Darwin’s Attempt to Explain Morality

In Ethics and the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin attempts to explain how morals evolved naturalistically and why humanity has a sense of remorse when other, lower animals do not exhibit such a behavior. Darwin argues that man has a “well-marked social instinct” that aided in the development of a moral sense (603). He attempts to show how this instinct manifests itself in animals, and then applies it to human behavior. His theory lies mainly in the great weight of public opinion that people have for each other’s approval in this social instinct that he claims is strengthened by habit.

Darwin observed that social animals, like wolves, mutually defend one another. Often times these animals use a warning signal to alert others of danger, like rabbits stamping loudly on the ground, monkeys crying out expressions of danger, or certain birds whistling. This is done in an effort to preserve the society, or common good of the species for proliferation, he explained (605). Thus, this trait is passed on through natural selection. Darwin postulates this is the basis for sympathy development in humanity, a trait that helps rear the greatest number of offspring. Darwin concludes that this trait is instinctual since it is performed instantaneously in moments of maternal instinct and/or self-sacrifice. It is all done for the survival of the species, he states.

Darwin rejects that humanity has a “special God-implanted conscience” in favor of seeing the sense of conscience as rooted in a selfish interest that manifests itself in good acts towards others (613). He sees the standard of morality based in the welfare of the community, and because of this, believes virtue will be triumphant. This is what he calls the “social instinct,” and Darwin bases it on habit and inheritance.

Yet Darwin fails to show how social instincts are biological entities that are passed on genetically. He states that as virtue and honor is practiced and spread through instruction, it eventually becomes incorporated into public opinion (614), but he provides no explanation as to how this occurs biologically.

In addition, Darwin presupposes that because of social instinct, the genetic trait of virtue will grow stronger among people. Had he lived long enough, I wonder how Darwin would have responded to the two world wars and terrible genocides that occurred in the 20th century? These acts show the exact opposite of what should have transpired if he were correct. Matter of fact, acts of the 20th century were a lot like savage behavior, which begs the question as to why certain cultures are more “savage” than others? Darwin’s theory claims humans are all descended from a common link. If this is true, then why are terrorist groups still threatening the global population today if we are evolving from a common link? 

Darwin states that a belief constantly inculcated during the early years of life appears to acquire the nature of an instinct (614). As in terrorist groups, how then would Darwin explain, for example, a converted Islamic terrorist who became a changed person because of a newfound faith in Jesus Christ? If what he states is true, and many “absurd religious beliefs” are drummed into an impressionable young brain supposedly fixing that brain’s “instinct,” how would Darwin explain a radical change in an adult after an encounter with Christ? There are millions of similar conversion stories over the centuries when adults changed their entire worldview after an experience with God (I am one of them).

A good scientific hypothesis has explanatory power, but I think Darwin’s social instinct theory fails to explain how morality could evolve biologically.

For Christians, the Bible is the primary source of morality. But is it just merely reading words on a page that makes one moral? Of course not! The words on these inspired pages of Scripture only serve to confirm what we innately know.

“For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; or it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.” Romans 2:12-16

There is a moral argument (by Philosopher, William Lane Craig) that I find intriguing. It goes like this:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

3. Therefore, God exists. 

The area that gets a lot of attention is the second premise. Do “objective” moral values exist for everyone, regardless of where you live, what your belief system is or how you were raised? I certainly hope that you answer “yes” to that question, otherwise morality can change based on a person’s subjective interpretation. This is how Hitler got a whole nation to kill six-million Jews: it was his subjective morality that declared Jews to be sub-human and convinced ordinary people to become murderers.

A transcendent source, aka God, is where humanity’s moral compass should point, and if that is not the case, then our compass is broken. 

“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel

after those days, declares the Lord:

I will put my laws into their minds,

and iwrite them on their hearts,

and I will be their God,

and they shall be my people.” Hebrews 8:10


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