Seah Shuqi Gabriel

Moralistic objections to evolution

            Evolution is a hugely controversial theory in some circles. In part this is because it seems to go against certain interpretations of some religious doctrines. However, people also object to the Theory of Evolution or find it distasteful because of the implications they feel it has for morality. There are 5 objections that are most often heard: If humans evolved from animals, and aren’t radically different from them qualitatively, why do we need morality? If selfishness is good for you, as evolution seems to imply, why should we be altruistic towards others? If the concept of memes, which follows from evolution, proposes that morality too, evolves, does that not cheapen morality? Since evolution is based on the theory of the survival of the fittest, why should we help those who lose out? And finally, doesn’t accepting evolution also endorse Social Darwinism? In reality, these concerns are misplaced and arise either from a misunderstanding of evolution or an idealisation of morality.

            To prevent possible misunderstandings, some key terms need to be defined before discussing the implications evolution might have for morality. The term ‘fitness’, when used in evolutionary biology, refers to the ability of an organism to pass on its genotype through the number of its viable offspring, and not necessarily how well adapted organisms are to the environment[1]. ‘Morals’ are standards of right and wrong[2], and ‘altruism’ refers to behaviour by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species[3]. This essay will also be restricted to animals, since the moralistic objections to evolution come about when the implications of humans evolving from and not being radically different from animals, are considered.

            If humans were descended from animals and aren’t significantly qualitatively different from them, why then do we need morals? After all, animals lack knowledge of what is right and wrong - if we aren’t very different from them, why should we behave morally? That animals do not have complex moral systems is not in doubt, but then they do not have complex culture or brains as well, so it would be hard for complex morals to take root or persist. However, simple rules analogous to morals are observable in our primate relatives, especially in chimpanzees, the closest living relatives of humans. When chimpanzees are aware that they are related to each other, they do not mate[4] – this is a chimpanzee version of the incest taboo in humans.

            Similar rules of right and wrong can be found in other primates. Dominant macaque monkeys were found to have some respect for the property rights of subordinate ones[5], and Rhesus monkeys on Gayo Santiago who did not alert the rest of their troupe to the discovery of food stashes were attacked by other members of the troupe[6]. Of course, many counter examples to these could be found, but then the same applies in human cultures – most morals are not universal, and vary from society to society and time period to time period. It might also be asked if these animals really are following notions of right and wrong; could they just be following their natural instincts? We cannot peer into animal minds to find the true answer, but then the same question might be asked of humans: from whence comes our morality? Is our sense of what is right and what is wrong just an instinct, like in animals? Whatever the answer might be, it is clear that one cannot blandly state that animals are amoral while humans have morals.

            We can see, then, that some form of proto-morality can be found in animals. However, even if animals did not possess some form of morality, it could be argued that it is precisely their lack of morality which creates the need for humans to have morality to distinguish them from and raise them above animals.

            Evolution predicts that organisms with greater evolutionary fitness will propagate their genes at the expense of those with lower evolutionary fitness. Some might then argue that there is no reason for us to be altruistic, since it would seem that such behaviour would help others at one’s expense, and decrease one’s evolutionary fitness. However, one might rightly ask why humans are altruistic if this did not raise individuals’ evolutionary fitness. After all, evolution predicts that traits which lower organisms’ evolutionary fitness are weeded out over time. The only alternative would be treating altruism as a social construct.

As has been demonstrated, some animals, even if they do not have complex morality, have some notion of right and wrong. We can also observe that animals practise altruism. Co-operation among the cells in multi-cellular animals is the most common form of altruism, but is too unintuitive to convince most people. Altruism displayed by individual animals though, can be seen in all animal species which take care of their young, and even inferred in dinosaurs[7]. Even though the parent does not benefit directly from spending its resources on its offspring, it does so anyway. Of course, by taking care of its young, the parent animal ensures that its genes are passed on to the next generation and thus gains an indirect benefit – though it may not live as long due to its raising of offspring, it ensures that some part of its genes lives on in the world.

However, cases of altruism in animals are not limited to parent-child relationships: in meerkats, kookaburras and up to 340 species of birds and mammals, individuals help rear the young of other animals in their group to whom they are related[8]. Evolution explains this type of altruism with the theory of kinship selection – by helping rear young whom they are closely related to, animals indirectly ensure the propagation of their genes, since they share some part of their genetic structure with them. Evolution predicts that individuals would help their kin raise young if the benefit to them – in terms of the amount of shared genetic material perpetuated in the young – exceeds the cost – in terms of the amount of genetic material they do not perpetuate themselves, in the form of their own young; Hamilton’s rule states that c < b*r, where the cost in fitness for the altruist (c) must be less than the fitness benefit gained by its relative (b), multiplied by the relatedness between the two organisms (r)[9]. Indeed, in insects such as ants, bees and wasps, kinship selection has evolved to such an extent that eusociality has developed, where the worker caste gives up personal reproduction entirely to assist the Queens in their reproduction. Even where two organisms are unrelated genetically, evolution does not rule out altruism between them. Under the right conditions, including multiple interactions and symmetrical exposure, reciprocal altruism may emerge in unrelated individuals[10].

We can see, then, that selfishness is not necessarily encouraged by evolution, as the benefit individual animals get from helping others can be greater than the cost to them. It might then be asked: if acts of altruism performed by individual animals are beneficial to them, are they still considered altruistic? If one wants to adopt this line of argument, though, since acts of human altruism gain the individual social recognition and goodwill, naught but anonymous acts of altruism would be considered truly altruistic, and then one might still argue that the ‘feel-good’ factor benefits the altruistic individual. Regardless of how strictly one defines ‘true’ altruism, the fact that Evolution supports the perpetuation of many forms of altruism should be gladdening, for it ensures that, barring sudden changes in selection pressures or social norms, altruism will endure in humans for a long time to come.

            There is also the matter of memes, proposed by Richard Dawkins, an icon of evolutionary theory, drawing a parallel with the concept of genes and genetic evolution. If morals are memes, subject to evolution, that would mean that they are not eternal, constant and immutable. Are morals then subject to evolution? To find out, we can see if they fit the three criteria under which natural selection – and eventually evolution - takes place: reproducing units, heritable variability, and different fitness levels. Morals fulfil all three of these criteria. They are transmitted from person to person, usually when children are brought up and socialised into society. As J.S. Mill observed, “the same causes which make [someone] a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin”[11]; they are modified as time passes[12] and morals that do not suit societies are changed or abandoned[13].

            Those who oppose evolution on the grounds that it implies that morality is not eternal, constant and immutable idealise it. A cursory study of history will show that morals are relative and change with time and place – the binding of women’s feet was an accepted norm in China only 400 years ago[14], yet the practise is now shunned and condemned. Meanwhile, homosexuality is tolerated in present-day European Union countries, yet homosexuals get their heads lopped off with a sword in Saudi Arabia[15]. How then can one be sure that one’s own set of morals will be eternal, constant and immutable?

            The fourth objection is that since the Theory of Evolution postulates that more capable or well adapted organisms will succeed and prosper and the less capable or well adapted will fail, why should we help failures? After all, if evolution predicts that the natural result would be that the more capable will succeed and that the less capable will fail, why should we stop that from happening and nature from running its course? Is not the natural outcome better? In a human context, we might ask why governments should provide welfare for the lower classes of society.

            The trouble with this objection is twofold. Firstly, the criterion for an organism’s evolutionary success is how much of its genome it manages to pass on and perpetuate successfully. However, success as humans perceive it does not necessarily translate into evolutionary success – a rich, childless millionaire who does not help his relatives may be perceived by other humans as being very successful (at least financially), but evolutionarily speaking he is useless since he does not help perpetuate his genome. Besides which, thanks to culture and society, where humans are concerned genetics is not everything – many social factors, such as a person’s upbringing and life experiences, have great impacts on the individual’s life chances. For example, children from rich families have a good chance of faring better in life than those from poor families[16].

More importantly, evolution is descriptive and predictive, not prescriptive; it can tell us what is going to happen and why, as well as why what has happened in the past has happened, but it does not tell us what should happen. Indeed, it is not the place of science to pass value judgments; as Einstein observed: “Scientific statements of facts and relations… cannot produce ethical directives”[17] – such falls into the realm of the Arts and the Social Sciences. Nonetheless, some people are possessed of the belief that what is going to happen, or what will happen naturally is good – in other words, that what does or will happen should or ought to happen. This misconception is referred to as the Naturalistic Fallacy[18]. On the contrary however, an understanding of the mechanism of natural selection helps us understand that the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short[19] as he struggles against selection pressures (both from the environment and from his fellow men), and that nature and time are not kind to any organism; it is precisely because of this that we should strive to improve the lot of our fellow men.

            Related to the naturalistic fallacy is the issue of Social Darwinism, which proposes that instead of just letting evolution do its work, we should actively try to improve the genetic stock of the human race through eugenics and the like, encouraging the rich – deemed more ‘fit” - to procreate while preventing the poor – deemed less ‘fit’ – from doing so[20]. However, besides both ignoring the importance of social factors in determining life success and confusing life success with evolutionary success, Social Darwinism ignores the point that it is precisely the poor - which it deems less fit - that have more children, due to lower education and affluence, a lack of contraceptives and other such factors[21]. It is poor people, then, who are more evolutionarily successful than the rich, contrary to the pseudo-Darwinistic conclusions of Social Darwinism.

            We have seen then that moralistic objections to evolution arise either from a misunderstanding of evolution and its implications or an idealised view of morality. However, even if the moralistic objections to evolution were valid, that would have no impact on the validity of the Theory of Evolution itself. One can rail daily about the immorality of the Theory of Evolution, yet that does not affect its veracity; one can only look at the Flat Earth society, which uses religion to support its claim that the earth is flat[22] - however much they might rant and rave, that does not change the fact that the earth is not flat. Even if those who find the moral implications of the Theory of Evolution repellent are unconvinced by the arguments above, they will have to live with the fact that it is currently the best scientific paradigm for explaining much of biology and the origin of species.





1.      Oxford English Dictionary Online

2., Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

3.      Hauser, Marc D. Morals, Apes, and Us”; Discover, February, 2000

4., Lovgren, Stefan. “Dinosaurs Were Doting Parents, Fossil Find Suggests”; National Geographic News, September 8, 2004

5. , Pickrell, John. “Animal "Baby-Sitting" May Be Family Affair, Study Says”; National Geographic News, October 23, 2003

6., Queller, David C. and Strassmann, Joan E. “Eusociality”; Current Biology 13: R861-863

7., Mill, JS. “On Liberty”

8., Hutchins, Candace. “Chinese Foot Binding”

9.      “Three Saudi men beheaded for sodomy”; Associated Press Newswires, 1 January 2002

10., Brotherhood of St Laurence. “Eleven plus: life chances and family income”

11., Hobbes, Thomas. “The Leviathan”

12., Shermis, S. Samuel. “Social Darwinism”

13., Meadows , Donella H. “Is Development the Best Contraceptive -- or Are Contraceptives?”

14., Schadewald, Robert J., “The Flat-out Truth”

15.  “Ethics”, ed. Peter Singer (1994), Oxford: Oxford University Press

16.  Hobhouse, L.T. “Morals in Evolution” (1951), London : Chapman & Hall

17.  Flew, AGN. “Evolutionary Ethics” (1967), London: Macmillian & Co Ltd



Additional Bibliography:


  1. Huxley, Thomas H. “Evolution and Ethics and other essays” (1970), New York: AMS Press
  2. Ginsberg, Morris. “Essays in Sociology and Social Philosophy I – On the Diversity of Morals” (1956), London: William Heinemann Ltd

[1] Oxford English Dictionary Online

[2] Ibid.

[3], Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

[4] Goodall, Jane. “Incest Avoidance among Chimpanzees”; “Ethics”, ed. Peter Singer (1994), pp. 93

[5] Hauser, Marc D. Morals, Apes, and Us”; Discover, February, 2000

[6] Ibid.

[7], Lovgren, Stefan. “Dinosaurs Were Doting Parents, Fossil Find Suggests”; National Geographic News, September 8, 2004

[8] , Pickrell, John. “Animal "Baby-Sitting" May Be Family Affair, Study Says”; National Geographic News, October 23, 2003

[9], Queller, David C. and Strassmann, Joan E. “Eusociality”; Current Biology 13: R861-863

[10] Trivers, Robert. “The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism”; “Ethics”, ed. Peter Singer (1994), pp. 80

[11], Mill, JS. “On Liberty”

[12] Hobhouse, L.T. “Morals in Evolution” (1951), pp. 30

[13] Ibid.

[14], Hutchins, Candace. “Chinese Foot Binding”

[15] “Three Saudi men beheaded for sodomy”; Associated Press Newswires, 1 January 2002

[16], Brotherhood of St Laurence. “Eleven plus: life chances and family income”

[17] Flew, AGN. “Evolutionary Ethics” (1967), pp. 42

[18] Ibid., pp. 38

[19], Hobbes, Thomas. “The Leviathan”

[20], Shermis, S. Samuel. “Social Darwinism”

[21], Meadows , Donella H. “Is Development the Best Contraceptive -- or Are Contraceptives?”

[22], Schadewald, Robert J., “The Flat-out Truth”