By Greg Priest
Read the full companion article in this quarter’s Journal of the History of Ideas.
A new biography of Charles Darwin is coming out. Styled as a “radical reappraisal,” the book, by A.N. Wilson, condemns Darwin, accusing him of intellectual piracy and scientific blundering. Wilson reserves some of his harshest criticisms for Darwin’s account of morality. We are told that Darwin deployed his conceptions of the “struggle for existence” and the “survival of the fittest” to defend an ethics derived from “selfish capitalist economics” that naturalized the greed and rapaciousness of Darwin’s race and class. The critique is certainly scathing, but it is far from “radical,” at least as far as its portrayal of Darwin’s account of morality is concerned.
Just a few years after the publication of the Descent of Man, Friedrich Engels charged Darwin with trying to turn the “bourgeois economic theory of competition” into an “eternal law of human society.” Even Darwin’s defenders have been captured by this interpretation. Darwin’s “bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley, admitted that Darwin had described a natural world characterized by competition and struggle, but believed that morality obligates us to resist the dictates of nature. Some of Darwin’s other defenders agreed that nature was filled with selfishness, but pointed out that Darwin had also shown that organisms cooperate to achieve common goals, and so emphasized cooperation as a source of moral instruction. More recent discussions of Darwin’s account of morality have for the most part followed one or another of these prototypes.
Darwin’s Fable of the Bees
But the notion that Darwin’s account of morality is centered around competition and struggle is a misconception. In my article “Charles Darwin’s Theory of Moral Sentiments: What Darwin’s Ethics Really Owes to Adam Smith,” I show that Darwin had a clear ethical theory, and that it had no connection, one way or the other, to “selfish capitalist economics.” Darwin wrote about struggle between organisms, and he wrote about cooperation among them. But when he offered an account of morality, he built his argument on Adam Smith’s idea—expressed in The Theory of Moral Sentiments—that humans have an inborn moral sentiment by which we sympathize with the fortunes of others. Darwin argued that this was not a peculiarly human faculty, that all social animals develop social instincts regulating how they behave toward other members of their community. He suggested that any species that evolved a high degree of intelligence would begin to reflect on and to develop those social instincts, and would eventually create a code of morality that members of the species would consult in determining appropriate conduct. But because the social and physical environment of every species is different, the particular content of the moral codes of different species would evolve in different directions. So, in one of his more striking passages, Darwin performed a thought experiment: “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.”
Darwin in America: The Metaphysical Club Reads the Descent of Man
I will leave the details of the argument to my article. What I wish to do here is recount a single episode that shines a spotlight on Darwin’s account of morality, and for that, we have to cross the Atlantic and visit Boston. In the early 1870s, a small coterie of young Cambridge intellectuals formed a discussion group that they styled—“half ironically and half defiantly,” as one of their number put it—the “Metaphysical Club.” The club comprised Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, Chauncey Wright, and a handful of others. And they received and debated Darwin’s ideas with deep interest.
One of the club’s lesser lights was a non-conformist Unitarian minister named Francis Ellingwood Abbot. One of Abbot’s principal projects was to put religion and morality on a scientific foundation, and one of his early efforts in that direction was an 1874 essay titled “Darwin’s Theory of Conscience: Its Relation to Scientific Ethics.” In his essay, Abbot celebrated Darwin’s naturalistic account of the source and development of moral obligations, but he could not abide Darwin’s suggestion that morality might not be the same for all moral beings. In particular, Abbot contended that Darwin was wrong in how he analyzed the thought experiment about humans raised as bees. All moral beings would converge, Abbot wrote, on the same moral principles, Moral obligations are “not accidental or fortuitous; they are not one thing here and another thing there.” Rather, “Ethics treat of rights and duties among all moral beings, as objective and universal facts.”
Abbot sent a copy of the essay to Darwin asking for his views. In his letter responding to Abbot, Darwin doubled down, both on his evolutionary account of morality, and on his insistence that morals will differ from one species to another. “Lower” social animals” have instincts “not habitually to kill each other, & the mothers to protect their offspring, … as the species c’d not exist in society without it.” But instincts differ in different lineages and so are not everywhere the same: “Would you consider this an ‘objective & universal fact’? I suppose certainly not, as instinct is subjective & the obligation w’d differ to a certain extent for different species.” For Darwin, the same analysis applies to morals in species that are more intellectually developed: “Now as soon as a social animal became in some slight, incipient degree a moral creature,—that is—was capable of approving or disapproving of its own conduct,—… Would not the obligation remain, to a large extent, of the same so-called instinctive nature as before?” In any case, “I cannot see why it [the obligation] sh’d be an objective & universal fact, any more than with the instinctive obligation or bond between the lower social animals.”
Despite its value for understanding Darwin’s account of morality, this exchange of correspondence has received little attention. Darwin’s sons thought it merited publication, however, so they planned to include it in an edition of his letters. But they weren’t entirely sure what to make of it, so they sent the correspondence to another member of the Metaphysical Club to get his perspective. That member was William James. James had no doubt about how to interpret the correspondence, or about whether Abbot or Darwin had the better end of the argument. “Abbot thinks,” wrote James, that moral principles are “real, objective, universal,” and so “absolute.” In contrast, “I take it your father meant to protest against this ideal of a perfection equally binding on all types of creature, no matter what their physiological differences.” Darwin believed, James thought, that there is no “objective” standard that one could use to measure “the virtue of the rabbit” against “that of the lion.” And James was sympathetic to Darwin’s view: “I may add that I think your father’s way on the whole more sound than Abbot’s.”
Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, and William James: An Eternal Golden Braid?
It should be obvious that I think James got Darwin right. But I mention him for another reason as well. Darwin had taken Smith’s idea of an innate human faculty of sympathy and read it through an evolutionary lens, transmuting it in the process. On Darwin’s account, all social animals have the instinct of sympathy, and any lineage may evolve sufficient intelligence that the instinct evolves into a moral code. I haven’t worked the argument out in detail, but it seems that James may have done to Darwin something very much along the same lines as what Darwin had done to Smith. James’s published discussions of morality post-date his analysis of the Darwin-Abbot correspondence. And in those later writings, he used some of the same phrases he had earlier used to characterize Darwin’s position vis-à-vis Abbot. James even alluded to Darwin’s thought experiment regarding humans raised as bees, suggesting that our mental worlds might differ substantially “were we lobsters, or bees.” But James pushed the relativity of ethical principles further than Darwin had. For Darwin, different lineages would evolve different moral codes, and there is no objective ground on which to judge which code is more “right.” James argued that, even within our human lineage, different individuals might have different understandings of right and wrong, and that there is no objective ground from which those understandings can be judged. James may, then, have taken Darwin’s account of morality and read it through a pragmatic lens, transmuting it in his turn.
Greg Priest is a PhD candidate in History and a member of the Program in History & Philosophy of Science at Stanford University. Greg focuses on the history of evolutionary biology, and in particular, Charles Darwin. He has had articles published in the Journal of the History of Ideas and in Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences and is currently co-editing a special issue of Endeavour on the practice of scientific diagramming.