The Evolution of Human Morality

From the beginning of the 20th century, researchers on non-human primates like chimpanzees and orangutangs have shown us that they are capable of many things that are considered completely human. For instance – empathising, making tools and forming friendships. But perhaps not morality.

Humans however, can do more than just create and feel emotions. We have language, laws, and culture. For a long time, the most dominant explanation for these concepts was the intelligence of the human brain, which is three times larger than the chimpanzee brain. But in the recent years, scientists have also added that our more social nature has allowed us to advance so much further than the apes.


Almost 150 years ago, Charles Darwin proposed that human morality was a byproduct of evolution. “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” Charles writes in his book The Descent of Man (1871).

However, it has been argued that the presence of social nature isn’t adequate to fully distinguish between humans and other higher non-primate animals. For instance, male chimpanzees can form political alliances and sometimes work together to hunt. And this requires both advanced social skills. As the psychologist Michael Tomasello points out – humans are not just socially intelligent. They are ultra-social in ways that the apes and chimpanzees are not. We have an enhanced capacity for cooperation, that was the consequence of our species’ evolutionary path.

Related: What’s next in human evolution?

About 6 million years ago, after humans and chimpanzees diverged from their common ancestors, both species adopted different strategies and methods for obtaining food. For instance, chimpanzees who mostly ate fruits gathered and ate the majority of their food alone. On the other hand, humans became collaborative foragers. Fossil records indicate that 400,000 years ago, they were working together to hunt large game. This is a practice that some researchers believe could have arisen out of necessity, which is when fruits and vegetables were hardly available. That is when early humans continued the difficult work of foraging and hunting small games on their own. Or banded together to take home the animal with more meat.

Links of Morality with Evolution

When it comes to morality, the most basic issue concerns our capacity for normative guidance. That is, our ability to be motivated by norms of behavior and feeling through judgments about how people ought to act and respond in various circumstances. Is this human ability a biological adaptation or have we conferred it from our ancestors by enhancing social cooperation?

Related: Has the human brain stopped evolving?

It is an empirical fact that as human beings we make moral judgments, empathize and behave in particular ways. And it is definitely natural for the sciences to seek explanations for such human phenomena. However, at the same time, it is a very intricate matter and one which is often neglected outside philosophy.
While morality in the normative sense is not exactly an empirical phenomenon that is to be explained, there are still many important questions to ask about how evolutionary theory may bear on it.

For instance, most of us believe that among our various moral duties, we have certain duties towards our own family members. Could this moral intuition be attributed partly towards an evolved tendency? A tendency to favour members of one’s kin group over the others, analogous to similar traits in other higher animals? Even if these moral beliefs are heavily shaped by our culture, there could be such evolutionary influences in the background. And these evolved psychological traits would have contributed to the shaping of cultural practices themselves.

How is morality continuing to evolve?

Edward O. Wilson said that it takes thousands of generations for a new evolutionary feature to evolve. Though the connections between morality and evolution are evidently debatable, morality certainly does evolve under cultural levels.

For instance, prehistorically, psychopaths were easily identified and were dealt with by killing them. However, today, in large anonymous societies, many psychopaths no longer have reins and are free to even reproduce. Even with all this, we may need to take more moral steps at the cultural level to deal with psychopathic people in our populations. But this could take over thousands of years.

When humans grow new cultural forms, the long-term effects result in the transformation of the human genome itself; that is, cultural evolution leads to genetic evolution.
Gene-culture co-evolution provides the development of a moral sense in human beings. This is a quality that appears to be absent in other species.


Most academic fields like anthropology and psychology have no issues dealing with the fact that humans are moral creatures and that it is a vital element in the success of our species. However, studies of evolutionary and population biology have had a harder time to accept these facts. As over the years, they have developed theories that show that evolutionary fit behaviour is necessarily selfish behaviour. However, the moral nature of humans, a vital element of the success of our species can be accommodated without requiring evolutionary biology to discard its accomplishments.