Monkey Morality: Can Evolution Explain Ethics?

By: Gregory Koukl

This article first appeared in Christian Research Journal, volume 20, number 04 (1998). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal

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Some people argue that morality is the result of blind evolutionary forces rather than an omnipotent Creator. This view is flawed because (1) it assumes a morality that transcends evolutionary “morality,” (2) it cannot explain motive and intent, (3) it denies rather than explains morality, and (4) it cannot account for the “oughtness” of morality. Given the existence of morality as well as the nature of moral claims, the existence of God seems to be the best explanation for morality.

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 that of Bongo the chimp 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 said to be 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, and 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.


In his popular defense of evolution, The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins acknowledges that the biological world looks designed, but he asserts 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.”


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

An evolutionary explanation for 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”


 and romantic love that was not only invented by evolution, but corrupted by it.


 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.4 (emphasis in original)
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 Theresa and an Adolph Hitler their chromosomal makeup? If so, then how could we ever praise Mother Theresa? How could a man like Hitler be truly guilty?

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


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 added).

This statement captures a major flaw in Wright’s analysis. His entire thesis is that chance evolution exhausts what it means to be moral. He sees morality as 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


 (emphases mine). 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.”


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 

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