Conscience and evolution

The fact that human conscience developed in evolution does not disprove its role as a sensor of Reality

When our human descent from animals came to be established by science, it was to be expected that a similar origin would be ascribed to human morality. Charles Darwin himself sketched such a development in The Descent of Man.

Darwin saw a precursor for conscience in the social instincts of animals. Parent birds take great trouble to feed their young. Bees literally work themselves to death to gather honey and pollen for the hive. A pride of lions will hunt as a well coordinated team. Such inborn traits promote behaviour that is useful to the species.

Animals also learn rules of behaviour by the approval or disapproval of their kind. Young chimpanzees, for instance, undergo years of training in the troupe during which they learn to share food, to obey elders, to stand watch and warn others of danger. When a dog is well taught by its master, it will not touch forbidden food even if its master is absent. If it eats food all the same, it will show signs of a `guilty conscience’: it will expect punishment because it knows it has done wrong!

With the full flowering of reason in human beings, such beginnings of a moral sense were given further shape in culture. Expectations and duties were expressed in language. The clan sanctioned some forms of behaviour as right, others as wrong. In the individual this gave rise to a moral conscience: to an application to oneself of the common approval or disapproval.

According to Charles Darwin, the voice of conscience comes about by a combination of many factors:

  • inborn instincts,
  • learned behaviour,
  • cultural indoctrination,
  • religious traditions,
  • the habits of a life time
  • and one’s own power of reason.

Is there then no need to refer to God? Conscience has a perfectly natural explanation, it would then seem.

Where does this leave us with regard to the question as to how conscience relates to God?

Strange though it may seem at first, Darwin’s observations and the view that God is the ultimate origin of conscience are not mutually exclusive. They are both true. They complement each other in a meaningful way.

The awakening of responsibility

Human conscience certainly derived from the social instinct of animals. Like other aspects of human reason, our moral sense developed gradually. The perception of the world which was so partial and tentative in animals was slowly refined till it reached the stage of our own reasoned critical perception. This applies also to our perception of right and wrong.

Take, for example, parental care for the young. I was struck some time ago by a nature film on the feeding habits of crocodiles in Northern India. After the eggs have hatched in the warm sands of the shore, the mother picks up her tiny brood, small and vulnerable as lizards, manoeuvres them between her giant teeth and holds them ever so gently as she swims towards a small island in the middle of the river where the fledglings can grow up safely. There is so much tenderness in what we rightly consider a dangerous predator.

Such motherly love in a crocodile is certainly determined by instinct. Natural selection favours this trait because it ensures the survival of the species. A line of crocodiles that neglects its young will soon die out. The beginnings of perception, learning and responsibility are clearly visible.

In however primitive a way, crocodiles begin to perceive differences in the world around them. Some creatures are rivals and enemies, others are potential food, others again are partners and offspring. Crocodiles learn to adopt appropriate behaviour towards each of these categories. And, in doing so, they develop both their (limited) freedom as crocodiles and their (limited) responsibility in the world.


As intelligence increased, so did perception, learning and responsibility. Chimpanzees, for instance, have a much more sophisticated grasp of reality than crocodiles. They exhibit a more refined sense of social responsibility. Again, a scene from a nature film comes to mind. A chimpanzee baby had lost its mother and was approaching a strange troupe. Forlorn and unsure it crept up to a totally strange female. The large chimp eyed the little intruder with suspicion. One could almost read on her face the thoughts and feelings going through her mind.

Suddenly the young baby stretched out its tiny hand. The large chimp responded. It stretched out its own hand and touched the baby’s. The commentator said it was the first time that such an adoption by chimpanzees had been seen in the wild. The mother took responsibility for the new baby.

All blind instinct? Instinct yes, but not totally blind. The female chimp recognised a baby in need and responded generously. Without being able to argue it out, as we would, it felt that here was a young life that needed to be protected. It followed its `conscience’ and must have felt rewarded by seeing the child grow in its care.

All this is just as Darwin said, but with a difference. For what we observe is a gradual awakening of intelligence and of responsibility. The crocodile, the chimpanzee and the human mother all respond to the need of a child. In all three there is an instinctual basis, but also a clear perception, most pronounced in the human mother, that the child has rights of its own, rights it received not from its parents, but from the Ultimate Reality that gives it existence..

To put it differently, every form of conscience is a response, and all of it is ultimately a response to reality and truth, and therefore to the Creative Energy that is God. In animals, `conscience’ is almost entirely instinctual; in human beings it is much more aware and explicit. The recognition of an objective good and evil implies the recognition of God.



The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of conscience