In Ethics and the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin attempts to explain how morals evolved naturalistically and why mankind 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. 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. Thus, this trait is passed on through natural selection. Darwin postulates this is the basis for sympathy development in mankind, 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. 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 bases it on habit and inheritance.
In response to Darwin, he 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, yet he provides no explanation how this occurs biologically.
In addition, he 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 of 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 groups like ISIS, which is threatening the global population today with terrorism, more savage than others 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. As in groups like ISIS, how then would Darwin explain 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 where adults changed their entire worldview after an experience with God (I am one of them).
A good scientific hypothesis has explanatory power, but I have shown how Darwin’s social instinct theory fails to explain how morality could evolve biologically.