Darwin and the Roots of Morality

Wikipedia’s entry on “Evolution of Morality” points to the issue: “In everyday life, morality is typically associated with human behavior and not much thought is given to the social conducts [sic] of other creatures.”

It may look as if animals and morality may have almost nothing to do with each other, but in fact the social life of animals forms the very foundation of human morality. I suggest that we might value both our biological history and our morality more fully if we were more widely aware of this portion of evolution.

Charles Darwin took on that topic in The Descent of Man. He opens the book strategically by asserting that the best way to approach an inquiry into human evolution is to look first at all the similarities, physical and mental, that humans share with any animals. His extraordinary catalogue goes on for four chapters. I remember first reading them and thinking that after such an avalanche of likenesses it would be bizarre if humans were not descended from animals. Which is no doubt exactly what Darwin wanted me to think.

Sympathy and friendship (wallpaper-million-com.jpg)

Sympathy and affection (wallpaper-million-com.jpg)

Among these similarities is social living.  Humans and social animals alike enjoy living in groups and they dislike isolation. They share activities such as raising young, procuring food, following leaders, defending the group. And, Darwin wrote, among the emotions felt by humans and these animals is “the all-important emotion of sympathy.” His animal examples include a dog licking a sick cat, primates caring for each other, young birds helping and feeding an older, weakened mate. What prompts such sympathy? Darwin thought the answer was straightforward: they have enough memory for a “strong retentiveness of former states of pain or pleasure.”

But while social living and empathy may be the foundation for morality, can one say that animals, like humans, actually have a moral sense, a conscience? Darwin’s response was careful: if the animals had enough brains, yes, we could say that. “The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable–namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, … the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual power had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”

In other words, the reason we don’t classify some animals as moral beings is not that they lack the necessary kindness or sympathy or sensitivity. It is that they lack the intelligence to perform certain mental operations that we associate with morality. Specifically, animals lack the awareness that their sympathy for another might be in conflict with one of their own needs and that they should make a choice; humans can fret over making that choice easily and often. Another mental ingredient of morality that animals lack, Darwin argues, is the capacity to worry constantly about how they are perceived by others. “Man, from the activity of his mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection; past impressions and images are incessantly and clearly passing through his mind.” So a dog licking a sick cat is displaying sympathy and caring but not morality. But a person earnestly weighing the social imperative to help hungry children against the inconvenience or expense of doing so is making a moral and socially-aware choice.

Darwin’s detailed example of this contrast is a chilling one. He describes how swallows, while tending their eggs and raising their chicks, will abruptly abandon the nests if their strongest migratory instinct come on them at that time.

At the proper season these birds seem all day long to be impressed with the desire to migrate; their habits change; they become restless, are noisy and congregate in flocks. Whilst the mother-bird is feeding or brooding over her nestlings, the maternal instinct is probably stronger than the migratory; but the instinct which is the more persistent gains the victory, and at last, at a moment when young ones are not in sight, she takes flight and deserts them.

If the swallows were human, the nightmare images of their freezing offspring would never leave them.

When arrived at the end of her long journey, and the migratory instinct has ceased to act, what an agony of remorse the bird would feel, if, from being endowed with great mental activity, she could not prevent the image constantly passing through her mind, of her young ones perishing in the bleak north from cold and hunger.

And the swallows would in fact be fully moral if they were capable of learning from their remorse and choosing a different path in the future. But only humans can do that.

 At the moment of [an] action, man will no doubt be apt to follow the stronger impulse; and though this may occasionally prompt him to the noblest deeds, it will more commonly lead him to gratify his own desires at the expense of other men. But after their gratification when past and weaker impressions are judged by the ever-enduring social instinct, and by his deep regard for the good opinion of his fellows, retribution will surely come. He will then feel remorse, repentance, regret, or shame. …He will consequently resolve more or less firmly to act differently for the future.

baby swallows

Swallows, Darwin wrote, will abondon their chicks… (dailymailco.uk)

swallows migrating

if their instinct to migrate is at its peak. (theworldismyoyster-blogspot.jpg)

family on beach

But human parents who fly south understand the problem.(bvonmoney.com)

So we make our resolutions and formulate our laws, creeds, and codes. But we couldn’t have done it without the animals that evolved to pass their lives together and have emotions about each other. They live out the kinds of social complexities that our moral codes attempt to resolve. Actually, our morality is doubly social: like some animals, we can feel the pain of others; unlike any animals, we worry what others will think of us. May we continue to build on both those foundations.

“The reckless, the degraded, and the vicious”: Was Darwin a Bigot?

If you’ve generally felt positive about whatever you know about evolution and natural selection and Charles Darwin, you might want to take a deep breath before reading this passage:

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 everyone 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 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. 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.

The passage is from the fifth chapter of The Descent of Man, published in 1871. The scientist who so impresses me with his vision of the common struggles of all species, humans included, sounds like a hard-core racist here. The comparison to animals reinforces the impression. The final two sentences seem horribly emphatic. The Social Darwinist movement that grew from Darwin’s ideas, a movement that fostered both American sterilization of the mentally deficient and the Nazi genocide, seems to have taken its cue directly from the great scientist himself. Lots has been written to defend Darwin here; his contemptuous attitude was characteristic of his social class at that time, and so forth. But still.

North Carolina, 1950. Board approval for the sterilization of a "feebleminded" woman. (carolinapublicpress.org)

1950, North Carolina. Board approval for the sterilization of a “feebleminded” woman. What would Darwin say?
(carolinapublicpress.org)

But if we look more closely at the chapter where the passage appears, we might feel, if not comfortable with it, at least less revolted. The second and third sentences—about medicine, asylums and other social efforts to help the poor and ill—are part of Darwin’s argument throughout the chapter that human sociability, inherited from animals, is the foundation of our most civilized achievements, including human closeness, compassion, and morality. And a few sentences after the passage above, Darwin writes, “If we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent [possible, uncertain] benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.” In other words, we would lose more—our morals—by abandoning our scruples and ignoring those who suffer than we might gain by reducing the numbers of the poor and sick.

Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, "If we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind."

Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, “If we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind.”

This point certainly has relevance today. Think of the debates over whether government should actively help the poor or whether, on the other hand, it should assist as little as possible and let the poor sink or swim. Darwin’s position would probably be that even at the risk of encouraging some dependence on government, in the long run our society will benefit the most—will “advance” the most—by acting compassionately.

Still, there is a problem. Among all species, Darwin argued, evolution favors those who have the greatest number of surviving offspring. It’s a matter of hard numbers. Among the people who live in “civilized societies,” those who are poor and “reckless” marry earlier and collectively have more children than members of the higher, “virtuous” classes who are careful of their resources, marry later and have smaller families. So, why haven’t the children of the poor taken over society?

Because, Darwin wrote, natural selection is not the only force at work. It is “checked”—modified—in many ways. The offspring of the poor are fewer than one might expect for several reasons.   The poor die young, relatively speaking, especially if they are unmarried males or if they migrate to the living conditions in cities. And although many of the poor have large families, those who are very, very poor have few children.

So Darwin understood that the issue of what to do about people in poor mental and physical health was complex. The consequences of moral inaction are real. And biological propagation among humans in different social classes is not easy to predict. He wrote, “Development of all kinds depends on many concurrent favourable circumstances. Natural selection acts only tentatively.”

Darwin’s controversial passage is shocking, I think, because he is describing the tension over whether and how to assist the unfortunate in the sharpest and starkest terms. On the whole, I don’t think the debate has shifted fundamentally. We agree with Darwin that high rates of poverty and disability are “highly injurious” to humanity in that any nation with such conditions is a degraded and dismal place to live. And like Darwin, we feel that the moral imperative for social action, despite  imperfect results, is not one we can permanently ignore.