Michael Everett Brooks
Dr. Douglas Ottati
Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia
Introduction to Philosophy
October 2, 1985
One of the most misunderstood
issues of Charles Darwin's thinking is the entire issue of moral sense.
Many Christian people have pointed to Darwin's naturalistic explanation
of the development of life on earth and exclaimed, "There's no solid foundation
for morality in Darwin's explanation of life! It's all natural selection
and survival of the fittest by chance occurrences. There is no absolute
standard of right and wrong -- whatever is 'expedient' or 'necessary' determines
moral values." If any Christian should accept Darwin's explanation
as being feasible, he is often accused of "apostasy" or "rejection of the
truth" by more conservative believers who insist that any explanation of
life must have some foundation for an absolute standard of morality in
order to be acceptable. Now, Darwin would be the first to admit that
his thinking provides no absolute standard for moral behavior.
But this fair admission on his part doesn't mean that there is no foundation
at all for moral behavior in his explanation of life. Indeed, Darwin
goes to great lengths to demonstrate that there is a legitimate foundation
for moral sense according to his viewpoint, a foundation which I believe
in no way undermines the Biblical basis for moral sense in man. In
this paper I will summarize Darwin's arguments for an explanation of the
moral sense from natural history, and then follow this by pointing out
some factors concerning the testimony of Scripture and concerning Darwin's
intentions that many of his detractors seem to miss in their attacks upon
Darwin begins his examination
and explanation of the moral sense in The Descent of Man, and Selection
in Relation to Sex, with an open admission:
Darwin views the social instincts
in man, as a creature descended from earlier creatures, as providing the
foundation of moral sense. On pages 72-73 of The Descent of Man,
and Selection in Relation to Sex, Darwin puts forth four basic factors,
growing out of man's social instincts, that lead to the development of
moral sense. (1) The social instincts, by their very nature, "lead
an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain
amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them."
Examples of this type of behavior include warning other animals in the
community about danger, alerting them to the presence of food, and removing
parasites from each other's skin and fur. (2) In addition,
the development of the mental powers in man gives rise to a good memory
of past actions, actions both good for and detrimental to the community.
An example of this is the fact that the social instinct is more pervasive
and on-going than other instincts, such as the hunger and sexual instincts,
and therefore the social instinct is more firmly etched into the consciousness
and the memory of an animal or, more specifically, of man. (3) Also,
as man's mental powers develop, the power of communication and language
also grow stronger, allowing individuals to become consciously aware of
the needs of others and to express their own needs to others. This
conscious exchange promotes the establishment of an understood standard
of behavior suitable to aid the community in addition to the inherent social
instincts. (4) Finally, repeated behavior for the good of the community
tends to establish itself as habitual behavior benefiting the community.
This factor, plus other factors of social instincts, powers of memory and
language, work to establish a moral sense of community-favoring behavior.
Of these four factors, Darwin
considers the knowledge of a pervasive social instinct and the power of
memory and mental evaluation as being the prime contributors to the moral
sense, whereas knowledge of public opinion (made possible through the development
of language) and the formation of habit serve to strengthen the moral thinking
processes brought about by the first two factors. Darwin
points to these two factors as forming the foundation for moral sense,
Having summarized Darwin's explanation
of the development of the moral sense, we must now turn to the arguments
of those who disagree with him. If Darwin's explanation is correct,
in what way can we reconcile it to our understanding of Scripture?
Indeed, can we at all? I believe that the answer to this last question
is Yes, and I wish to propose some considerations as to how we can understand
Scripture and Darwin in harmony with each other (at least as far as the
development of the moral sense in man is concerned) by clarifying our understanding
of Darwin's intentions and our concepts of God's revelation to man in Scripture.
Those who believe that there
is an absolute standard of morality to which we are accountable (a belief
to which I also subscribe) may take Darwin's own explanation of the moral
sense as the prime evidence that he is wrong, simply because his explanation
provides no basis for an absolute moral standard, which is their prime
belief about morality. But this objection is immediately ruled out
because, as I pointed out earlier, Darwin never intended to present an
explanation for an absolute standard. The very fact that he
argues from the standpoint of natural history and the development of the
social instincts indicates that his conclusions will at most explain the
presence of a sense of proper moral behavior in regard to our conduct toward
and with one another. And the very fact that two "different" areas
of inquiry that begin with apparently opposing belief systems (Darwin's
evolutionary philosophy and Christian theological ethics) can come to the
exact same conclusion concerning our moral behavior toward and for one
another (the golden rule) suggests that these two areas of inquiry are
not so "different" as we might believe. Indeed, Darwin himself, in
scattered passages in The Descent of Man, acknowledges a belief
in a "purpose" of sorts behind natural selection, and in The Origin
of Species explicitly states that, according to his understanding,
"it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by
the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present
inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like
those determining the birth and death of the individual"8
(these "secondary causes" being the modifications brought about through
the working of natural selection). We must remember that Darwin's
main argument is against the idea that each of the species was separately
created in special acts and that there is no interrelationship between
the species, not that God did not create everything "in the beginning."
Although Darwin's basic approach in The Descent of Man is essentially
materialistic (p. 396), his references to what natural selection "does"
tend to imply that there is a vaguely discernible, almost personal Selector
behind natural selection. This could suggest a form of Darwinian
evolution and development of moral sense; however, since Darwin himself
placed little, if any, explicit emphasis on the role of the Creator in
his understanding of the process of evolution and moral development, it
would be presumptuous to read such an emphasis into The Descent of Man.
All we can say is that Darwin believed (at least, when he wrote The
Origin of Species) that the Creator began the whole process.
I believe that some of the reasons
why some people, especially conservative and fundamentalist Christians,
accuse Darwin of having no basis at all for morality include (1) the fact
that many conservative and fundamentalist Christians simply have not read
Darwin's works (they accuse on the basis of hearsay), (2) they hold an
extremely literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1-3, ruling out the possibility
of their considering a more symbolic or allegorical interpretation of these
chapters, and (3) they have a limited view of the means by which God could
reveal his moral will to humanity. (I know that all three of these
suggestions play, to some degree, a part in some people's rejection of
Darwin, because all three of these suggestions were once true of me at
a time when I too accused Darwin of having no standard of moral behavior.)
The first possibility, that Darwin's accusers have simply not read his
works, can easily be rectified by the obvious solution of having them read
Darwin. The second suggestion, concerning a rigid, absolutely literal
interpretation of Genesis 1-3, is more difficult to get around. For
those who hold this particular view of the creation accounts, it will be
necessary for them to suspend their particular view in order even to consider
Darwin's theory. I myself know how difficult it is to do this from
my own experience; C.S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain, with its theistic
description of the evolution of man, helped me immensely in harmonizing
what I believed Scripture said with the results of scientific inquiry into
But since the main issue with
which I am dealing is the development of the moral sense, I believe that
the third suggestion, concerning a limited view of how God could reveal
his moral requirements to man, provides the best foundation for viewing
Darwin's account of the development of the moral sense in harmony with
that of Scripture. According to Scripture, God revealed his moral
will to Israel through Moses by means of supernatural revelation at Mount
Sinai. Here the Law of God, summed up in essence by the Ten Commandments,
is first "made known" to man. This event, coupled with the more recent
revelation of God to man through Jesus Christ, provides the foundation
of an absolute moral standard revealed to and, in effect, imposed upon
mankind from outside. From these monumental revelations of ultimate
moral law, some people infer that any inkling of moral sense in man, who
since the creation has fallen from innocence into sin, is artificially
and externally imposed upon man, who supposedly would not give a second
thought to moral behavior if he were left to himself. On the other
hand, Darwin's view of moral development seems to indicate that moral sense
is natural, even expected, in man, as the natural result of man's development.
This presents a paradox of sorts, in that those who most strongly insist
that man is indeed "in the image of God" seem to think that, because of
the fall, moral behavior is somehow "unnatural" in a being made and developed
by the very One in whom moral sense finds its origin, that one should not
expect to find moral sense woven into the very fiber of what is confessedly
the crown of God's creation. On the other side of this paradox, Darwin,
for whom neither theism nor any kind of transcendent, pre-existent moral
standard played any part in his examination of moral sense, concludes from
a completely naturalistic approach that moral sense is the most natural
thing one could expect to find in man, a conclusion which we would expect
to hear from those who hold to a supernaturalistic explanation of life
on earth. (Here I must point out that I am not saying that conservative
and fundamentalist Christians believe that man after the fall had no knowledge
of good and evil, because this knowledge is, according to Genesis 3, the
very thing that man acquired in the fall. My point is that many Christians
believe that any concept of moral sense in man after the fall could only
come about as the result of external revelation, not internal
instinct.) Having said that, our next question is this: Is there
any evidence in Scripture that God's moral requirements need not be communicated
to man solely by means of overt, external imposition, such as at Mount
Sinai? Does any passage of Scripture point to a more covert revelation
of God's moral sense to man?
In Paul's letter to the Romans,
we find the following passage, the context of which is God's impartial
judgment of all men:
Some people might take my statements
to mean that I believe that God had always intended for man to truly know
good and evil, which, according to Genesis, was knowledge that God did
want man to know. I do indeed believe that God intended man to know
good from evil, but that doesn't mean that I believe that the fall of man
was necessary or that it was good. But we must keep in mind that
"the knowledge of good and evil" in Scripture is more than simply comprehending
on a mental level that some things are right and other things are wrong
(after all, Eve already knew that even before she and Adam ate the fruit
of the forbidden tree (Genesis 3:2-3)). It is clear from Genesis
that this "knowledge" is something that is experienced ("...in the day
that you eat from it (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), you
shall surely die"; Genesis 2:17, NASB), and that it is this experiential
knowledge of good and evil brought about by an active choice to reject
God's command and willfully partake of what God has prohibited that results
in shame both before one another and before God (Genesis 3:7-10) because
of that knowledge. I believe that, as far as simply knowing that
there is such a thing as right and wrong is concerned, the first humans
already had such mental knowledge, as a result of receiving God's prohibition,
before there was any disobedience to God's specific command. I think
that it is safe to say that, as Paul later wrote to the Romans, God intended
humanity to be "wise in what is good, and innocent in what is evil" (Romans
In conclusion, I believe that
one of the main reasons behind what I see to be some people's unfair accusations
against Darwin is a suspicion that natural selection is somehow "opposed"
to Christianity, along with a refusal to allow one's mind to be stretched
in order to consider new or even different explanations of familiar truths.
After all, it is much easier simply to take everything in Scripture in
a straight, literal interpretation than it is to consider reinterpreting
a cherished passage or concept in an allegorical or symbolic meaning.
What we all need to do is to keep in mind the very obvious fact that we
aren't omniscient, that all we know comes about either by observation,
reflection, or revelation, and that the source of whatever disagreements
we may have with our brothers and sisters over issues such as evolution,
moral sense, etc., may be due not to someone's "apostasy" or "rejection
of the truth," but rather due to our different mindsets, differences that
need not separate us from one another.
1Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 70.
2Darwin, Descent, pp. 71-72.
3Darwin, Descent, pp. 73-74.
4Darwin, Descent, p. 89.
5Darwin, Descent, p. 91.
6Darwin, Descent, pp. 97-98.
7Darwin, Descent, p. 106.
Darwin, The Origin of Species (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England:
Penguin Books, Ltd., 1968), p. 458.
Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.
Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species.
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1968.