Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior

Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior, Robert Richards

The three chapters of Robert Richards’s work we were to focus on for class dealt with how a few prominent Victorian thinkers — with a decided emphasis on Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer — integrated the theory of evolution with human morality and ethics. Richards attempts to analyze the theories put forth by his chosen actors within the context of their own intellectual climate; instead of looking for the roots of modern-day scientific understandings by searching for pieces of old theories that “glow,” he advocates an approach that assesses the validity or value of work by “those standards actually employed by contemporaries in the scientific community of the time.”[1] In this way, he hopes to escape the dubious reputation often ascribed to Herbert Spencer by scholars who fail to recognize his contemporary success as an intellectual and also to avoid the hagiographical tendencies that tend to be characteristic of writing on Charles Darwin.

The main men addressed in Richards’s work had different reasons for embarking on their journeys to provide a natural explanation for human moral development, and their backgrounds and methods were also quite varied. Darwin’s interest in morality came as a consequence and extension of his work on evolution. Conversely, Spencer constructed his ethical framework first and then attempted to explain its conception in terms of long-term biological change.[2] Thus, the two were interested in the evolution of human morality for quite different reasons, and this was reflected in their similar but distinct theories.

Spencer was out to prove that his ethics were grounded in the natural world and placed much more emphasis on acquired inheritance, which was important in his argument for the end goal of evolution being a perfect, socialist society. Darwin’s motivations for entering the discussion about human morality lay in defending his theory of evolution by natural selection after the publication and subsequent critiques of The Origin. He was far more hesitant about teleological understandings of evolution and thought natural selection played a more important role in evolutionary change. He needed to prove that all aspects of humanity were the result of evolution and not divine intervention. Both men integrated their unique goals in constructing their theories into the theories themselves, a testament to how important the cultural and intellectual climate surrounding historical figures is to their lives and work.


  • As I was reading, I noticed how frequently the main actors relied on analogy as a way to understand evolution and morality. Analogies between human and animal intelligence and emotion are common in Chapter 5, along with the interesting discussion of linguistic and biological evolution sharing important similarities. Spencer’s idea of society as a living organism is another example. Is this analogous reasoning particularly characteristic of mid-19th century theorizing about evolution, was it a broader trend in 19th century science, and do we still employ similar strategies for understanding the natural world? Is this a valid, scientifically-sound strategy?
  • What is the difference between morality and ethics, as Richards and those he writes about define them?

[1] Robert Richards, Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 244.

[2] Ibid., 247.