Darwinian Morality: Being Nice Is Natural

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What is Darwinian morality? How can evolution help explain things like morals, kindness, and love?

Darwinian morality is the idea that kindness and love are a part of our evolutionary process. Altruism would have been a beneficial quality in early humans, ones they would’ve wanted to pass down to offspring.

Read more about Darwinian morality below.

God and Morality

So far, we’ve talked mostly about why the claims put forward by religion are unlikely to be true, and why religion’s existence and persistence can be explained through rational processes of evolutionary psychology and cultural transmission. But even if the claims made by religion are unsubstantiated and its origins have nothing to do with the revelation of divine truth, doesn’t it still serve a valuable purpose as the foundation for morality? Would we be capable of kindness and empathy without God?

In this article, we’ll make the case that morality and religion are wholly separate, including Darwinian morality.

  • How altruism and kindness are fully compatible with Darwinian natural selection
  • How there is no documented difference in moral intuition between atheists and people of faith
  • How adherence to moral standards solely out of fear of divine punishment is a poor basis for morality
  • How religious texts like the Bible promote abhorrent values that are totally at odds with modern morality

Darwinian Morality

Religious people claim that Darwinism cannot account for the existence of altruism, kindness, or empathy. They argue that the theory of natural selection threatens to undermine the very foundations of human morality. Darwinism, they claim, is purely about the survival of the fittest, and an organism concerned solely with its own survival cannot care about the health and wellbeing of others. They see the fact that humans do feel empathy and compassion as a glaring contradiction that Darwinism can’t explain.

But this view is based on a misunderstanding and gross caricature of Darwinist principles. Darwinism does not postulate a selfish “kill or be killed, eat or be eaten” view of human history. In fact, kindness and altruism have perfectly rational Darwinian roots. This is where Darwinian morality comes in.

Darwinism and Modern Morality

As we mentioned, early kin-based human communities would have strongly favored genetic tendencies toward altruism on the basis of both kin survival and reciprocity. We are thus bred to be altruistic and moral. 

It’s important to note that this does not make the love and compassion we feel toward our fellow human beings any less real or genuine. It simply provides a coherent explanation for why we think and behave as we do. Understanding Darwinism intellectually does not make anyone love their family and friends less, despite what creationists might claim. Darwinian morality is very real.

Indeed, our modern displays of love and affection might simply be misfirings of our normal evolutionary impulses, just as we saw with religion itself in the previous chapter. For example, the desire for sex comes from a clear Darwinian impulse—to create offspring to pass along your genes. But we still experience lust and desire when there is no chance of procreation—as in same-sex relationships or when a heterosexual couple is using birth control. Sexual desire still exists independently of the original evolutionary impulses that explain it. This is all part of Darwinian morality.

Darwinian Morality: Being Nice Is Natural

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  • Why Dawkins thinks religion has exerted a harmful influence on human society
  • How Dawkins concludes that the existence of God is unlikely
  • The 3 arguments that challenge the existence of God

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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