Cover Image


View/Hide Left Panel

harbored the conviction that evolutionary history evinced a progressive character, as vague as the idea of progress might be (Ruse, 1996). For Darwin, the conviction of progress was a deeply embedded part of his theory. And he does seem to have believed that this progress had a definite trajectory. He may have succumbed to some of the traps that Francisco Ayala (1988) has identified; but the idea is nonetheless part of his theory.

Let me approach this line of thought a bit indirectly. I’ve already indicated Darwin’s early views as to the purpose of sexual generation, ultimately for the production of moral creatures. Now let me come at it from the other temporal end, Darwin’s considerations in The Descent of Man. In The Descent, Darwin devotes 2 chapters to his theory of the evolution of morality. For the British reader, the barrier between animals and human beings was not erected on man’s luminous intellect. The British empiricists had maintained that ideas were but faint sensory images and that reasoning amounted to the association of ideas. Of course, animals would be quite capable of both. This attitude even infected British idealists, such as F. H. Bradley, the great metaphysician, who once confessed to Conwy Lloyd Morgan: “I never could see any difference at bottom between my dogs & me, although some of our ways were certainly a little different” (Richards, 1987, p. 105). But man was a moral creature, and that singular trait seemed to be denied of every animal. Hence, Darwin had to give an evolutionary account of man’s distinctive acquirement, if his theory were to be successful and if its ultimate concern should be realized.

The Descent of Man

Most contemporary interpreters of Darwin’s accomplishment presume that evolutionary theory left man morally naked to the world. Michael Ghiselin, for instance, in a fit of overheated hyperbole, asserted: “Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed” (Ghiselin, 1974). Had Ghiselin scratched the master himself, he would have found the blood of naturalized compassion; Darwin thought his theory removed “the reproach of laying the foundation of the most noble part of our nature in the base principle of selfishness” (Richards, 1987, pp. 185–242, and Darwin, 1871, Vol. 1, p. 98). He opposed his own theory of moral conscience to that of utilitarians, like Jeremy Bentham and James Mill. I doubt he would have found Ghiselin’s characterization any more agreeable.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin applied the conception of community selection, which he first developed to account for the traits of social insects, to construct a theory of human moral behavior. Those proto-human tribes whose members had the instinct for cooperation, fidelity, sympathy, and altruistic impulse would have the advantage over other tribes, even if members bearing those traits would be at a disadvantage

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement