Did a Concern for the Species Influence Our Moral Development?

Can sociocultural evolution account for the formation of moral truth? I’ve heard this claim repeatedly in discussions with non-believers, and I also accepted this notion for many years: Ancient humans who accepted certain moral behaviors and principles were far more likely to survive, and as a result, those who were more inclined to accept certain principles emerged through the process of Natural Selection. But this seems counter intuitive given our present acceptance of many attributes we consider virtuous. We humans recognize cowardice, selfishness, unfaithfulness, and senseless cruelty as morally repugnant. Yet it can easily be argued that these behaviors actually promoted the success and survival of primitive people groups as they engaged the competing groups around them. Sometimes cowardice (the simple act of running away) assures your survival. Selfish tribes (who think only of themselves) are often more likely to survive in a “dog eat dog” world. Unfaithfulness will lead to further propagation of a blood line with an even larger number of children. And in the most primitive of times, vicious cruelty (i.e. killing your enemy’s infants) would certainly guarantee fewer enemies in the future. All of these moral “taboos” could easily be seen as utilitarian virtues to primitive cultures, yet they are almost unanimously accepted as moral evils across cultural lines.

While it may be true (although debatable) that actions such as these may have a long term negative impact on the human race (even though they have a short-term benefit for the particular group), why would we assume primitive individuals would want to put the good of the species over the good of their own families? And more importantly, why should they? When times got tough and ancient families found themselves in desperate situations, do we really think these families submitted sacrificially to some moral code benefitting the species rather than their own family? Why should they want do this in the first place? Why should the long term survival of the species matter at all to anyone? I have many friends who are childless. Why should they care what happens to the species? Why should they make sacrifices today for people they will never know in the next generation?

Even if we accept a concern for the species as a virtuous moral objective, where does this moral goal (of advancing the larger group even at the expense of the individual) come from? It seems we have pushed the “origin of morality” question back one level; now we have to account for our transcendent desire to promote the species rather than ourselves or our families. If we embrace an evolutionary explanation for moral development, we must begin by accounting for the transcendent, counter intuitive, often personally harmful importance of acting in a way that benefits our species even as it may harm our personal chances of survival. We may choose to affirm this over-arching, pre-existent moral goal, but there is no evidence we are the source of this goal. Our own evolutionary struggle for survival is far more personal than skeptics would like to admit. Those of us who decided to act selfishly, procreate with liberty, behave cruelly and retreat when necessary were often far more likely to survive in a brutal early environment. The fact we eventually chose to embrace moral principles transcending our own personal wellbeing is a significant piece of evidence. Our moral laws today are not a matter of subjective opinion and personal utility. In fact, they are often personally “inconvenient”. Moral truth transcends all of us and calls us to submit our personal, human desires to a greater standard that often seems unattainably sacrificial and unselfish. Transcendent, objective moral truths such as these (including objective moral truths about the survival of our species) require a Transcendent, Objective Moral Truth Giver.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity

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