The Evolution of Conscience
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The evolution of morality has been an important subject of research at least since Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859, and is a particularly lively area today. This workshop is meant to explore how the concept of the conscience and its implications might enrich our exploration of the development of morality.

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Workshop participants. (Click photo to download high resolution image.)

It was in The Descent of Man (1871) that Darwin first discussed the conscience, viewing it as a kind of moral compass, a self-judging ‘inner voice’ that appeared to be distinctively human. His treatment of the conscience might be seen by some as particularly provocative for it involved an evolutionary perspective on matters very close to the heart—or should we say, the soul—of what it is to be human. The moral sense and conscience were, perhaps for the first time, explicitly seen as just as much the product of natural selection as our large brains, upright posture, capacity for culture, and for that matter any other physical trait. In a passage concerned with instincts of ‘sympathy’ Darwin wrote:

Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.
View of a Skull, c. 1489, da Vinci

Socially the conscience was at minimum an inner voice that kept us from getting in trouble with our fellows. But of course it could be a source of social control or personal manipulation as well, in that people around the world are taught what is right from an early age, and in that we can generally choose how we act on the assumption that our fellow humans will also have a conscience. Darwin’s evidence for a conscience being in some manner innate and pan-human came through painstaking efforts to learn, such as by writing to English colonials throughout the world for their observations on local inhabitants, that all people had virtually the same blushing response to the experience of shame.

Whether our consciences referred to some kind of objective right and wrong, beyond an immediate local group’s response to a social situation, is another matter, although all human groups choose to promote certain aspects of social behavior, such as generosity and cooperation, and to suppress others like incest, undue self-aggrandizement, cheating, and theft. More basic universals include our ability to make distinctions between right and wrong, and between what is honorable versus shameful. Insofar as shame is found in every known culture, the human conscience and its functions would appear to be well-prepared genetically, a conclusion now supported by brain imaging studies that locate conscience functions in the prefrontal cortex and the paralimbic system. It is thus no surprise, either, that all the world’s major religions work with the consciences of individuals in promoting prosocial behaviors, as do bands of hunter-gatherers whose religious systems seem, in comparison, more rudimentary and informal.


While Darwin recognized that a comprehensive theory of evolution by natural selection or any other means would have to find a way of accounting for the evolution of morality and our inner guide to it, the conscience, he did not get much further than what is expressed in the quote above—its intimate connection with the affections and social sympathies, and an unspecified but substantial level of intelligence. Beyond this he was largely stumped. But some 140 years later, we have at hand a vastly greater store of relevant data from fields such as primatology, paleoanthropology, cultural anthropology, psychology, and the cognitive sciences, fields which barely existed when Darwin struggled with his important questions.

It is perhaps a little surprising, given the significance of the questions Darwin raised, that very little work has been done on the evolution of the conscience since that time. In spite of its obvious importance for social control, particularly in our large, anonymous, urban societies, the conscience is seldom a direct object of investigation by humanists or scientists, let alone a subject of mutual discourse. In fact, aside from studies by developmental psychologists of conscience acquisition in children and anthropological studies of shame and guilt, the conscience has been largely taken for granted in studies of human consciousness and morals. Or else ignored altogether.

This workshop is meant as a first step in redressing that lacuna. A group of leading scholars from these sciences, along with scholars of history, theology, and philosophy with expertise in evolution and morality, will gather to revisit the question of what the conscience is, how and why it evolved, and in what ways such research can contribute to the ongoing discussions on the structure of and future possibilities for human communities, the evolution of morality, and the origins and nature of the virtues.

This worskshop explores the functions and origins of conscience in a comprehensive context that is intended to promote interdisciplinary discussion. We will explore the nature of conscience and its place in scientific and humanistic studies in a context which promotes an unusual level of discourse among scholars from these two different worlds of thought. It will enable a diverse array of scholars to develop their own perspectives on conscience evolution, and also to discuss these contributions with the benefit of an integrating evolutionary context. Our hope is that it will inspire much further research in this area.

The papers and discussions will cover a range of questions, including the following:

What is the conscience and how has it been defined throughout history and in theology, philosophy and relevant sciences? Are theological definitions of conscience, on the one hand, or folk definitions on the other, useful to scientists or does this area of potential future research require specialized definitions?
Can the conscience be studied as a special type of consciousness?
Can future cross-cultural research decide whether guilt or shame is a more basic moral emotion?