One of the great joys in life — one without a costly concomitant consequence — is a sudden intellectual insight that broadens fundamentally one’s comprehension of the nature of man and adds a basic premise, tentatively at least, to one’s philosophy. In my intellectual journey, I have had a number of such joys but none has eclipsed that of the epiphany of the discovery of the biological concept of ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny; that is, that the individual of the species repeats the growth of the evolution of its species. Specifically, that the fertilized egg in the womb during the nine months of gestation repeats the stages of evolutionary growth of man; and after birth the growth continues the repetition until the individual reaches the limits of its maturity, said limits differing for each individual.

In considering this concept, it occurred to me not only is there a repetition of the physical growth of the individual but that there is a parallel psychological and moral repetition; that is, the individual repeats the evolutionary psychological and moral growth of the species. I concluded so from introspection, from the observation of the development of others and from reading the philosophical and literary works of many, particularly of Plato, Spinoza, Tolstoy and more recently of Edward O. Wilson, whose book On Human Nature I have just finished and in which I have found corroboration of my speculations on the ontogeny or growth of good and morality.

In his book in the chapter on altruism, Professor Wilson relates the conclusions of a study by Lawrence Kohlberg, an educational psychologist, who “has traced what he believes six sequential stages of ethical reasoning through which each person progresses as part of his normal mental development:

“The child moves from an unquestioning dependence on external rules and controls to an increasingly sophisticated set of internalized standards, as follows: (1) simple obedience to rules and authority to avoid punishment, (2) conformity to group behavior to obtain rewards and exchange favors, (3) good-boy orientation, conformity to avoid dislike and rejection by others, (4) duty orientation, conformity to avoid censure by authority, disruption of order and resulting guilt, (5) legalistic orientation, recognition of the value of contracts, some arbitrariness in rule formation to maintain the common good, (6) conscience or principle orientation, primary allegiance to principles of choice, which can overrule law in cases the law is judged to do more harm than good.”

Professor Wilson with respect to the stages writes: “Depending on the intelligence and training, individuals can stop at any rung on the ladder. Most attain stages four or five. By stage four they are at approximately the level of morality reached by baboon and chimpanzee troops. At stage five, when the ethical reference becomes partly contractual and legalistic, they incorporate the morality on which I believe most of human social evolution has been based. To the extent that this interpretation is correct, the ontogeny of moral development is likely to have been genetically assimilated and is now part of the automatically guided process of mental development.”

That is, man’s moral growth, as well as his intellectual growth, is determined mainly by his genes; and his stages of moral growth run from sociopath to saint. A person’s moral growth can stop at any one of the stages and most stop at stage four or five. Stage six includes those people who are self-directed, principle-oriented, and morally precocious, such as Socrates, Jesus, Saint Francis, Mohandas Gandhi, David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, and other ethical and religious leaders.

Wilson asks the question whether or not culturally evolved ethical values can ever replace genetically evolved values. His answer is that he thinks not. He says that genes hold culture on a leash and that inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effect upon the human gene pool. And he asserts that morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function than to direct human behavior toward keeping the gene pool intact. That is, morality is the creation of nature for the sole purpose of the perpetuation of the species.

If Wilson’s reasoning is right, so what? To me it supports a number of phenomena that I have pondered over the years and more fully explains them; for instance, the phenomenon of religious conversion, the being born again. Nearly, every born-again Christian, particularly after a period of wildness on the wide way, believes that God or Christ has called upon him to repent, to abandon his sinful indulgence in pleasures of the flesh, and to walk the strait way. But it may not be a divine call at all, just the sudden shift from one stage of moral development to another. That being born-again usually is preceded by loose living and that the experience comes often well after one is physically mature, sustain that rebirth is nothing more than the growth of good and the evolution of god, an internalized growth from one moral stage to another.

I have always wondered, aside from the obvious power of the pocketbook on politics, why one is liberal or conservative, radical or reactionary. I have long ago concluded that principled political choice is a reflection of the evolutionary moral stage at which one arrives and stops. I have always thought that conservatives were morally retarded even if sometimes intellectually advanced; and now I can speculate with strong support that they are politically what they are because they have reached only the stage-four rung of the moral ladder and I can with scientific support equate their level of moral evolution to that of troops of baboons and chimpanzees.

Liberals, on the other hand, for the most part fall into stages five and six. Liberals generally are more interested in the common good and welfare and less interested in libertarianism and extreme individualism. They are more egalitarian and less elitist, more spiritual and less physical, more empathetic and less egoistic, than those of stage four. They are further removed from their cousins, the baboons and chimpanzees, than their kin to the right.

The imprisonment for life of juveniles, many of whom are so young that the stage of their moral growth is less than that of a chimpanzee, is morally, economically and socially expedient, if not stupid. A twelve-year-old murderer with a stage three moral development may ten years later have evolved into a person with a stage six moral nature. Suppose St. Augustine, who sowed wild oats with abandon, had killed and spent his life incarcerated. The person he killed would have stayed killed and the world would have been denied the moral leadership of a saint. Vengeance in a nation that calls itself Christian is not only a gross contradiction but it is a catalyst for the causing of more of the very atrocities its purports to reduce.

Conscience is not the voice of some omnipotent entity sitting on a throne in heaven eying everything, even the sparrows. It is the wired wisdom of all the ages centered within the brain, the whole of the experiences of life from the swamps to the suburbs encoded in the DNA, for the sole purpose of perpetuation of the species.

Man is not the image of God but God is the image of man, the image arising from the moral concepts evolved through natural selection from life’s birth to now.

The growth of good and the evolution of God are one and the same and they are the product of nature. One can argue that if nature is the creation of God, then what nature has created is nothing more than a creation of God. However it may be, the evidence is that the God worshiped by man has His Throne in that part of the brain that develops in stages and is recognized as the good in man. His conscience.

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (, and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation ( I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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