingly - and asserted what they wished on the matter without more ado! Nothing in the Descent of Man screams out so loudly the amateurishness of Darwin’s philosophical musings than his insouciant use of ethical concepts, without any regard for their definition or defense.

In order to remedy this vacuum of conceptual rigor, Darwin occasionally smuggles into his discourse the comfortable assumptions of late nineteenth-century liberalism, such as when he writes, “it is obvious that every one may with an easy conscience gratify his own desires, if they do not interfere with his social instincts, that is, with the good of others,” [xxiv] or when he attests to that most Victorian of credos, social progress: “it is admitted by moralists of the derivative school and by some intuitionists, that the standard of morality has risen since an early period in the history of man.”[xxv] And this whiggish prejudice constitutes no mere tangential speculation, but a prime piece of Darwin’s evidence for the effects of natural selection upon moral behavior.

The fact is that as soon as Darwin leaves the realm of mere empirical observation for the most rudimentary conceptual speculation, he is lost at sea. He does not understand, for instance, that to say man is a moral creature is not to say that he always, or generally, acts in a morally commendable fashion, but rather that he is the sort of creature whose actions are adequately described by a moral vocabulary.  He writes,

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 Fijians, who, when their parents get old, or fall ill, bury them alive.[xxvi]

It is relevant, is it not, that we blame the Indians and the Fijians for such behavior, but not the wildebeast or the bonobo? Or consider his claim that “if man had not been his own classifier, he would never have thought of founding a separate order for his own reception.”[xxvii] Perhaps one might wish to ponder the interesting fact that no other creature but man could have been his own classifier, since man is the only classifier in nature.

And then there is the very grave question of whether a man who pens the following villainy has any right to touch upon moral topics at all:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated, and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health.  We civilized 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…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…excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.[xxviii]

All in all, the portion of The Descent of Man which treats of man’s ethical nature is as clumsy and unpersuasive as any attempt at ethical reasoning in history, one which fully justifies Darwin’s own estimation of his abilities, when he confessed: “my power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited.”[xxix]  Read it, and you will smile disdainfully the next time you hear someone refer to Darwin as a great thinker, the discoverer of the “greatest idea ever.” What becomes evident throughout the work is that Darwin, though he wrote several chapters on the topic, was really not very interested in ethics. He was certainly not interested in it the way he was interested in barnacles or birds; he made no attempt to familiarize himself with even the most basic literature in the field, nor to acquaint himself with the enduring dilemmas which ethical philosophers have wrestled with for centuries. The unremitting sense which one feels from the beginning of his disquisition to the end is that the author’s one objective is to vindicate his often repeated claim that there is no “fundamental difference” between man and the non-human animals, and that therefore the phenomenon of morality may be adequately subsumed under the theory of natural selection. It is a system-defending inquiry only. 

If there was one book that a sensible ethical philosopher would regard as a fruitless and unpromising place to begin his inquiry, that book would be The Descent of Man. Yet it is precisely this book that huge numbers of academics are now choosing as the foundation of their moral theories. Nor can it be said that, in their methods, they have proved unfaithful to their master, since anybody who will peruse their literature will discover there the same gross defects which plague Darwin’s inquiry: the presentation of barely-grounded speculation for fact, the disregard for the problem which subjectivity presents to any scientific theory of morality, the total lack of conceptual rigor. And all of this together indicates not that we have entered into any new golden age of moral wisdom, but rather that we are still mired in the very dark age of materialistic ignorance.   


[i] http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/morality10/morality.haidt.html
[ii] Darwin, Charles  The Descent of Man  (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 66.
[iii] Darwin, 41.
[iv] Darwin, 176.
[v] “At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one important element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase,” Darwin, 158.  Also, “In regard to the moral qualities, some elimination of the worst dispositions is always in progress even in the most civilized nations,” Darwin, 162.
[vi] Darwin, 92.
[vii] Darwin, 125.
viii] Darwin, 96.
[ix] Darwin, 118.
[x] Darwin, 104.
[xi] Darwin, 105.
[xii] Darwin, 111.
[xiii] Darwin, 96.
[xiv] Darwin, 99.
[xv] See Plutarch’s essay “On the Use of Reason by ‘Irrational Animals;’” also, for a realist, Aristotlean account of ethics, which begins from a recognition of the rationality in non-human animals, see Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals.
[xvi ]I am well aware that there is a vast literature out there which challenges this point. I am also well aware that most of it is verbose rubbish, what Roger Scruton called “neurotrash.” But I stand by my criterion; I will believe that moral knowledge is a material entity when, and only when, conclusive empirical evidence is produced of a DNA sequence that codes for “love thy neighbor as thyself,” or a pattern of neuron firing that correlates to “honesty is the best policy.”  
[xvii] Darwin, 145.  This is, incidentally, a clear assertion of group selection, and is thoroughly at odds with the modern genetic theory of natural selection.
[xviii] “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.” Darwin, 125.
[xix ]Darwin, 143.
[xx] Darwin, 147.
[xxi] Barzun, Jacques  Darwin, Marx, Wagner  (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1958) 74.
[xxii] Darwin, 92.
[xxiii] Darwin, 145.
[xxiv] Darwin, 140.
[xxv] Darwin, 149.
[xxvi] Darwin, 125.
[xxvii] Darwin, 176.
[xxviii] Darwin, 159.
[xxix] Darwin, Charles Autobiography (New York: Norton, 1969), 140.


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