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 his viewpoint.

     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:

I fully subscribe to the judgment of those writers who maintain that of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important.  This sense... is summed up by that short but imperious word ought, so full of high significance.  It is the most noble of all the attributes of man, leading him without a moment's hesitation to risk his life for that of a fellow-creature; or after due deliberation, impelled simply by the deep feeling of right or duty, to sacrifice it in some great cause.1

Darwin is in full agreement with theists, Christian or otherwise, in saying that the moral sense, at least to the degree which it is possessed by man, is that which sets man off from and above the other animals.  But Darwin intends to explain the moral sense in a new way.  Rather than appealing to the special creation of a moral being (man) to explain the moral sense, Darwin proposes to explain the moral sense in terms of natural history, as the result of the natural evolutionary processes leading to man:

The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable -- namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.2

In this summary examination of Darwin's arguments for a naturalistic explanation of the moral sense, we must remember that Darwin is not trying to put forward a theistic explanation of the moral sense; and since Darwin does not have such an intent, it would be unfair (there's that old moral sense again) for us to expect him to explain moral sense in a way that he does not intend, or for us to fault him for not explaining the moral sense in the way that we might want him to do so.  He intends to base his explanation in natural history, and it is according to this intention that his degree of success or failure must be measured.

     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, or conscience:

For each individual would have an inward sense of possessing certain stronger or more enduring instincts, and others less strong or enduring; so that there would often be a struggle which impulse should be followed; and satisfaction or dissatisfaction would be felt, as past impressions were compared during their incessant passage through the mind.  In this case an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed the one impulse rather than the other.  The one ought to have been followed: the one would have been right and the other wrong...3

This "knowledge of good and evil" appears to operate most strongly when a man (or, for that matter, an animal, to the degree which it is able to do so) has gone against the social instinct to do something of benefit for another person and has instead acted on a "lower" instinct, with the result that someone else is harmed.  Such a situation normally leads to regret, which, as Darwin points out, is made possible by development of mental facilities allowing memory and consciousness of being a member of society.4  Elaborating on the path of behavior that leads to regret, Darwin sketches the following scene:

At the moment of 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 far more commonly lead him to gratify his own desires at the expense of other men.  But after the gratification, when past or weaker impressions are contrasted with the ever-enduring social instincts, retribution will surely come.  Man will then feel dissatisfaction with himself, and will resolve with more or less force to act differently for the future.  This is conscience; for conscience looks backwards and judges past actions, inducing that kind of dissatisfaction, which if weak we call regret, and if severe remorse.5

     For Darwin, the prime foundation for morality is not a form of "selfishness" (doing something of social benefit solely in order to "pat oneself on the back," so to speak) or a "greatest happiness principle"; rather, the social instincts in which moral sense is based have arisen "for the general good of the community," which Darwin defines as "the means by which the greatest possible number of individuals can be reared in full vigor and health, with all their faculties perfect, under the conditions to which they are exposed."6  The conscience, or the true sense of what is right, is the arbiter between conflicting instincts and, if necessary, the standard by which past actions and present and future actions or plans of action are approved or condemned.  Darwin concludes, therefore, that "the social instincts, -- the prime principle of man's moral constitution -- with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, naturally lead to the golden rule, 'As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise;' and this lies at the foundation of morality."7

     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 theistic 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 evolutionary theory.

     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:

For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus (Romans 2:14-16, NASB).

In this passage we find two basic statements about the Gentiles' knowledge of God's law: (1) even though they do not have the direct revelation of the Law, they nevertheless have "the work of the Law written in their hearts," and (2) this "Law in their hearts" is the standard by which their conscience, their moral sense, either approves or condemns their actions.  If, for the sake of argument, we accept Darwin's naturalistic explanation of the development of moral sense in man, we find that these two basic statements from Romans 2:14-16 harmonize rather well with Darwin's thinking, which says that the social instincts, the development of intellectual faculties, the power of communication, and the effects of habit have worked together to form a strong moral sense and that failures to act in accordance with this moral sense are judged as failures by the conscience.  This "Law in the heart" would have been universal among humanity even before God gave the Law to Moses and, since the Commandments in the Decalogue that deal with interpersonal and intersocial relations reflect what the naturally developed moral sense already says, we can conclude that either Moses and Israel along with him simply projected their moral sense onto a transcendent level, or (as I believe) God had been preparing his creation, specifically mankind, all along for the revelation of his absolute moral requirements both through Moses and, later, fully in Jesus Christ.  We can understand man's moral development, then, as described by Darwin, as being God's natural prerequisite for man before God could reveal our full moral responsibility (still to others but now also to God) in a way that we could both comprehend (due to our developed mental abilities) and respond to (our wills having been prepared by God's natural development of our moral sense).

     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 not 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 16:19, NASB).

     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.

     8Charles 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.