With mankind, selfishness, experience, and imitation, probably add, as Mr. Bain has shewn, to the power of sympathy; for we are led by the hope of receiving good in return to perform acts of sympathetic kindness to others; and sympathy is much strengthened by habit. In however complex a manner this feeling may have originated, as it is one of high importance to all those animals which aid and defend one another, it will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.

Darwinian Natural Selection usually brings to mind images of Tennyson's "Nature red in tooth and claw," so it is quite unexpected to discover that The Descent of Man argues that Natural Selection promotes sympathy, social feeling, unselfishness, and even self-sacrifice. In fact, Darwin even argues that sympathy and social feeling, which moved human beings up the evolutionary ladder, most likely developed among comparatively less imposing, weaker beings. Paradoxically, weakness could have been an advantage. Before we examine Darwin's reasoning, let us look at his explanation how and why human beings developed morality.

Darwin's theories of evolution have an interesting relation to moral philosophy based on sympathy or fellow feeling (today, since the meaning of sympathy has changed somewhat having become associated with pity, we should understand these theories of moral decision as involving empathy). Samuel Johnson defined sympathy as "fellow-feeling; mutual sensibility; the quality of being affected by the affections [feelings] of another." More than one hundred years later, John Ruskin, the great Victorian critic of art and society, similarly explained that sympathy, "the imaginative understanding of the natures of others, and the power of putting ourselves in their place, is the faculty on which virtue depends" (Fors Clavigera, 1873). In short, those who devised this explanation for how and why we act morally toward other people argued that emotions and imagination play a major role in motivating us to do so. Our emotions and imagination, in other words, formed our moral sense, a sense taken to be analogous to our senses of smell, sight, and balance. Lord Shaftesbury and his heirs, Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart, Thomas Reid, and Alexander Bain formulated this notion of a moral sense in response to John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which argued that we have no innate ideas. If we have no innate ideas, these philosophers and psychologists asked, how can we have ideas of right and wrong? "Sympathy!" was their answer, and on it they based what was essentially a psychological version of the golden rule.

This emphasis upon feeling and imagination had, as Rousseau realized, profound effects on philosophy, politics, and religion, for if people have an innate moral sense then feelings are potentially good rather than inevitably corrupting. But if human beings instinctively know what's right and wrong, then original sin disappears, and without original sin, we do not need to be saved. Finally, as Rousseau emphasized, if we are born without original sin, something other than pervasive human depravity must create poverty, wars, injustice, pain, and suffering. It must be the System, the Establishment . . . and thus the French Revolution and those that followed.

Darwin accepts this theory of moral action (if not its political implications), making it a significant part of his conception of human nature and human evolution. But his emphasis upon the evolutionary importance of evolution makes him reject the one point that prompted — one may say demanded — the notion of a moral sense: the Empiricist's insistence that human beings come into the world without any innate ideas.

Darwin begins his discussion of the relation of sympathy to evolution by noting "how many thinkers accept the existence of a moral sense"

Sir B. Brodie, after observing that man is a social animal ('Psychological Enquiries,' 1854, p. 192), asks the pregnant question, "ought not this to settle the disputed question as to the existence of a moral sense?" Similar ideas have probably occurred to many persons, as they did long ago to Marcus Aurelius. Mr.   speaks, in his celebrated work, 'Utilitarianism,' (1864, pp. 45, 46), of the social feelings as a "powerful natural sentiment," and as "the natural basis of sentiment for utilitarian morality." Again he says, "Like the other acquired capacities above referred to, the moral faculty, if not a part of our nature, is a natural out-growth from it; capable, like them, in a certain small degree of springing up spontaneously." But in opposition to all this, he also remarks, "if, as in my own belief, the moral feelings are not innate, but acquired, they are not for that reason less natural."

This is where, despite hesitating to “differ at all from so profound a thinker,” Darwin argues that “it can hardly be disputed that the social feelings are instinctive or innate in the lower animals; and why should they not be so in man?” Noting that Alexander Bain and others “believe that the moral sense is acquired by each individual during his lifetime,” Darwin points out his general theory of evolution makes that possibility “extremely improbable,” and goes on to offer four arguments for instinctual, inborn the role of social instincts and sympathy in the evolution of homo sapiens. First of all, “the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them. The services may be of a definite and evidently instinctive nature; or there may be only a wish and readiness, as with most of the higher social animals, to aid their fellows in certain general ways.” He points out, however, that such “feelings and services are by no means extended to all the individuals of the same species, only to those of the same association.”

SECONDLY, as soon as the mental faculties had become highly developed, images of all past actions and motives would be incessantly passing through the brain of each individual: and that feeling of dissatisfaction, or even misery, which invariably results, as we shall hereafter see, from any unsatisfied instinct, would arise, as often as it was perceived that the enduring and always present social instinct had yielded to some other instinct, at the time stronger, but neither enduring in its nature, nor leaving behind it a very vivid impression. It is clear that many instinctive desires, such as that of hunger, are in their nature of short duration; and after being satisfied, are not readily or vividly recalled.

Third, once human beings acquired language, they had a means of communicating the “wishes of the community” about how they should act. “But it should be borne in mind that however great weight we may attribute to public opinion, our regard for the approbation and disapprobation of our fellows depends on sympathy, which, as we shall see, forms an essential part of the social instinct, and is indeed its foundation-stone (my emphasis).” Finally, habit has an important role, “for the social instinct, together with sympathy, is, like any other instinct, greatly strengthened by habit, and so consequently would be obedience to the wishes and judgment of the community.”

Since Darwin argues that “social instinct, together with sympathy,” evolved, he must demonstrate that animals lower in the evolutionary chain have the beginnings of both. “It must be called sympathy,” he assures the reader, “that leads a courageous dog to fly at any one who strikes his master, as he certainly will,” and he gives other examples, such as animals protecting one another. “Besides love and sympathy,” he continues, “animals exhibit other qualities connected with the social instincts, which in us would be called moral; and I agree with Agassiz that dogs possess something very like a conscience” as well as “some power of self-command” independent of fear.

One of the more interesting and unexpected points Darwin makes in his examination of moral action, sympathy, and socialization occurs when he argues that being smaller or weaker would have had an evolutionary advantage over being strong and aggressive. He begins by pointing out that “we do not know whether man is descended from some small species, like the chimpanzee, or from one as powerful as the gorilla; and, therefore, we cannot say whether man has become larger and stronger, or smaller and weaker, than his ancestors.” Darwin points out, however, that “an animal possessing great size, strength, and ferocity, and which, like the gorilla, could defend itself from all enemies, would not perhaps have become social.” And if this primate ancestor did not become social, it would not have developed “the higher mental qualities, such as sympathy and the love of his fellows.” Therefore, he concludes, “Hence it might have been an immense advantage to man to have sprung from some comparatively weak creature.”

As firmly as he urges the interrelations of sympathy and social feeling with the descent of man, he readily admits that “it is, however, impossible to decide in many cases whether certain social instincts have been acquired through natural selection, or are the indirect result of other instincts and faculties, such as sympathy, reason, experience, and a tendency to imitation; or again, whether they are simply the result of long-continued habit.” Although some actions, such as “placing sentinels to warn the community of danger,” must be a matter of instinct and hence hereditary.

On the other hand, the habit followed by the males of some social animals of defending the community, and of attacking their enemies or their prey in concert, may perhaps have originated from mutual sympathy; but courage, and in most cases strength, must have been previously acquired, probably through natural selection.

So it is with ourselves. Even when we are quite alone, how often do we think with pleasure or pain of what others think of us,— of their imagined approbation or disapprobation; and this all follows from sympathy, a fundamental element of the social instincts. A man who possessed no trace of such instincts would be an unnatural monster.


Darwin, Charles. A Naturalist's Voyage Round the World: The Voyage Of The Beagle. Project Gutenberg EBook #3704 produced by Sue Asscher. August 6, 2008. The e-version is based on the 1890 11th edition. (The book first appeared in 1839.)

Last modified 25 March 2012