Monkey Morality: Can Evolution Explain Ethics?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/20/2013

Recent studies suggest that animals are capable of rudimentary forms of moral behavior. God isn’t the source of morality, evolutionists say; Mother Nature is. The evolutionary answer, though, does not explain morality; it denies it.

Bongo is a chimp. He’s being punished by other members of the chimpanzee band for not sharing his bananas. Bongo is selfish. Bad Bongo. Moral rule: Chimps shouldn’t be selfish.

One of the strongest evidences for the existence of God is man’s unique moral nature. C.S. Lewis argues in Mere Christianity that there is a persistent moral law that represents the ethical foundation of all human cultures. This, he says, is evidence for the God who is the author of the moral law.

Not everyone agrees. Scenarios like the one above have been offered as evidence for rudimentary forms of morality among animals, especially the “higher” primates like chimpanzees. This suggests that morality in humans is not unique and can be explained by the natural process of evolution without appeal to a divine Lawgiver.

This view of morality is one of the conclusions of the new science of evolutionary psychology. Its adherents advance a simple premise: The mind, just like every part of the physical body, is a product of evolution. Everything about human personality—marital relationships, parental love, friendships, dynamics among siblings, social climbing, even office politics—can be explained by the forces of neo-Darwinian evolution.

Even the moral threads that make up the fabric of society are the product of natural selection. Morality can be reduced to chemical relationships in the genes chosen by different evolutionary needs in the physical environment. Love and hate; feelings of guilt and remorse; gratitude and envy; even the virtues of kindness, faithfulness, or self-control can all be explained mechanistically through the cause and effect of chance genetic mutations and natural selection.

One notable example of this challenge to the transcendent nature of morality comes from the book The Moral Animal—Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, by Robert Wright.

How Morals Evolve

The Blind Moral-Maker

In his popular defense of evolution, The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins acknowledges that the biological world looks designed, but that this appearance is deceiving. The appearance of intelligent order is really the result of the workings of natural selection.

Robert Wright holds the same view regarding man’s psychological features, including morality. The strongest evidence for this analysis seems to be the explanatory power of the evolutionary paradigm when dealing with moral conduct. The argument rests on the nature of natural selection itself:

If within a species there is variation among individuals in their hereditary traits, and some traits are more conducive to survival and reproduction than others, then those traits will (obviously) become more widespread within the population. The result (obviously) is that the species’ aggregate pool of hereditary traits changes.1

Wright argues from effect back to cause, asking what is the simplest, most elegant solution adequate to explain the effects we see. To Wright, the evolutionary explanation is “obvious.” In order to survive, animals must adapt to changing conditions. Through the process of natural selection, naturalistic forces “choose” certain behavior patterns that allow the species to continue to exist. We call those patterns “morality.”

Wired for Morality

The thesis that evolution explains all moral conduct requires that such conduct be genetically determined. Morality rides on the genes, as it were, and one generation passes on favorable morality to the next. Wright sees a genetic connection with a whole range of emotional capabilities. He talks about “genes inclining a male to love his offspring,”2 and romantic love that was not only invented by evolution, but corrupted by it.3 Consider these comments:

If a woman’s “fidelity gene” (or her “infidelity gene”) shapes her behavior in a way that helps get copies of itself, into future generations in large numbers, then that gene will by definition flourish [emphasis in the original].4

Beneath all the thoughts and feelings and temperamental differences that marriage counselors spend their time sensitively assessing are the stratagems of the genes—cold, hard equations composed of simple variables.5

Some mothers have a genetic predisposition to love their children, so the story goes, and this genetic predisposition to be loving is favored by natural selection. Consequently, there are more women who are “good” mothers.

What is the evidence, though, that moral virtues are genetic, a random combination of molecules? Is the fundamental difference between a Mother Teresa and a Hitler their chromosomal makeup? If so, then how could we ever praise Mother Teresa? How could a man like Adolph Hitler be truly guilty?

Wright offers no such empirical evidence. He seems to assume that moral qualities are in the genes because he must; his paradigm will not work otherwise.

Wright’s Double-Standard

Morality Above Morality

In a public relations piece promoting his book, Robert Wright says, “My hope is that people will use the knowledge [in this book] not only to improve their lives—as a source of ‘self-help’—but as cause to treat other people more decently” [emphasis mine].

This statement captures a major flaw in Wright’s analysis. His entire thesis is that chance evolution exhausts what it means to be moral. Morality is descriptive, a mere function of the environment selecting patterns of behavior that assist and benefit the growth and survival of the species. Yet he frequently lapses, unconsciously making reference to a morality that seems to transcend nature.

Take this comment as an example: “Human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse” [emphasis mine].6 Wright reflects on the moral equipment randomly given to us by nature, and then bemoans our immoral use of it with words like “tragic,” “pathetic,” and “misuse.”

He writes, “Go above and beyond the call of a smoothly functioning conscience; help those who aren’t likely to help you in return, and do so when nobody’s watching. This is one way to be a truly moral animal.”7

It’s almost as if there are two categories of morality, nature’s morality and a transcendent standard used to judge nature’s morality. But where did this transcendent standard come from? It’s precisely this higher moral law that needs explaining. If transcendent morality judges the “morality” that evolution is responsible for, then it can’t itself be accounted for by evolution.

Social Darwinism

Like many evolutionists, Wright recoils from social Darwinism. “To say that something is ‘natural’ is not to say that it is good. There is no reason to adopt natural selection's ‘values’ as our own.”8 Just because nature exploits the weak, he argues, doesn’t mean we are morally obliged to do so.

Natural selection’s indifference to the suffering of the weak is not something we need to emulate. Nor should we care whether murder, robbery, and rape are in some sense “natural.” It is for us to decide how abhorrent we find such things and how hard we want to fight them.9

Wright argues that the reductio ad absurdum argument from social Darwinism is flawed. Though life in an unregulated state of nature is, as 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes described it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,”10 we’re not required to take the “survival of the fittest” as a moral guideline.

Evolutionists may be right when they argue that we’re not compelled to adopt the morality of evolution. The danger of social Darwinism, though, is not that society is required to adopt the law of the jungle, but that it is allowed to. The exploitation of the weak by the strong is morally benign according to this view.

What Darwinists cannot do is give us a reason why we ought not simply copy nature and destroy those who are weak, unpleasant, costly, or just plain boring. If all moral options are legitimate, then it’s legitimate for the strong to rule the weak. No moral restraints protect the weak, because moral restraints simply wouldn’t exist.

Monkey Morality

Recent studies have attempted to show that animals exhibit rudimentary moral behavior. In one case, a group of chimpanzees “punished” one “selfish” member of their band by withholding food from it. Apparently, the moral rule was this: Chimps shouldn’t be selfish.

Conduct, Motive, and Intent

There are some problems with this assessment. First of all, drawing conclusions about animal morality simply from external behavior reduces morality to conduct. Why should we accept that morality is exhaustively described by behavior? True morality entails non-behavioral elements, too, like intent and motive.

One can’t infer actual moral obligations from the mere fact of a chimp’s conduct. One might talk descriptively about a chimp’s behavior, but no conclusion about morality follows from this. One can observe that chimps in community share food, and when they do they survive better. But you can’t conclude from this that Bongo, the chimp, ought to share his bananas, and if he doesn’t, then he’s immoral because he hasn’t contributed to the survival of his community.

Further, in fixing blame, we distinguish between an act done by accident and the very same act done on purpose. The behavior is the same, but the intent is different. We don’t usually blame people for accidents: The boy didn’t intend to trip the old lady.

We also give attention to the issue of motive. We withhold blame even if the youngster tripped the old lady on purpose if the motive is acceptable: He tripped her to keep her from running in front of a train.

Motive and intent cannot be determined simply by looking at behavior. In fact, some “good” behavior—giving to the poor, for example—might turn out to be tainted if the motive and intent are wrong: being thought well of with no concern for the recipient. Indeed, it seems one can be immoral without any behavior at all, e.g. plotting an evil deed that one never has the opportunity to carry out.

Morality informs behavior, judging it either good or bad, but it’s not identical to behavior. Morality is something deeper than habitual patterns of physical interaction. Therefore, one can’t draw conclusions about animal morality simply based on what he observes in their conduct.

Morality: Explained or Denied?

This leads us to the second problem, which runs much deeper. When morality is reduced to patterns of behavior chosen by natural selection for its survival value, then morality is not explained; it’s denied. Wright admits as much. Regarding the conscience he says:

The conscience doesn’t make us feel bad the way hunger feels bad, or good the way sex feels good. It makes us feel as if we have done something that’s wrong or something that’s right. Guilty or not guilty. It is amazing that a process as amoral and crassly pragmatic as natural selection could design a mental organ that makes us feel as if we’re in touch with higher truth. Truly a shameless ploy [emphasis mine].11

Evolutionists like Wright are ultimately forced to admit that what we think is a “higher truth” of morality turns out to be a “shameless ploy” of nature, a description of animal behavior conditioned by the environment for survival. We’ve given that conduct a label, they argue. We call it morality. But there is no real right and wrong.

Does Bongo, the chimp, actually exhibit genuine moral behavior? Does he understand the difference between right and wrong? Does he make principled choices to do what’s right? Is he worthy of blame and punishment for doing wrong? Of course not, Wright says. Bongo merely does in a primitive way what humans do in a more sophisticated way. We respond according to our genetic conditioning, a program “designed” by millions of years of evolution.

The evolutionary approach is not an explanation of morality; it’s a denial of morality. It explains why we think moral truths exist when, in fact, they don’t.

Why Be a Good Boy Tomorrow?

This observation uncovers the most serious objection to the idea that evolution is adequate to explain morality. There is one question that can never be answered by any evolutionary assessment of ethics. The question is this: Why ought I be moral tomorrow?

One of the distinctives of morality is its “oughtness,” its moral incumbency. Assessments of mere behavior, however, are descriptive only. Since morality is essentially prescriptive—telling what should be the case, as opposed to what is the case—and since all evolutionary assessments of moral behavior are descriptive, then evolution cannot account for the most important thing that needs to be explained: morality’s “oughtness.”

The question that really needs to be answered is: “Why shouldn’t the chimp (or a human, for that matter) be selfish?” The evolutionary answer might be that when we’re selfish, we hurt the group. That answer, though, presumes another moral value: We ought to be concerned about the welfare of the group. Why should that concern us? Answer: If the group doesn’t survive, then the species doesn’t survive. But why should I care about the survival of the species?

Here’s the problem. All of these responses meant to explain morality ultimately depend on some prior moral notion to hold them together. It’s going to be hard to explain, on an evolutionary view of things why I should not be selfish, or steal, or rape, or even kill tomorrow without smuggling morality into the answer.

The evolutionary explanation disembowels morality, reducing it to mere descriptions of conduct. The best the Darwinist explanation can do—if it succeeds at all—is explain past behavior. It cannot inform future behavior. The essence of morality, though, is not description, but prescription.

Evolution may be an explanation for the existence of conduct we choose to call moral, but it gives no explanation why I should obey any moral rules in the future. If one countered that we have a moral obligation to evolve, then the game would be up, because if we have moral obligations prior to evolution, then evolution itself can’t be their source.

Evolutionists are Wrong about Ethics

Darwinists opt for an evolutionary explanation for morality without sufficient justification. In order to make their naturalistic explanation work, “morality” must reside in the genes. “Good,” beneficial tendencies can then be chosen by natural selection. Nature, through the mechanics of genetic chemistry, cultivates behaviors we call morality.

This creates two problems. First, evolution doesn’t explain what it’s meant to explain. It can only account for pre-programmed behavior, which doesn’t qualify as morality. Moral choices, by their nature, are made by free agents, not dictated by internal mechanics.

Secondly, the Darwinist explanation reduces morality to mere descriptions of behavior. The morality that evolution needs to account for, however, entails much more than conduct. Minimally, it involves motive and intent as well. Both are non-physical elements which can’t, even in principle, evolve in a Darwinian sense.

Further, this assessment of morality, being descriptive only, ignores the most fundamental moral question of all: Why should I be moral tomorrow? Evolution cannot answer that question. It can only attempt to describe why humans acted in a certain way in the past. Morality dictates what future behavior ought to be.

Evolution does not explain morality. Bongo is not a bad chimp, he’s just a chimp. No moral rules apply to him. Eat the banana, Bongo.