"If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."
- Charles Darwin

Jul 16, 2007

The Evolution of Morality

Morality is the final domain
that theists cling to in order to justify the existence of God. They argue that, without a supernatural deity (or deities), there would be no reason for people to be kind with one another and we would be constantly at each other’s throats. The view of Darwinian evolution as “nature, red in tooth and claw” is pervasive and theists perceive that the absence of God is the absence of moral sense. However, this fa├žade is cracking around its very foundation as a steady flow of observational evidence reveals it to be one more bit of fallacious reasoning.

Moral behavior is little more than behaving in ways that are beneficial to the group rather than merely to yourself. Group-living animals, and primates in particular, can teach us a great deal about how such behaviors could be selected for and evolve without requiring a moral puppetmaster in the sky. In many primate societies close social bonds formed by individuals serve to regulate social behavior. These social bonds are strengthened through grooming, food sharing and reconciliation behavior after a conflict. While competition and conflict are a normal part of group living it is often surprising to learn how rare it is, especially considering the amount of attention such conflict receives in the academic and popular press.

Fedigan (1993) found in one study that white-faced capuchins (the cute New World monkeys who carried the deadly virus in Outbreak) displayed 1,078 cooperative behaviors and only 136 aggressive ones. Likewise, Sussman et al. (2003) found that ring-tailed lemurs spent about twenty-five minutes per day in direct cooperation and less than one minute in aggression. Sussman and Garber (2004) followed up on these findings by analyzing seventy-eight studies covering twenty-five genera and forty-nine species of non-human primates. They determined that prosimians, monkeys and apes would spend the vast majority of their social lives in cooperative interactions. The study also showed that the amount of social aggression was statistically insignificant. The levels of aggression ranged from zero in colobus monkeys to a high of 0.92% in spider monkeys (a species that spent 22.0% of their time in cooperation).

The authors concluded by stating, “We hypothesize that affiliation is the major governing principle of primate sociality and that aggression and competition represent important but secondary features of daily primate social interaction” (Sussman and Garber 2004:178).

How then can theists justify that nature is cruel and immoral necessitating a moral force from beyond the natural world? If you remove the mental blinders for a second it makes perfect sense that group living animals would cooperate more than they’d compete. Group living is a way of gaining protection from predators. If too many individuals destabilize the group by behaving selfishly everyone in the group suffers as a result. The individuals involved wouldn’t have to understand this concept, it would emerge because those populations that didn’t follow this “moral law” wouldn’t survive. While there will always be a tendency to maximize individual benefit, the most stable groups will always be those that maximize the benefit of the most individuals at the same time (i.e. mutualism). The theistic argument for a supernatural force is as baseless for morality as it has been shown to be for love, abstract reasoning or any other domain thought exclusive to humans.

As is often the case in these discussions, Darwin said it best in one of his less quoted statements that we would be wise to recover from the shadows. Speaking about how ethical behavior could develop based on nothing but the laws of natural selection he wrote: “Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring” (Darwin 1871:163).

For more on this topic see my posts here and here.


Darwin C. (1871). The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. New York: Random House, 1936.

Fedigan L. (1993). Sex differences and intersexual relations in adult white-faced capuchins. International Journal of Primatology 14: 853-77.

Sussman RW and Chapman AR (2004). The nature and evolution of sociality: Introduction. In: The Origins and Nature of Sociality. Ed. by RW Sussman and AR Chapman. Aldine De Gruyter: New York, pp. 3-19.

Sussman RW, Andrianasolondraibe O, Soma T, Ichino S. (2003). Social behavior and aggression among ringtailed lemurs. Folia Primatologica 74: 168-72.

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