'A Venerable Orang-Outang. A Contribution to Unnatural History'—Charles Darwin is mocked in a satirical magazine for attempting to make morality and evolution compatible.
The caricature pictured was drawn for satirical magazine The Hornet in 1871. Similar attacks were made across the media after Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species in 1859, using Darwin’s own idea that we descended from animals against him.
But all this attention instilled enthusiasm and engendered a wider interest in Darwinism. Public attention duly shifted as people finally started to pay respect to his earlier work. The theory of evolution upturned society’s religious outlook as people were forced to acknowledge that humans could have developed from lowly animals. A divine understanding of the natural world would be revamped.
But could morality be saved? Darwin thought so. In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex he writes:
But, as G.E. Moore posed the problem in Principia Ethica, how would it make sense to reduce moral properties (e.g. bad) to natural properties of the physical world (e.g. pain). What ought to be the case isn’t what is the case (David Hume).
Consider it like this: any act we ordinarily take to be morally true—of ‘compassion’, of ‘kindness’, ‘of generosity’, of ‘selflessness’—is rooted in an amoral history of death and disease; of preservation and proliferation; of survival, base instinct, and competition; of the absence of purpose; of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. Equipped with descriptions of an indifferent natural world, the best we can hope for in morality is scepticism (Pyrrho, Friedrich Nietzsche, J.L. Mackie): i.e. Darwinian nihilism.
Or is there hope to be found elsewhere?