I've heard this (rather odd imho) statement that evolution, by the need of survival, dictated humans to uphold moral codes in order to survive, thus gaining a moral system.

Now, to my understanding, the need to survive wouldn't dictate how to behave, but rather how to act in order to not be eaten, etc.

My question is, is it logically (and systematically and theoretically) possible that the evolution theory explains our morality?

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    Such an idea is an example of the naturalistic fallacy, especially as expressed by Hume that you can't get an ought from an is. Being genetically hard-wired to preserve life is logically distinct from a moral obligation to preserve it. Kant made the point that "Only in the ideal of the highest original good can pure reason find the ground of [...] an intelligible, i.e., moral world. [...] Thus God and a future life are two presuppositions that are not to be separated from the obligation that pure reason imposes on us in accordance with principles of that very same reason" (A811/B839)
    – user3017
    Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 14:33
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    This is a very heavy question, and can be answered in the positive and the negative in a multitude of ways. It might be a little too broad to be answered efficiently in this sort of format. The most helpful answer would be a broad overview of the presuppositions that lead people to answer this question differently, but that would pretty much be an overview on moral theories. Is there a way you can limit down what you're wondering about to something more philosophically precise? Something that might get you going is to think about what most philosophers get hung up on: what is "our morality"?
    – Byday
    Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 17:12
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    Intriguingly, if one chooses to believe in materialism, I think you can argue that either morality is evolvable, or we do not have morality.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 22:48
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    Where else would it have come from? Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 3:03
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    "the soldier that jumps on a grenade in order to save his fellow soldiers" has the exact same basis as the family example, just a bit more distant; this is tribal behavior and altruism (and other social behavior, such as punishing defectors i.e. enforcing moral norms) is good for passing on the genes of your tribe, which are pretty much your own genes anyway. The modern fellow soldier isn't genetically your tribe, but the instincts and behaviors causing such actions have evolved in an environment where such comrades inevitably were pretty much your relatives.
    – Peteris
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 12:56

7 Answers 7


The root of this concept lies in a theory, most closely associated recently with theorist David Sloan Wilson, that moral behaviors --specifically altruism --convey a group-level survival advantage. The idea itself is quite old, but it has recently experienced a revival after being dismissed for a long period of time. (Note: The theory is still considered quite controversial, and cannot be said to have achieved mainstream acceptance among biologists.)

One finding is that altruism is disadvantageous in good times, and at an individual level, but that it conveys a strong survival advantage for larger groups in times of stress and difficulty. In other words, when everyone is rich and idle, there's no incentive to be a good person. But when we're all on the verge of starving, if we can't overcome individual selfishness, the group dies together.

This doesn't actually prove anything about where moral values originate, but it does suggest that groups with a tendency towards altruistic behaviors are more likely to survive over the long term, and thus be favored by evolutionary processes. Whether this tells us anything about human moral values, and their social evolution is controversial, but it does at least offer a plausible mechanism that makes this, in your words "logically (and systematically and theoretically) possible." There are also recent game-theory mathematical models that suggest that this is in fact a general principle of groups, and thus as legitimately applicable to people as to (for example) yeast.

  • Interesting. So the idea is that moral is a biological instinct that evolved over time? That assumes morality is evolve-able, meaning morality was by definition less "moral" in ancient days, correct? Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 19:17
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    Oh and by the way, I'm not sure "band together or die" and "morality" can be said to be the same thing. Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 19:20
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    Darwinian evolution cannot account for anything that humans are able to modify when different circumstances arise. So it cannot explain human "moral" behaviour, which notoriously varies with circumstances. Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 0:04
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    @Luis Henrique could you elaborate in your own answer? Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 6:02
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    @LuísHenrique Humans are able to modify / override their responses to pain. That is not an argument for the default responses to pain being inexplicable by evolution.
    – sdenham
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 15:46

A lot of the success of humans comes from their ability to cooperate and cooperation depends on being able to predict other people's behaviour. Indeed predictable behaviour is arguably the foundation of morality.

A lot of the logic behind this is covered by Game Theory which provides a mathematical framework for decisions such as cooperation vs cheating and this can help unpick the more complex aspects of social cooperation.

Morality also goes hand in hand with the ability to imagine the consequences of one's actions and the ability to defer an immediate benefit for the sake of a greater long term gain. Equally this sort of speculative decision making and the ability to learn from past experiences depends a lot on attaching emotions to memories and imagined outcomes and these emotional responses tend to be more powerful than purely rational lines of argument.

It is also very important that evolution, by its very nature, favours the survival of genes not a specific individual. Something well illustrated by hive insects where the vast majority of individuals never get to reproduce but are all so closely related that they are working for the survival of a shared pool of genes which could almost be considered a single organism from an evolutionary perspective.

Evolution is also a brute force optimisation process which effectively follows the path of least resistance at every stage and involves vast complexity and as such isn't always easy to rationalise from first principals and tends to produce solutions which can seem odd from a human perspective as it works purely on results and has no long term intent.

With this in mind it is fairly easy to see how an instinct to care for children is an evolutionary advantage, especially as human children need a lot of looking after for a long time. What is less obvious is the advantages of wider family , social and cultural connections.

There is also a reasonable argument that what you might call 'emotional morality' is a very efficient mechanism for social decision making.

It is probably misleading to suggest that humans evolved morally specifically. But there is certainly a good case that evolution has equipped us with the ability to construct moral codes which build on the fundamentals of social cooperation.

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    +1 for referencing game theory
    – amphibient
    Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 19:09

This is only one aspect of a possible answer, but I think an important one:

In human (and some animal) brains exists a physiological facility which lets us "put ourselves in somebody else's shoes", metaphorically spoken, namely the so called "mirror neurons". They fire when we experience something, but they fire as well when we see somebody else experiencing the same thing, hence the term. We literally flinch when we see somebody else cut themselves in the finger with a knife.

It seems obvious to me that this hard-wired empathy is one of the roots for morality in the sense of e.g. the categorical imperative, which can be loosely translated into the rule to not do to others what we wouldn't like to experience ourselves.

Because there is a physiological basis for empathy it is related to our genome, and hence underlies our material evolution.

  • If anything, this hard-wiring is linked to the Golden Rule, which is in justification, content, and consequences different from the Categorical Imperative.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 15:35
  • Let me just say, even though it doesn't necessarily answer the question, while indeed giving more insight to the physiological aspect, you've brought me an interesting concept that I would very much like to read more about. This mirror feelings always seemed too real for me to not have a physiological meaning. Thank you, at the very least for enlightening me about the mirror neurons. Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 15:54
  • @PhilipKlöcking Yeah, it's of course "Vulgärphilosophie", or perhaps, less deprecating, "kitchen philosophy". Admittedly, although I have read parts of Kant's Prolegomena in high school, I could not comment on justification or consequences of the categorical imperative and surely have incomplete knowledge of its content beyond the famous sentence proper; so I let your statement stand as a correction. If you feel like it I wouldn't be offended if you edited the post accordingly. Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 17:03

It strikes me that civilizations exist on a more complex level than just individuals, and the standards of behavior that make large-scale civilization possible are an additional layer on top of our biological "hard wiring" that goes beyond biology and individuals.

Thus I don't think it makes sense to talk about Darwinian evolution for civilizations. The furthest I think you can take it is to say that we developed the biological capacity for civilization (and thus, morality.)

Morality is a loaded topic, so I'd like to set it aside and offer technological advancement as an easier-to-discuss stand-in.

The human race, as a whole, has been advancing our ability to understand and manipulate our environment for tens of thousands of years. If you were to take a large colony of biologically modern humans at infancy and move them to an alien world with ample food, water, and natural resources and feed and care for them just until they were able to feed themselves by foraging and finding basic shelter, then abandon them, that group of humans would have to re-develop all the trappings of civilization "from scratch" (assuming they survived at all.) They'd have to re-invent basic shelter, hunting, making clothing, toolmaking, and so on. It would take tens of thousands of years to re-aquire the technology of modern civilization. Parents would figure things out by trial and error, and teach what worked to their offspring, across many, many generations.

I submit that the same holds true for the rules and norms of civilization. Over time, the colony would re-develop language, different ways of organizing would be tried, and standards of behavior would develop that enabled the population to grow (again, assuming the colony survived.) Civilization is not innate, it's learned. As we develop things like language, community, schooling, political structures, reading and writing, they become part of the fabric of the civilization, and help it to succeed and advance. Different approaches to human interaction would compete with each other, and the more successful approaches would eventually push out the less successful.

Biologically, we are not particularly remarkable. We're not exceptionally strong, fast, hardy, or very well suited to either protecting ourselves from predators or hunting prey. What we are good at is manipulating our environment, and that is a GROUP EFFORT. We've developed elaborate systems for building shelter, raising food, collecting resources, etc, but only in groups. Without the teaching and support of a group, an individual human is helpless.

Thus, in order to succeed, the human race had to find ways to band together and help each other.


You would have to consider each of the bases of morality as a separate trait. But the central trait for much of our current moral structure is in a good-tempered altruism or empathy, so I will focus there.

Animals evolve traits that increase the commonness of their genes. To do so they develop traits that make them good mates, so that they have the opportunity to procreate. In doing so, they develop 'virtue signals' for those traits.

Look at plumage on birds, like the tail on a peacock. This is an expensive signal for having a healthy immune system that allows for cells to develop uniformly. It vouches for uniform cell growth because if the bird had some weaker cells and other stronger cells, the patterns of its coloration would probably be larger where it was healthier and smaller where it was weaker, and would not end up consistently in the same shape across individuals.

The cost of demonstrating this balance and symmetry has to be offset by a related hidden survival advantage, or, as a burden, it would breed out. In this case, the individual's improved health from the better immune function has to be large enough to offset the obvious inefficiency of walking around with a large broom attached to oneself.

The more visible, costly trait then indicates the presence of the more important trait that is otherwise harder to identify, and mates select for it.

Signals that are not also expensive do not tend to take over populations, they tend to create differences between individuals through direct competition. But if the trait is expensive, then to survive in spite of this waste requires the additional hidden advantage to be significantly better among those with the signal.

So display of such patterns becomes a part of mating rituals, and eventually often become mandatory requirements for attracting a mate at all.

Altruism does have direct survival value when it extends to one's immediate family. If one shares ones good fortune with one's mate or one's brother, one has increased the likelihood that genes one has will spread -- you will have children, or your close relative will have children.

But such behavior is expensive because it leads you to forgo advantages to yourself directly.

To survive in spite of altruism requires your group to be significantly more resourceful, or despite your support of one another, the added waste of your not being selfish would spend out your resources and kill some of you off. Smart families have smart children. So this speaks to your general intelligence.

Thus altruism becomes a 'signal' for general intelligence.

But humans also have culture, including leadership. Since those with the highest general intelligence often become leaders, they then push their own values onto those they organize and protect, and this value becomes something culturally mandated and taught to those to whom it does not come naturally. The form that this instruction takes is what we see as moral development.

Similar arguments can be made for the other aspects of common ethical principles like honor, consistency, temperance, accountability, etc. to the extent those do not already flow out of the combination of altruism and logic.


This is a great question that spans many fields of inquiry and would be incomplete to confine it within the boundaries of traditional philosophy. In order to discuss it competently, input from various disciplines, such as biology and evolutionary psychology is desirable. Limiting the terms of its discussion to philosophy only would be tantamount to religious dogma.

The reason I mention that is because the two authors on the subject I am about to recommend are not indeed traditional philosophers. Richard Dawkins explores the thesis of evolving morality as reciprocal altruism in his book The Selfish Gene. According to it, morality is optimized through the evolutionary process (as is everything else) as we learn that being nice is likely to pay better returns than brute pursuit of immediate self interest. It's a relationship that can be viewed as a game theory proposition. As we acknowledge that kindness pays better, it becomes a behavioral guideline that advances itself on the evolutionary continuum.

Steven Pinker's book "The Better Angels of Our Nature" also examines a decline of violence and can be interpreted in an evolutionary context.


Not quite. Darwinian evolution, as it is, diverges significantly from our current moral systems. Our morality can be better derived from a combination of logical truisms along with the human conditions of well being and suffering.

These are, as can be demonstrated largely orthogonal to Darwinian truisms and any sense of morality coming as a result thereof. Sure, there are examples, such as triage where our morality can be truly considered Darwinian, but a simple consideration such as the quality of life of the disabled, will show that this can by no means be a generalization.

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