When Darwin published “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” in 1859, it immediately rendered all previous theories and systems of morality obsolete. If he was right, then everything about us, or at least everything with a significant impact on our odds of survival, exists by virtue of natural selection. Our innate behavioral traits, some of which give rise to what we commonly refer to as morality, are no exception. For the most part, the philosophers didn’t notice, or didn’t grasp the significance of what Darwin had revealed. Many of them continued to devote whole careers to things as futile as explicating the obscure tomes of Kant, or inventing intricate theories to “prove” the existence of something as imaginary as objective morality. Others concocted whole new theories of morality supposedly based on “evolution.” Virtually all of them imagined that “evolution” was actively striving to make progress towards the goal of a “higher” morality, thereby demonstrating an utter lack of understanding of the significance of the term “natural” in natural selection. Darwin himself certainly didn’t fail to grasp the moral implications of his theory. He tried to spell it out for us in his “The Descent of Man” as follows:
The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitable acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.
To read Darwin is to wonder at his brilliance. He was well aware of the dual nature of human morality long before Herbert Spencer undertook a systematic study of the phenomena, or Sir Arthur Keith published his theory of in-groups and out-groups:
But these feelings and services (altruistic behavior, ed.) are by no means extended to all the individuals of the same species, only to those of the same association.
He exposed the imbecility of the notion that natural selection “tracks” some imaginary objective moral law in a few sentences:
It may be well first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.
It is a tribute to the tremendous power of the evolved moral sense described by Darwin that it spawns a powerful illusion that Good and Evil are real things, that somehow exist independently of what anyone’s mere opinion of them happens to be. The illusion has been so powerful that even his clear and direct explanation of why it isn’t real was powerless to dispel it. Only one philosopher of note, Edvard Westermarck, proved capable of grasping the full import of what Darwin had written. Today one can complete an undergraduate degree in philosophy without ever seeing his name mentioned, even as a footnote, in the textbooks and anthologies.
We live in a world full of others of our kind, all of whom are chasing this illusion. They feel they “ought” to do things because they are good, noble, just, and moral. Using their big brains, they come up with all sorts of fanciful whims about what these things are that they “ought” to do. The reasons they use to arrive at these notions may be as complex as you please, but if you follow the chain of reasons to the end, you will always find they lead back to emotions. Those emotions spawn the illusion of the Good, and they exist by virtue of natural selection.
Do you feel a powerful impulse to join a Black Lives Matter demonstration? You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Do you imagine that you can serve the Good by pulling down statues? You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Do you think that the people who are doing these things are Evil, and should be destroyed? You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Do you think we need a revolution or a civil war to insure the victory of the Good. You are motivated by emotions that evolved eons ago. Have you considered the fact that the panacea you imagine will result from a successful revolution or civil war will inevitably be just as “unnatural” for our species as the system it replaces? We are simply not adapted to live in the massive societies we are forced to live in today if we want to survive, no matter how cleverly they are organized. The best we can hope for is that they be so structured as to minimize the inconvenience of living in them.
As for the emotions referred to above, we may find it useful to keep in mind the fact that they exist because they happened to motivate behaviors that increased the odds that the responsible genes would survive in an environment populated by small, widely dispersed groups of hunter-gatherers. Today, in a radically different environment, those same emotions still motivate our behavior. However, the odds that this will have the same effect now as they did then in promoting gene survival are vanishingly small.
What are the implications of all this at the level of the individual? For starters, it is neither Good nor Evil to rush around blindly responding to emotions by pulling down statues, joining demonstrations, organizing revolutions, or joining in civil wars. The obvious reason for this is that Good and Evil are terms for categories that simply don’t exist. They are imagined to exist. I merely suggest that individuals may want to stand back for a moment and consider whether, in their frantic efforts to promote the Good, they are accomplishing anything remotely connected to the reasons they imagine such a thing as the Good exists to begin with. The illusion of Good exists because it once promoted survival. As they pursue this mirage, individuals may want to consider whether their behavior will have a similar result today.
It is up to individuals to choose what their goals in life will be. No God or objective moral law can make the choice for them, because these things don’t exist. Supposing you’ve read Darwin, and understand that the sole reason for the existence of the emotions that motivate your behavior is the fact that, once upon a time, long, long ago, they happened to increase the odds that the genes you carry would survive. You can still choose to respond to those emotions in ways that make you happy, or in ways that make you feel good and noble, even if your behavior doesn’t improve the odds that you will survive, and may actually be suicidal. With a little effort, you may even still be able to delude yourself into believing that you really are fighting for the Good. Realizing that you are a link in a chain of living creatures that has existed unbroken for upwards of two billion years, you can make a conscious decision to be the final link. You can go through life imagining that you are as noble as Don Quixote, and then die, fully aware that you represent a biological dead end. None of these choices would be immoral. All I can say about them is that I don’t personally find them attractive.
I happen to have different goals. My goals are personal survival, and beyond that the continued survival of my species, and its continued evolution into forms that will promote the survival of biological life in general. To reach these goals, I realize it will occasionally be necessary to second guess my emotions, and to choose to act against the way they incline me to act. I have no basis for claiming that my goals are better than the goal of living a happy life, or of devoting my life to fighting on behalf of the illusion of Good. All I can say is that they are my goals, which I have chosen because they happen to be in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with. Darwin explained those reasons to us. Perhaps it’s time to start listening to him.