Human minds aspired to morality before human bodies could act morally, suggesting that our minds unwittingly predict the future of morality.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

It was a bawdy planet for hundreds of millions of years; the whole of it reeked of sex without a whiff of morals in the air.

Then, rather late in the day, a mere several thousand years ago, humans began offering moral codes recommending ‘licit’ sexual expression. But humans found it difficult to live up to those sexual codes. It was as if hundreds of millions of years in the evolution of animal sexual attraction and the biological urge to propagate could not be easily blunted by behavioral norms that arrived only ‘yesterday.’

There was an evolutionary mismatch between the human multimillion-year-old amoral self and a newly evolving moral self. Here’s how the mismatch operated vis-à-vis sex: Humans devised moral sexual dicta that humans could not easily perform. Human sexual moral rules outstripped human evolutionary capabilities. 

I call this phenomenon evolutionary drag, by which I mean there was an evolutionary residue that impeded human ability to perform moral rules of all kinds.

But note that ancient human minds aspired to be sexually principled, even though ancient human bodies could not make good on the rules. Here’s a big question: Why did human mental life get ahead of human bodily life in this way? Human minds desired sexual rectitude but human bodies limped and straggled along, finding the laws difficult to follow.

Should we say the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak? Should we say ancient humans aimed their bows a mile beyond the moon only to see their arrows fall in a nearby field?

Human aspiration exceeded human ability when it came to sex—at first, and for a long time. Here’s the big question one more time: Why did human mental life get out ahead of human bodily life in this way? 

Here’s a highly speculative and optimistic theory:

It would seem that humans evolved with a curious apparatus wherein human minds—human brains—anticipated a distant future when human bodies could follow the moral judgments of the mind. Humans came up with rules of sexual morality but were only able to easily obey those rules after thousands of years. 

If this is the case—that human minds intuited a future that was nonexistent and impracticable at the moment of initial moral ideation—can some part of human ideation be viewed as vaticination, as a prophecy of things to come for humanity? The fact that humans can even ponder a thing called ‘the future’ and imagine enhanced moral behavior in that future seems remarkable. And hopeful. 

I’m hopeful enough to think we are at the beginning of the human story and nowhere near its end. What if our very minds—replete with anticipation of an increasingly moral, far distant future—provide clues for a lengthy human tenure on earth? What if our good thoughts are adumbrations of good deeds to come?

Sexual rectitude became easier after a few thousand years of sexual morality. Time, and lots of it, was crucial in the development of our moral sense. Maybe a hundred thousand more years of evolution (or a million years) will empower humanity to immediately align human bodily capabilities with human moral sensibilities in all areas of moral performance. No more mismatch between an archaic human self and a present human self. No more evolutionary drag. Morality of all stripes will be easier to perform in that far distant future. And oh, what a brave new world that will be.

(This is obviously for the optimistic and utopic among us, not the pessimistic and dystopic!)

J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religion since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and the LA Times, Huffington...