Darwin's Conscience - Social Cement

The Moral Animal - Whe We Are The Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology - Robert Wright 1995

Darwin's Conscience
Social Cement

Ultimately a highly complex sentiment, having its first origin in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, confirmed by instruction and habit, all combined, constitute our moral sense or conscience.

The Descent of Man (1871)1

Darwin is sometimes thought of as an excessively decent man. Recall the assessment of one of his biographers, the psychiatrist John Bowlby. Bowlby found Darwin's conscience "overactive" and "overbearing." While admiring Darwin's lack of pretension and his "strong moral principles," Bowlby believed that "these qualities were unfortunately developed prematurely and to excessive degree," leaving him "prone to self-reproach" and to "periods of chronic anxiety and episodes of fairly severe depression."2

Self-reproach was indeed second nature to Darwin. He recalled, as a boy, "thinking that people were admiring me, in one instance for perseverance, and another for boldness in climbing a low tree," and at the same time feeling "that I was vain, and contempt of myself."3 As he grew up, self-criticism became a kind of tick, a reflexive humility; an appreciable fraction of his voluminous correspondence consists of apologies for itself. "How shockingly untidy this letter {210} is," he wrote as a teenager. "I find I am writing most precious nonsense," he wrote in his twenties. "I have written an unreasonably long & dull letter, so farewell," he wrote in his thirties.4 And so on.

Nighttime was a feast for Darwin's doubts. Then, according to his son Francis, "anything which had vexed or troubled him in the day would haunt him." He might lie awake rehashing a conversation with a neighbor, worried that he had somehow caused offense. He might lie awake thinking about letters he hadn't yet answered. "He used to say that if he did not answer them, he had it on his conscience afterwards," Francis recalled.5

Darwin's moral sentiments covered much more than social obligations. Many years after the voyage of the Beagle, he was still plagued by the memory of slaves being tortured in Brazil. (Aboard the Beagle he had antagonized the captain by sarcastically probing his defense of slavery.) Even the suffering of animals Darwin found unbearable. Francis remembered him once returning from a walk "pale and faint from having seen a horse ill-used, and from the agitation of violently remonstrating with the man."6 There is no denying Bowlby's point: Darwin's conscience was a very painful thing.

Then again, natural selection never promised us a rose garden. It doesn't "want" us to be happy. It "wants" us to be genetically prolific. And in Darwin's case it didn't do too badly. He had ten children, seven of whom survived to adulthood. So as we try to discern some of the finer features that natural selection has designed into the conscience, there is no glaring reason not to use Darwin's conscience as Exhibit A: an example of a basically sound adaptation. If it goaded him into doing things that amplified his genetic legacy, it may have been working as designed, even if the goading hurt.7

Of course, happiness is great. There's every reason to seek it. There's every reason for psychiatrists to try to instill it, and no reason for them to mold the kinds of people natural selection "wants." But therapists will be better equipped to make people happy once they understand what natural selection does "want," and how, with humans, it "tries" to get it. What burdensome mental appliances are we stuck with? How, if at all, can they be defused? And at what cost — to ourselves and to others? Understanding what is and isn't pathological from natural selection's point of view can help us {211} confront things that are pathological from our point of view. One way to approach that understanding is to try and figure out when Darwin's conscience was and wasn't malfunctioning.


One striking feature of the rewards and punishments dished out by the conscience is their lack of sensuality. The conscience doesn't make us feel bad the way hunger feels bad, or good the way sex feels good. It makes us feel as if we have done something that's wrong or something that's right. Guilty or not guilty. It is amazing that a process as amoral and crassly pragmatic as natural selection could design a mental organ that makes us feel as if we're in touch with higher truths. Truly a shameless ploy.

But effective — effective all over the world. Kin selection has ensured that people everywhere feel deeply guilty about, say, grievously harming or neglecting a brother or sister, a daughter or son, even a niece or nephew. And reciprocal altruism has extended the sense of obligation — selectively — beyond the circle of kin. Is there a single culture in which neglecting a friend is a guiltless and widely approved behavior? We would all be skeptical if some anthropologist claimed to have found one.

Reciprocal altruism may have left a more diffuse imprint on the conscience as well. Several decades ago, the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg tried to construct a natural sequence of human moral development, ranging from the toddler's simple conception of "bad" (that which parents punish you for) to the detached weighing of abstract laws. The higher rungs of Kohlberg's ladder, the ones occupied by ethical philosophers (and, presumably, by Kohlberg), are far from species-typical. But progression through what he called "stage three" seems to be standard in diverse cultures.8 That stage entails a desire to be known as "nice" and "good." Which is to say: a desire to be known as a reliable reciprocal altruist, a person with whom one could profitably associate. This impulse helps give consensual moral codes their tremendous power; we all want to do — or, more precisely, to be seen doing — what everyone says is good.

Beyond these sorts of basic and apparently universal dimensions {212} of moral sentiment, the contents of the conscience begin to vary. Not only do the particular norms enforced by collective praise and censure differ from culture to culture (another reminder of the huge variability human nature leaves room for); within any one culture, the strictness of obedience varies from person to person. Some people, like Darwin, have big and acute consciences and lie awake at night reflecting on their crimes. Some people don't.

Now, some aspects of Darwin's distinctively strong scruples presumably had to do with distinctive genes. Behavioral geneticists say the heritability of the cluster of traits they call "conscientiousness" is between .30 and .40.9 That is: about one-third of differences among people (in a typical late-twentieth-century social environment, at least) can be traced to their different genes. But that still leaves two-thirds traceable to environment. In large part, the conscience seems to be an example of the genetically endowed knobs of human nature getting environmentally tuned to widely varied settings. Everyone feels guilt. But not everyone feels it acutely, as Darwin did, over everyday conversations. Everyone empathizes with human suffering at times, and at other times feels (if only briefly) that suffering is justified, that retribution is warranted. But the very fact that slaves were being brutally punished as Darwin visited Brazil suggests that not everyone shared his feelings about when empathy and retribution are, respectively, in order.

The questions are: Why has natural selection given us a fairly flexible conscience, rather than fixing its contents innately? And how has natural selection arranged for the conscience to be shaped? Why and how are the morality knobs of human nature tunable?

As for the "how" question: Darwin himself saw his moral tuning as beginning early, under the guidance of kin. That he could call himself, on balance, "a boy humane" he credited to the "instruction and example of my sisters. I doubt indeed whether humanity is a natural or innate quality." His plans to start an insect collection were complicated when, "on consulting my sister, I concluded that it was not right to kill insects for the sake of making a collection."10

Chief moralist was sister Caroline, nine years his elder, who functioned as surrogate mother after their mother's death in 1817, when Darwin was eight. Darwin recalls that Caroline was "too zealous {213} in trying to improve me; for I clearly remember ... saying to myself when about to enter a room where she was — 'What will she blame me for now?' "11

Darwin's father was also a force to be reckoned with, a large, imposing, often austere man. His severity has spawned theories about the psychodynamics between father and son, and they have often not been flattering to the father. One Darwin biographer summarized a common profile of Robert Darwin: "his shape is that of a domestic bully and his effect on his son a continuing disaster of neurosis and disability."12

The emphasis placed by Darwin on the moral influence of kin has been affirmed by behavioral science. Parents and other authority figures, including older kin, serve as role models and as tutors, molding the conscience with praise and blame. This is basically the way Freud described the formation of the superego — which, in his scheme, encompasses the conscience — and he seems to have gotten it basically right. A child's peers also provide positive and negative feedback, encouraging conformity with playground norms.

It makes sense, of course, that kin should critically guide moral development. Because they share so many genes with the young child, they have a strong, though not unbounded, reason to give useful guidance. By the same token, the child has reason to follow. There is, as Robert Trivers noted, cause for skepticism on the part of children — cause, for example, to discount parental sermons about sharing equally with siblings. But in other realms — how to deal with friends, with strangers — the grounds for parental manipulation diminish, and thus the grounds for offspring obedience grow. In any event, it is clear that the voice of close kin carries a special resonance. Darwin says he reacted to sister Caroline's pedantic nagging by making himself "dogged so as not to care what she might say."13 Whether he succeeded is another question. In his letters to Caroline from college, he apologizes for his penmanship, makes strained efforts to convince her of his religious piety, and generally evinces continued concern about what she might say.

The channels of paternal influence also seem to have been kept wide open by Darwin's brain. The young Darwin idolized his father and committed to lifelong memory both his sage advice and his {214} crudest rebuke — "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family."14 He devoutly wanted his father's approval, and worked hard to get it. "I think my father was a little unjust to me when I was young," he said, "but afterwards I am thankful to think I became a prime favourite with him." When Darwin made this remark to one of his daughters, it left her with "a vivid recollection of the expression of happy reverie that accompanied these words," as if "the remembrance left a deep sense of peace and gratitude."15 The many people who share this sense of peace — and the many who instead suffer, well into adulthood, from a chafing sense of parental disapproval — attest to the power of the emotional equipment at work.

What about the "why" question? Why has natural selection made the conscience malleable? Granted, Darwin's kin were the natural providers of useful moral guidance; but what was useful about it? What is so valuable, from the genes' point of view, about the expansive guilt they infused in the young Darwin? And anyway, if a big conscience is so valuable, why don't the genes just hard-wire it into the brain?

The answer begins with the fact that reality is more complicated than Robert Axelrod's computer. In Axelrod's tournament, a bunch of electronic TIT FOR TAT organisms triumphed and then lived happily ever after in mutual cooperation. This exercise had value in showing how reciprocal altruism could evolve and thus suggesting why we all have the emotions that govern it. But of course, we don't use those emotions with the simple steadiness of TIT FOR TAT. People sometimes lie, cheat, or steal — and, unlike TIT FOR TAT, they may behave this way even toward people who have been nice to them. What's more: people sometimes prosper in this fashion. That we have this capacity for exploiting, and that it sometimes pays off, suggests that there have been times during evolution when being nice to nice people wasn't the genetically optimal strategy. We may all have the machinery of TIT FOR TAT, but we also have less admirable machinery. And the question we face is which machinery to use. Hence the adaptive value of a malleable conscience.

This, at least, was Trivers's suggestion in his 1971 paper on reciprocal altruism. He noted that the payoff from helping people — {215} and the payoff from cheating people — depends on the social environment in which we find ourselves. And environments change over time. So "one would expect selection to favor developmental plasticity of those traits regulating altruistic and cheating tendencies and responses to these tendencies in others." And thus, "the growing organism's sense of guilt" may "be educated, perhaps partly by kin, so as to permit those forms of cheating that local conditions make adaptive and to discourage those with more dangerous consequences."16 In short: "moral guidance" is a euphemism. Parents are designed to steer kids toward "moral" behaviors only insofar as those behaviors are self-serving.

It's hard to specify the exact circumstances that, during evolution, made different moral strategies more or less valuable. There may have been recurrent changes in the size of villages, or the density of big, huntable game or menacing predators.17 Any of these could affect the number and the value of cooperative endeavors locally available. And, besides, each person is born into a family that occupies a particular niche in the social ecology, and each person has particular social assets and liabilities. Some people can prosper without taking the risk of cheating, some people can't.

Whatever the reason natural selection first endowed our species with flexible reciprocally altruistic strategies, the advent of flexibility would further raise their value. Once the prevailing winds of cooperation are shifting — from generation to generation, from one village to an adjacent village, or from one family to the next — these shifts are a force to be reckoned with, and a flexible strategy is the way to reckon. As Axelrod showed, the value of a particular strategy depends utterly on neighborhood norms.

If Trivers is right, if the shaping of a young conscience amounts partly to instruction about profitable cheating (and profitable restraint from cheating), then you would expect young children to be good at learning to deceive. That seems to be, if anything, an understatement. Jean Piaget, in his 1932 study of moral development, wrote that "the tendency to tell lies is a natural tendency ... spontaneous and universal."18 Subsequent study has borne him out.19

Certainly Darwin seems to have been a natural-born liar — "much given to inventing deliberate falsehoods." For instance, "I once gathered {216} much valuable fruit from my Father's trees and hid them in the shrubbery, and then ran in breathless haste to spread the news that I had discovered a hoard of stolen fruit." (As, in a sense, he had.) He rarely took a walk without claiming to have seen "a pheasant or some strange bird," whether or not this was true. And he once told a boy "that I could produce variously coloured Polyanthuses and Primroses by watering them with certain coloured fluids, which was of course a monstrous fable, and had never been tried by me."20

The idea here is that childhood lies are not just a phase of harmless delinquency we pass smoothly through, but the first in a series of test runs for self-serving dishonesty. Through positive reinforcement (for undetected and fruitful lies) and negative reinforcement (for lies that peers uncover, or through the reprimand of kin) we learn what we can and can't get away with, and what our kin do and don't consider judicious deceit.

That parents seldom lecture children on the virtues of lying doesn't mean they're not teaching them to lie. Children, it seems, will keep lying unless strongly discouraged. Not only are children whose parents often lie more likely than average to become chronic liars; so too are children who simply lack close parental supervision.21 If parents refrain from discouraging the kinds of lies that have proven useful to them — and if they tell such lies in the presence of their children — they are giving an advanced course in lying.

One psychologist has written, "No doubt lying is exciting; that is, the manipulation itself, rather than the benefits that result from it, may spur children to lie."22 This dichotomy is misleading. It is presumably because of the benefits of skillful lying that natural selection has made experimental lying exciting. Once again: natural selection does the "thinking"; we do the doing.

Darwin recalled making up stories for "the pure pleasure of exciting attention & surprise." On the one hand, "these lies, when not detected, I presume excited my attention [and] by having produced great effect on my mind, gave pleasure, like a tragedy."23 On the other hand, at times they left him feeling shameful. He doesn't say why, but two possibilities spring to mind. One is that some of the lies were uncovered by suspicious children. Another is that lying got him chastised by older kin. {217}

Either way, Darwin was getting feedback about the propitiousness of lying in his particular social environment. And either way, the feedback had effect. By the time he reached adulthood, he was honest by any reasonable standard.

The transmission of moral instruction from old to young parallels the transmission of genetic instruction and is sometimes indistinguishable in its effects. In Self-Help Samuel Smiles wrote, "The characters of parents are thus constantly repeated in their children; and the acts of affection, discipline, industry, and self-control, which they daily exemplify, live and act when all else which they may have learned through the ear has long been forgotten... . Who can tell how much evil act has been stayed by the thought of some good parent, whose memory their children may not sully by the commission of an unworthy deed, or the indulgence of an impure thought?"24

This fidelity of moral transmission is plain in Darwin. When, in his autobiography, he extols his father — his generosity, his sympathy — he might just as well have been talking about himself. And Darwin would in turn work to endow his own children with solid reciprocal-altruism skills, ranging from moral probity to social nicety. To a son at school he wrote, "You must write to Mr. Wharton: you had better begin with 'My dear Sir.' ... End by saying 'I thank you and Mrs. Wharton for all the kindness you have always done me. Believe me, Yours truly obliged.' "25


Natural selection had no way of anticipating Darwin's social environment. The human genetic program for custom-tailoring the conscience does not include an option labeled "Well-to-do Man in Victorian England." For this reason (among others) we shouldn't expect Darwin's early experience to have shaped his conscience in a wholly adaptive way. Still, some things that natural selection presumably did "anticipate" — for example, that the sheer level of local cooperation would differ from environment to environment — are relevant to any time and place. It is worth seeing if Darwin's moral development left him reasonably well equipped to prosper.

The question of how Darwin's conscience paid off is really the {218} question of how the Victorian conscience itself paid off. Darwin's moral compass was, after all, just a more acute version of the basic Victorian model. The Victorians are famous for their emphasis on "character," and many of them, if plopped down in our midst, would seem bizarrely earnest and conscientious, if less so than Darwin.

The essence of Victorian character was "truthfulness, integrity, and goodness," according to Samuel Smiles. "Integrity in word and deed is the backbone of character," he wrote in Self-Help, "and loyal adherence to veracity its most prominent characteristic."26 Note the contrast with "personality," the amalgam of charm, pizzazz, and other social garnish that, we are told, has in the twentieth century largely replaced character as the measure of a human being. This change is sometimes noted with the wistful suggestion that the present century is one of moral relapse and rampant selfishness.27 "Personality," after all, attaches so little value to honesty or honor and seems so plainly a vehicle for self-advancement.

The culture of personality does have a shallow feel, and it's easy to get nostalgic for the days when sheer glibness got a person less far in life. But that doesn't mean the reign of character was an era of pure integrity, unsullied by self-interest. If Trivers is right about why the conscience is malleable, then "character" may have been a self-serving thing.

The Victorians themselves made no bones about the uses of character. Samuel Smiles approvingly quoted a man of "sterling independence of principle and scrupulous adherence to truth" who noted that obedience to conscience is "the road to prosperity and wealth." Smiles himself observed that "character is power" ("in a much higher sense than that knowledge is power"). He quoted the stirring words of the statesman George Canning: "My road must be through Character to power; I will try no other course; and I am sanguine enough to believe that this course, though not perhaps the quickest, is the surest."28

If character was so conducive to advancement in those days, why was it more so then than now? This is no place for a Darwinian treatise on moral history, but one possible factor is obvious: most people in Victorian England lived in the rough equivalent of a small town. To be sure, urbanization was well under way, and thus the {219} era of anonymity was nearing. But, compared to today, neighborhoods, even urban ones, were stable. People tended to stay put, and encounter the same small group of folks year after year. This is true in spades of Darwin's hometown, the quaint village of Shrewsbury. If Trivers is right — if the young conscience is molded, with the active aid of kin, to fit the local social environment — then Shrewsbury is the sort of place in which we might expect Darwin's scruples to pay off.

There are at least two reasons integrity and honesty make particular sense in a small and steady social setting. One is that (as everyone who has lived in a small town knows) there's no escaping your past. In a section of Self-Help titled "Be What You Seem," Smiles wrote, "A man must really be what he seems or purposes to be. ... Men whose acts are at direct variance with their words, command no respect, and what they say has but little weight." Smiles relayed an anecdote about a man who says "I would give a thousand pounds for your good name." "Why?" "Because I could make ten thousand by it."29 The Darwin described by young Emma Wedgwood — "the most open, transparent man I ever saw, and every word expresses his real thoughts" — is a man well equipped to thrive in Shrewsbury.30

Axelrod's computer world was a lot like Shrewsbury: the same fairly small group of characters, day after day, all of whom remember how you behaved on the last encounter. That, of course, is a central reason why reciprocal altruism paid off inside the computer. If you make the computer world even more like a small town, by allowing its creatures to gossip about how scrupulous so-and-so is or isn't, cooperative strategies flourish even faster. For then cheaters get away with fewer swindles before people start shunning them.31 (Axelrod's computer has multiple uses. Once people have flexible moral equipment, cooperation can, over the generations, spread — or retreat — without any changes in the gene pool. Thus the computer, in chronicling such waves, can model cultural change, as here, rather than model genetic change, as in the last chapter.)

A second reason why being nice is so fruitful in a place like Shrewsbury is that the people you're nice to will be around for a long time. Even scattershot expenditures of social energy, such as the {220} diffuse bestowal of warm pleasantries, may be a sound investment. "Those little courtesies which form the small change of life, may separately appear of little intrinsic value, but they acquire their importance from repetition and accumulation," Smiles wrote. He observed that "benevolence is the preponderating element in all kinds of mutually beneficial and pleasant intercourse amongst human beings. 'Civility,' said Lady Montague, 'costs nothing and buys everything.' ... 'Win hearts,' said Burleigh to Queen Elizabeth, 'and you have all men's hearts and purses.' "32

Actually, civility does cost something: a little bit of time and psychic energy. And these days it doesn't buy too much — at least, not unless laser-guided. Many, if not most, of the people we encounter each day don't know who we are and will never find out. Kven our acquaintances may be fleeting. People move often, change jobs often. So a reputation for integrity matters less now, and sacrifices of all kinds — even for colleagues or neighbors — are less likely to be repaid far in the future. These days an upper-middle-class man who by example teaches his son to be slick and superficially sincere, to tell minor lies in profusion, to work harder on promise than delivery, may well be equipping him for success.

You can see this in Axelrod's computer. If you change the rules, and allow frequent migration into and out of the group, so that there are fewer chances to reap what you've sown, the power of TIT FOR TAT wanes visibly and the success of meaner strategies grows. (Here, again, we use the computer to model cultural, not genetic, evolution; the size of the average conscience is changing, but not because of underlying changes in the gene pool.)

In the computer, as in life, these trends are self-sustaining. When less cooperative strategies flourish, the amount of locally available cooperation declines, further devaluing cooperation, so that less cooperative strategies flourish all the more. It works in the other direction too: the more conscientious the Victorians got, the more conscientious it made sense to be. But when, for whatever reason, the pendulum finally reaches its apex and heads back down, it naturally picks up momentum.

To some extent, this analysis simply underscores the old truisms about the effects of urban anonymity: New Yorkers are rude, and {221} New York is full of pickpockets.33 But that doesn't go far enough. The point here isn't just that people look around, see opportunities for cheating, and consciously seize them. Through a process they sense dimly if at all, a process that begins as soon as they learn to talk, the contours of their conscience get adjusted for them — by kin (who themselves may not grasp what's going on) and by other sources of environmental feedback. Cultural influence can be just as unconscious as genetic influence. This is not surprising, given how deeply intertwined the two are.

The same point applies to a sector whose ethos is the subject of much discussion these days: the poor, crime-ridden inner cities of America. Budding criminals needn't look around, appraise the situation, and rationally choose a life of crime. If this were the whole truth, then the standard solution to crime — "alter the incentive structure" by making sure crime doesn't pay — might work better. Darwinism suggests a more unsettling truth: from an early age, the conscience of many poor children, the very capacity for sympathy and guilt, is hemmed in by the environment, and as they grow up it settles somewhat firmly into this cramped form.

The source of this cramping presumably goes well beyond urban anonymity. Many people in the inner city face limited opportunities for "legitimate" cooperation with the wider world. And the males, risk-prone by virtue of their gender to begin with, don't have the long life expectancies that so many people take for granted. Martin Daly and Margo Wilson have argued that the "short time horizons" for which criminals are famous may be "an adaptive response to predictive information about one's prospects for longevity and eventual success."34

"Riches and rank have no necessary connection with genuine gentlemanly qualities," Samuel Smiles wrote. "The poor man may be a true gentleman, — in spirit and in daily life. He may be honest, truthful, upright, polite, temperate, courageous, self-respecting, and self-helping, — that is, be a true gentleman." For, "from the highest to the lowest, the richest to the poorest, to no rank or condition in life has nature denied her highest boon, — the great heart."35 That's a nice thought, and it may hold true for the first few months of life. {222}

But — under modern conditions, at least — it probably grows ever more false thereafter.

To some it will sound odd to hear Darwinians describing criminals as "victims of society" rather than as victims of faulty genes. But that's one difference between Darwinism at the turn of this century and at the turn of the last. Once you think of genes as programming behavioral development, and not just behavior, as molding the young mind to fit its context — then we all start to look like victims (or beneficiaries) of our environment, no less than of our genes.36 Thus can a difference between two groups (socioeconomic, say, or even ethnic) be explained by evolution yet without reference to genetic differences.

There is, of course, no "urban underclass" notch in the developmental program that shapes the conscience, any more than there is a "Victorian" notch. (Indeed, the village of Shrewsbury is more like the kind of setting that natural selection "anticipated" than are today's large cities.) Still, the deftness with which urban opportunities for cheating are often exploited suggests that the ancestral environment did, at times, present opportunities for profitable crime.

One likely source of such opportunities would have been periodic contact with nearby villages. And the adaptation that would help seize those opportunities is precisely what we find in the human mind: a binary moral landscape, comprising an in-group that deserves consideration and an out-group that deserves exploitation.37 Even urban gang members have people who can trust them. And even scrupulously polite Victorian men went to war, convinced of the justness of the death they dished out. Moral development is often a question not just of how strong the conscience will be, but of how long a reach it will have.


How "moral" the Victorians really were is a subject of some contention. They are commonly accused of great hypocrisy. Well, as we've seen, a little hypocrisy is only natural in our species.38 And, oddly, a lot of hypocrisy may be a sign of great morality. In a highly "moral" society — where daily life involves many acts of courtesy and {223} altruism, where meanness and dishonesty are reliably punished by social sanction — a good moral reputation is vital and a bad one quite costly. This added weight of reputation is more incentive to do what people naturally do anyway: exaggerate their goodness. As Walter Houghton wrote in The Victorian Frame of Mind, "Although everyone at times pretends to be better than he is, even to himself, the Victorians were more given to this type of deception than we are. They lived in a period of much higher standards of conduct... ."39

Even if we accept that Victorian hypocrisy is a roundabout affirmation of Victorian morality, we might still ask whether morality is the right word. For most Victorians, after all, the prevailing ethos brought no net sacrifice. So many people were so diffusely considerate that everyone got a piece of the action. But that's no indictment of Victorian morality. That's the whole idea behind a robust morality: to encourage informal non-zero-sum exchanges, thus raising overall welfare; that is, to encourage non-zero-sum exchanges outside the realms of economic life and legal compulsion. One writer, lamenting "the rise of selfishness" and the passing of "Victorian America," has observed that, under the Victorian ethos, "the great central mass of Americans was living in a social system that was predictable, stable and basically decent. And it was so because — despite the hypocrisy — most people felt that they had duties and obligations to other people which came before their own gratification."40 We may question the literal truth of that last sentence without doubting its drift. What sustained everyone's sense of duty was not self-abnegation, ultimately, but their implicit assent to a vast social contract, under which duties discharged to others would, however indirectly, be discharged to them in return. Still, the author is right: an immense amount of time and energy now spent on vigilance was not spent in those days.

One way to put the matter is to say that Victorian England was an admirable society, but not one composed of especially admirable people. They were only doing what we do — acting conscientiously, politely, and considerately to the extent that it pays. It just paid more in those days. And besides, their moral behavior, however laudable it was or wasn't, was more a heritage than a choice; the Victorian {224} conscience got shaped in ways the Victorians never understood and were in some sense powerless to affect.

Here, then, is the verdict on Charles Darwin, rendered with the authority of everything we now know about genes: he was a product of his environment. If he was a good man, he was good in passive reflection of his society's goodness. And, anyway, much of his "goodness" paid off.

Still, Darwin does seem sometimes to have gone above and beyond the call of reciprocal altruism. While in South America, he planted gardens for the Fuegian Indians. And years later, while living in the village of Downe, he founded the Downe Friendly Society, which provided a savings plan for the local workers, as well as a "clubroom" (where their moral life would be improved by Skinnerian conditioning — swearing, fighting, and drunkenness were subject to a fine).41

Some Darwinians make a sport of reducing even this sort of niceness to self-interest. If they can't find a way that the Fuegian Indians might have reciprocated (and we don't know that they didn't), the next recourse is to talk about "reputation effects"; maybe the men of the Beagle would carry tales of Darwin's generosity back to Kngland, where he would somehow be rewarded. But Darwin's moral sentiments were strong enough to strain such cynicism to its breaking point. When he heard that a local farmer had let some sheep starve to death, he personally gathered the evidence and brought the case to the magistrate.42 The dead sheep were poorly positioned to repay him, and the farmer certainly wouldn't; and the "reputation effects" of behavior so fanatical might not have worked entirely to Darwin's advantage. Similarly, where was the payoff in losing sleep over the past suffering of South American slaves?

The simpler way to account for this sort of "excessively" moral behavior is to recall that human beings aren't "fitness maximizers" but rather "adaptation executers." The adaptation in question — the conscience — was designed to maximize fitness, to exploit the local environment in the name of genetic self-interest, but success in this endeavor is far from assured, especially in social settings alien to natural selection. {225}

Thus the conscience can lead people to do things that aren't in their self-interest except in the sense of salving the conscience itself. Sympathy, obligation, and guilt, unless subjected to a veritable extermination campaign during youth, always have the potential to bring behaviors of which their "creator," natural selection, would not "approve."

We started this chapter with the working hypothesis that Darwin's conscience was a smoothly functioning adaptation. And in many ways it was. What's more, some of these ways are quite cheering: they show how some mental organs, though designed ultimately for self-interest, are at the same time designed to work harmoniously with other people's mental organs, and in the process may yield a large amount of social welfare. Still, in some ways Darwin's conscience did not function adaptively. This too is cause for cheer. {226}