Biography, 1965; drawing by Saul Steinberg

Art Institute of Chicago/© The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Saul Steinberg: Biography, 1965

Theories that link evolution with moral progress claim to illuminate changes in values in many different cultures over long stretches of time. In some such theories, the evolution of ethics is taken to be part of a cosmic process that encompasses the formation of galaxies and the emergence of life. The scope of a theory may include every human society that has ever existed, and often those of nonhuman animals as well. Yet the values these theories aim to explain and defend are always those of the time and place in which the theory has been created, while the view of moral progress they invoke is that which currently prevails in the section of society occupied by the theorist. The version produced by Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell in The Evolution of Moral Progress is no exception.

They characterize their theory as “biocultural” because it presents an “evolutionary model of moral psychological development” of an individual that underpins the possibility of moral progress in a society. Evolution “has produced ‘adaptively plastic’ moral psychological mechanisms” that act differently in different environments. For example, if one grows up in an environment in which resources are scarce, cooperation with others may be necessary to one’s survival to a greater degree than it would be in a place where resources are more plentiful. As a result, a society that develops in deprivation may value collective effort and equal distribution of resources in order to ensure the well-being of the greatest number of people. By contrast, societies in less punishing areas may value individualism or family ties over a broader sense of communal identity.

Buchanan and Powell focus on “one especially important type of moral progress: gains in what we will refer to as ‘moral inclusivity’ (‘inclusivity’ for short),” which “should include provisions for avoiding or at least minimizing racial, gender, class, and ethnonational prejudice and other forms of parochialism.” In contrast, exclusivist norms restrict moral concern to members of a group to which an individual belongs. Spelling out their theory, they write:

Our central hypothesis is that exclusivist morality is…the result of an adaptively plastic “toggle” that is keyed in to cues of out-group threat that are detected in the environment in which individuals and cultures evolve together. More precisely, exclusivist moral response is a conditionally expressed trait that develops only when cues that were in the past reliably correlated with out-group predation, exploitation, competition for resources, and disease transmission are detected.

In other words, moral exclusivity arises from evolutionary adaptations that aided survival at times in prehistory when outsiders—as rivals for territory and food or as carriers of communicable illness—may have posed a serious threat. Even though humans no longer face a primal struggle over resources, modern events can evoke hostile responses, similar to those of earlier humans, toward groups of people deemed to be threatening to one’s livelihood.

Buchanan and Powell are at pains to distinguish their theory from earlier ones that link evolution with progress. Theirs is a version of “naturalism”—“a scientifically informed secular theory” of ethics—that avoids any belief in “iron laws of progress” and the error of “reducing normative claims to biological facts.” They reject “the evolutionary functionalist conception of moral progress” that holds that “one morality is better than another when it more successfully performs the role (or achieves the effects) that morality was evolutionarily selected to perform over many generations in response to specific ecological pressures”—that is, a particular morality is not preferable simply because it helps individuals and groups to survive. They also reject teleology, the attempt to explain processes in the natural world or human society by reference to the ends these processes are supposed to serve:

Our account eschews teleological thinking about nature, human nature, and the nature of society. In particular, it avoids the all-too-common mistake of thinking of evolution—biological or cultural—as progress toward some predetermined end or some perfected or morally desirable state of affairs.

They do not believe moral progress consists in approximating any single goal or value: “We think that there are several kinds of moral progress, and we are skeptical that they can all be reduced to one kind.” At the same time, they insist that “the world’s great problems [be] recast in terms of failures of moral inclusivity.” By identifying the evolutionary origins and development of inclusivist morality, they believe they are “transforming the classic liberal faith in moral progress into a practical, empirically grounded hope.”

They support their hypothesis by citing evidence from prehistory. Pleistocene technology suggests that long-distance trade predated even the existence of language in hominids, while cooperative behavior among hunter-gatherer groups (such as intermarriage and military alliances) would have been difficult or impossible to achieve if exclusivist morality—which confines moral concern within tribal groups—was rigidly hardwired into human brains. Groups that could move “between exclusivist and inclusivist responses based on environmental cues would have had a fitness advantage over groups that were capable of only exclusivist responses.”


However, they stress that their argument does not depend on the capacity for inclusion to make humans better able to survive in their environment. All that is required for their theory is that “humans possess a flexible capacity for moral response.” Progress to greater inclusion is open-ended, they claim, contrasting this view with that of “evoconservatives,” who believe “there are significant evolved psychological constraints on the shape of human morality, that these constraints are essentially fixed, and that they result in a scope of other-regard that is effectively restricted to in-groups.” As well as showing how moral progress is compatible with the evolution of human psychology, their theory also aims to explain moral regression. Gains in inclusion can be lost in conditions in which threats from “out-groups” appear, or are believed to exist when people’s beliefs have been subject to “demagogic manipulation” by “extremist political elites.”

This book says nothing of the political uses to which evolutionary theories of ethics have been put in the past. The authors write that they adopt an interdisciplinary approach, drawing on “diverse literatures in moral and political philosophy, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, sociology, and history.” Yet there is little history of ideas here. Recent theories aiming to show the evolutionary origins of liberal values are often cited. But readers will come away without any sense of how ideas of evolution have been used to support a wide variety of political values, many of them illiberal. Nor is there any systematic discussion of the history of the idea of progress itself.

To take an example that will spring to the mind of anyone familiar with the history of ideas, the authors do not discuss the nineteenth-century public intellectual Herbert Spencer’s use of a theory of evolution to support the unrestrained capitalism of mid-Victorian Britain, though this so-called Social Darwinism is probably the most widely disseminated and influential theory of social evolution there has been. No mention is made of the Fabian social historian Beatrice Webb, for whom Spencer acted as an intellectual mentor in her early years and who shaped her thinking in important ways. Webb claimed that social evolution had moved to a higher phase in the Soviet Union in the Stalin era, which she eulogized in a book cowritten with her husband, Sidney, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? (1935; the question mark was later removed from the title). A short paragraph considers the Austrian economist F.A. Hayek’s assertion that welfare rights diminish prosperity but not his argument—made in his most ambitious book of political philosophy, The Constitution of Liberty (1960), and spelled out more extensively in The Fatal Conceit (1988)—that free markets emerge and prevail over other economic systems in an evolutionary process that in some sense mimics Darwinian natural selection.

These theories had a significant political impact, Spencer’s and Hayek’s in presenting a “scientific” refutation of socialism and the welfare state, the Webbs’ in favor of socialism and central planning. More recently, the economic historian Niall Ferguson has revived a variant of Hayek’s theory in another defense of free market capitalism.1 All of these theories use ideas of evolution to present an existing social order, or one the theorist believes is currently emerging, as embodying human progress. Buchanan and Powell are more cautious. Progress is not inevitable, they insist, nor can regress be ruled out. But like earlier evolutionary theorists, they take for granted that their own values mark the high point of moral evolution to date. At the end of the book, they express the hope that “with a full-fledged biocultural theory of moral progress one day in hand, human beings will be able to ensure that the arc of the moral universe continues to bend steadily, if not inexorably, toward progress.”

Why Buchanan and Powell believe anything like an “arc of the moral universe” exists is not clear. That human societies can improve was accepted by philosophers and historians in the ancient world. Aristotle and Thucydides believed that periods of improvement could continue for several generations; but they also believed that they were regularly followed by periods of decline. Moral progress existed, but it was not a cumulative process extending across history in which each high point was higher than the last. History was cyclical, consisting of alternating periods of civilization and barbarism and long periods of drift. Buchanan and Powell, in contrast, take for granted that history, despite all of its lapses, bends—perhaps not inevitably but nonetheless unmistakably—toward themselves.


Buchanan and Powell do not properly explain why inclusion should have the central role in morality they give it. They acknowledge that they may be criticized for relying on “an undefended assumption that all persons are entitled to recognition and protection of an equal basic status.” Against this objection they reply that “the shoe is on the other foot: those who endorse inequality of basic status must supply a cogent justification for such inequality.” But this only reasserts a presumption in favor of their version of moral equality. Not all nontribal moralities feature the moral equality of human beings. For example, the classical Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, which has recently been revived by Peter Singer and other exponents of “effective altruism,” requires that every sentient being be included in moral concern. But that does not mean persons have equal moral worth. In classical Utilitarianism, there is nothing to prevent nonhuman animals being given priority over disabled human beings when distributing resources if the result is to maximize welfare overall.2

The values Buchanan and Powell aim to vindicate are those currently accepted by a section of American liberals. They are avowedly secular, though many Americans (like other human beings throughout the world) continue to derive their values from religions, which are presumably also products of social evolution. “Inclusion” denotes a mixture of egalitarian values and a concern with group identities that have been denied recognition and respect.

This kind of liberalism differs from others that have prevailed in different times and places. Earlier versions in which equality of moral standing was fundamental attached it directly to individuals and aimed to achieve it without regard to the groups with which people identify themselves. The liberalisms of Locke and Kant are of this kind. Others valued freedom over equality. The freedom that John Stuart Mill argued for in On Liberty applied “only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties,” a restriction that excluded not only children but also “backward states of society,” which for him included societies then ruled by European colonial powers. Even in societies that had emerged from what he regarded as backwardness, Mill supported measures such as giving plural votes to the better educated that are hard to square with any idea of equal standing. For him, freedom trumped equality in any assessment of moral progress. These versions of liberalism may be defective, but Buchanan and Powell nowhere show this to be so.

Theories of progress in which liberal values are not central are hardly mentioned at all. The nineteenth-century French Positivist philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte argued that liberal values promoted human progress only in an interval between two different kinds of “organic society,” that of medieval times when morality was shaped by religion and that of a modern society that was yet to come in which moral questions would be answered by scientists. Comte’s belief that liberal values belong only to a transitional phase in human development informed much later thinking, including that of the Webbs. (Karl Marx, who was influenced by Henri de Saint-Simon, Comte’s intellectual mentor and the founder of Positivism, also viewed liberal societies as belonging to a transitional phase of history. But Marx’s account of the relations between liberal values and what replaces them is different from Comte’s, and more illuminating.)

Rejecting liberal values altogether, Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), the zoologist, philosopher, and founder of a “scientific” religion he called Monism, divided humankind into a hierarchy of racial groups, with “Caucasians” being “the most developed.” In this version of evolutionary ethics, moral progress meant the expansion of the power of the dominant racial group and its values. It may have been this view, or views like it, that the Viennese aphorist Karl Kraus satirized when he wrote, “Progress celebrates Pyrrhic victories over nature. Progress makes purses out of human skin.” (Kraus published these sentences in 1909.3)

Many conceptions of progress, liberal and otherwise, have been supported by evolutionary theories of morality. Like all these theories, Buchanan and Powell’s reflects the values of the time and place in which it originated. Though they claim a liberal morality of inclusion is the result of an evolutionary process that is species-wide, their decision to make it central to their idea of progress is a response to a local political shock. Their aim is to develop an intellectual framework that could underpin resistance against Donald Trump’s assault on women, ethnic minorities, gay and transgender people, immigrants, and others, which they see as endangering the moral progress achieved in the United States in recent generations. They focus on inclusion because they believe the equalities that seemed to be consolidated are at risk of being withdrawn. No doubt this is a legitimate concern, but it does not mean inclusion is central to moral progress in every society, or every section of the society in which Buchanan and Powell themselves live.

Throughout, the authors assume the conception of progress that prevails at the present time among American academic liberals like themselves. Other views that may be held in other parts of American society are not considered. For those whose livelihoods have been destroyed by unchecked globalization, for instance, the most important part of progress may be achieving some measure of economic security. Inclusion may be a secondary consideration, or irrelevant. Conceptions of progress that may exist in other countries are passed over in silence. In many parts of the world, the alleviation of extreme poverty may be regarded as more important than inclusion. It might be replied that a concern for inclusion emerges only once a certain level of economic development has been reached; but it is unclear why the rest of the world should replicate the American pattern of development. Buchanan and Powell describe moralities that do not prioritize inclusion as parochial, but their view of moral progress is itself notably parochial. They never display any doubt that their own values are the best to have evolved so far and will shape moral progress for all of humankind for the foreseeable future.

A fundamental question remains regarding what the theory of evolution can contribute to the understanding of morality. In one sense, morality must have an evolutionary basis.4 Evolutionary theory can explain why human beings come to possess “a flexible capacity for moral response.” What evolutionary theory cannot explain is why human beings should adopt any particular morality—that of inclusion, say—or be moral at all. This was the central question posed by T.H. Huxley in his lecture “Evolution and Ethics,” delivered in Oxford in 1893. This lecture is rightly recognized as one of the most powerful criticisms of evolutionary ideas in ethics and politics. Yet Huxley’s name appears only once in this book, and his lecture is not discussed.

Described at the time as “Darwin’s bulldog” because of his fierce public defense of the theory of natural selection, Huxley was strongly opposed to what he called “the gladiatorial theory of existence”—the claim made by Spencer and others that free-market capitalism enabled “the survival of the fittest.” Huxley’s resistance to any close link between evolution and progress went beyond his objections to unrestrained capitalism. As he put it:

The propounders of what are called “the ethics of evolution,” when “the evolution of ethics” would usually better express the object of their speculations, adduce a number of more or less interesting facts and more or less sound arguments in favour of the origin of the moral sentiments, in the same way as other natural phenomena, by a process of evolution. I have little doubt, for my own part, that they are on the right track; but as the immoral sentiments have no less been evolved, there is, so far, as much natural sanction for the one as the other. The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before…. Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it of another, which may be called the ethical process…. It is from neglect of these plain considerations that the fanatical individualism of our time attempts to apply the analogy of cosmic nature to society…. Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.5

In severing any connection between evolution and moral progress, Huxley was following the logic of Darwin’s theory. In his Autobiography, Darwin described the action of natural selection as being akin to the “the course in which the wind blows”—in other words, it has no overall direction or goal. Operating through the natural selection of random genetic mutations, Darwinian evolution does not achieve any end or realize any value. It is simply the process by which organisms better adapted to their environment survive and produce offspring. Whether there is any mechanism in society that operates like natural selection in biology is an open question. But if evolution of any Darwinian kind did operate in society, it would be a value-free process. It might produce a highly collectivist society, like the one the Webbs believed was developing in the Stalinist Soviet Union, or the totalitarian surveillance regime that appears to be under construction in Xi Jinping’s China. Or it might reinstall feudalism or slavery in new, more technologically advanced forms. Evolution is one thing, progress in ethics and politics another.

There is widespread and urgent interest in why liberal moral progress appears to have stalled, and in some cases reversed, in recent years. Evils that many believed had been permanently consigned to the past have reappeared, and at times been defended. The prohibition of torture, which had been embodied in international treaties for decades, was overridden or circumvented by the Bush administration in the course of prosecuting the so-called war on terror, and during his presidential campaign Trump expressed support for torture on many occasions. Anti-Semitic tropes, which seemed to have been soundly rejected in the aftermath of the Holocaust, have resurfaced in the US, the UK, continental Europe, and other parts of the democratic world.

Many are asking what has gone wrong. But if answers can be found, it is not in evolutionary theories of ethics. The moral regressions of recent years result from political choices and omissions, and it is these that must be studied if we are to understand the present. The area of inquiry should be political and economic history, not evolutionary biology or psychology, and the ideas and policies that must be examined include those of liberals, whether in or out of power. No doubt “demagogic manipulation” by “extremist political elites” has been important in fomenting illiberal attitudes and values; but the social conditions in which such demagoguery can be successful and such elites come to power need explaining. One factor in the rise of illiberal movements may be liberal neglect of how market globalization has undermined economic well-being in many sections of society. Turning to evolutionary theories of ethics may be a way of relieving liberals from responsibility for the decline of liberalism.

A commingling of ethical and evolutionary concepts and theories is one of the cardinal confusions of modern times. In the past it has been used to bolster unfettered market individualism, dictatorial collectivism, and “scientific” racism. Today it is being used as a rationale for a particular version of liberal values. A part of moral progress is intellectual in nature: the elimination of ideas that muddle and damage our thinking about human values. As Huxley argued over a century ago, linking ethical progress with evolution is one such idea. But bad ideas do not evolve into better ones. They keep on reappearing, sometimes in highly ornate forms. The appearance of this book at the present time debunks the notion that there is progress in ethics.