Humans are moral beings, while animals possess only a rudimentary form of morality. Both the most conservative theologians and evolutionary biologists agree with these statements. Still, since the former speak of God and the latter of nature, the eternal dispute between the two parties is based on the authorship of the sense of ethics, the progenitor of morality. So, if morality is inherent in human nature, who put it there?

In the article “Is Morality Natural?“, published in September 2008 in Newsweek magazine, Harvard University professor Marc Hauser brought to attention a complicated case. It is a real fact that happened on January 2nd, 2007: a large woman wedged herself into the only exit of a cave in the Cango Caves, South Africa, trapping a group of 22 tourists inside. What should they have done? Since the overweight woman was almost impossible to save, was homicide a solution to save the other 22? Or should they have left her to die along with her fellow tourists?

Fortunately, the solution was found after more than ten hours of effort: by using pulleys and liquid paraffin between the woman’s body and the cave walls, she was released, thus saving all the tourists. But we should still ask: Who exactly could validate the fairness of this decision? What are the mechanisms involved in such a decision? 

So, if morality is inherent in human nature, who put it there?

At some point, the dilemma remained unresolved. What should they have done if the woman could not be released? The article also presents other similar dilemmas.

Hauser discusses morality tests on the Harvard University website; here are some examples: “Would you drive your boat faster to save the lives of five drowning people knowing that a person in your boat will fall off and drown?” “Would you withhold a drug from a terminally ill patient, knowing that he will die without it but his organs could be used to save three other patients?” “Would you suffocate your screaming baby if it would prevent enemy soldiers from finding and killing you both, along with the eight others hiding out with you?”

What intrigues Hauser the most is the fact that extremely different people respond virtually identically. Moreover, when asked to state their reasons for their choices, respondents do not have the faintest idea what they are, but they are sure of their choices. Most respondents believe that it is acceptable to increase the speed of the boat, but are unsure if they would deny the patient the medicine. As for the baby, initially many respond that suffocating it is inconceivable, but they often reconsider their answer, stating that, perhaps, in that situation, they feel it might be permissible after all.

Is morality natural, biological, and intrinsic to the human being?

How come these patterns exist? How come different people make similar choices? Is there a common moral code which is unconscious, ubiquitous, and deeply rooted in human nature? Is morality natural, biological, and intrinsic to the human being? Hauser, a professor of evolutionary human biology, also wrote the book Moral Minds, published in 2006, in which he argued that the brain has a genetically-set mechanism to acquire moral laws—a “universal moral grammar”—similar to the skills of language development and the mechanisms that accompany this ability. Said grammar would also be programmed, according to the author, to trigger quick, intuitive, and universally accepted judgments about what is good or evil.

False treaty on morality

Hauser is by no means the first to question the tensions generated by antagonistic ideas about the origin and nature of morality. The genesis of the debate on the origin of morality dates back to antiquity, but experienced a more pronounced development in the eighteenth century, when the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) stated that morality must be based on reason, while the Scottish philosopher David Hume ( 1711-1776) argued that moral judgments are born of emotions. Controversies were present, therefore, even before the impetuous assertion of evolutionism.

The genesis of the debate over the origin of morality dates back to antiquity.

What differs today, however, from previous periods is that we can talk about the emergence of a field of science in every respect, whose goal is to discover both the way people in different cultures evaluate such dilemmas and the mechanisms that determine the reason people have for the decisions in question.

Another researcher concerned with finding an answer to the origin of morality, Edward O. Wilson—the biologist who wrote the book Sociobiology in 1975, strongly believed that the time had come “for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of philosophers and biologized.” From 1975 until today, those who have followed him in his approach consider themselves to have made remarkable progress. Are they right?

Biologization has led the scientific world to conduct studies on animal behaviour, proving that some of the animals have a surprisingly high degree of sensitivity to the difficulties faced by their next of kin. A remarkable case is that of some chimpanzees, animals lacking the ability to swim, who drowned in the ditches of a zoo, trying to save other chimpanzees from drowning. This type of behaviour has been described by biologists as a precursor to human morality. They considered this an additional argument for their belief that morality should become the exclusive prerogative of biologists, not theologians or philosophers.

The crazy teacher

The director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center (Emory University, Atlanta), the eminent Frans de Waal, set out to shed light on this field. In his book Primates and Philosophers, the primatologist—who studies monkeys but draws conclusions about humans—defended his theories against criticism from philosophers, arguing that “roots of morality can be seen in the social behaviour of monkeys.”

Based on sociability, he devised four types of social behaviour. These are empathy, the ability to learn and respect social rules, reciprocity, and reconciliation.

He believes human morality was born from the aforementioned sociability of primates (mainly chimpanzees) and it is structured on two levels of “sophistication.” The first level relates to attaching motivating elements (rewards, punishments, or reputation effects) to society’s code of moral laws. Regarding the second level of “sophistication,” de Waal admitted that, in the case of human morality, we encounter judgment and reason, for which we have no corresponding factor in the animal world.

The race towards relaxing standards

Lately, efforts to prove that morality is natural are abundant. This includes research by Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. One of their conclusions is that morality has biological roots. However, the reduction of the issue of morality to mere genetically pre-configured chemical processes leads, implicitly, to a decrease in the role of personal responsibility.

Can we interpret morality as a simple tool in the so-called chain of evolution that has marked the survival of species?

Is that all there is to morality? Francis Crick, the British bio-neurophysiologist who won the Nobel Prize in Neurophysiology in 1962 for his discovery of the structure of DNA, spent the last twenty years of his career trying to link morality to DNA. Crick endeavoured to remove God from discussions of morality, believing that everything could be reduced to brain chemistry.

A more nuanced opinion was expressed by Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at the University of North Carolina, who believes that morality developed at the end of human evolution, and moral feelings are shaped by culture, without genetics playing a role. One of the conclusions that emerge from these studies is that morality is determined not only by the judgments that people make but also by the mechanisms by which these judgments are made.

From the lab to the university

In academia, these ideas spread like wildfire. For example, Cornell University professor Allen MacNeill held a six-week course in the summer of 2008 in which he debated two hypotheses:

  1. Ethics can be derived directly from human biological evolution


  1. Ethics can be derived only from philosophical principles, which do not come directly from evolutionary biology.

God is completely excluded from both! As we can easily notice, the maximum level of the teacher’s understanding is, in the end, evolutionism, beyond which he cannot pass. In fact, in the description of the course, MacNeill assumes the conceptions of his “father,” Charles Darwin, dating from 1871: namely, that the source of morality lies in social instincts, which are acquired through natural selection.

Let’s look up though!

Looking for the foundations of morality where they cannot be found—among laboratory experiments performed on animals—enhances the confusion in the minds of some people. There is no denying a certain sense of justice present in the world of non-speakers, but moving the discussion of morality to the segment claimed by biologists seems extremely risky.

Morality transcends, therefore, the natural predeterminations of the species, and elevates people to God.

From a theological perspective, ethics resides in God, although it suffered a deformation in the Garden of Eden, through the interference of the serpent, who presented himself as the guarantor and support of those who seek “the awakening.” Far from concluding that believers hold a monopoly on morality, biblical reason and evidence lead us to the conclusion that morality is inaugurated, embedded, and guaranteed by its sole propellant and promoter, the Creator of people, God, the only One who creates and sets standards. It is important to set our priorities. Do we want to adopt a morality theorized by biologists, or one of a divine nature?

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A moral system built outside of God is built on sand, and sooner or later will go bankrupt. Morality transcends, therefore, the natural predeterminations of the species, and elevates people to God.