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Austin Cline

Evolutionary Origins of Morality

By January 24, 2013

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Our oldest primate ancestors probably maintained social order the same way that most primates today maintain social order: through force exercised by dominant males. Today, human groups usually maintain social order through more peaceful, social means. How did we change?

Orangutan in the Trees
Orangutan in the Trees
Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty

This is a difficult question to answer. Even physical evolution raises a lot of difficult questions to answer and that at least leaves behind physical evidence that can be studied. Behavioral and social evolution, in contrast, doesn't leave behind that sort of evidence and so can't be studied so well.

Instead, we end up with a lot of conjecture.

Kate Douglas writes about Christopher Boehm's book Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame:

He argues that our ancestors were "preadapted" for morality. Like today's chimps and bonobos, they had a sense of self and of fairness, a tendency for young to learn appropriate behaviour from their mothers, and the potential for collective action, giving subordinates some power over dominant individuals.

The first step was to develop a conscience, or what Boehm describes as a "Machiavellian risk calculator". At first, this controlled selfish urges through fear of punishment, but morality began to emerge when our ancestors learned to internalise their society's social rules, connecting them with emotions such as shame and honour.

Finally, he says, altruistic genes got a boost as societies came to value generosity and punish selfishness. Our egotistic and nepotistic tendencies still far outweigh the altruistic ones, but by social selection we have unwittingly made our own gene pool more virtuous.

In trying to work out when and why these shifts occurred, Boehm dissects a large body of experimental and theoretical work on morality. However, his most original and important insights come from his own study of 150 modern hunter-gatherer societies, including the Netsilik and !Kung.

He points out, for example, that all these groups are egalitarian and share big game equitably - suggesting that intensive hunting, which began around 250,000 years ago, may have been the force that spurred our nascent penchant for fairness.

His research into these societies also provides the intriguing insight that bullies, not cheats as theorists have assumed, are the biggest threat to cooperative communities. Their widespread use of ostracism and capital punishment against such deviants supports Boehm's contention that our preference for generous team players has made humanity more moral.

Source: New Scientist, May 5, 2012

Conservative Christians object to this sort of research because it conflicts with their mythology and religion. Usually, it's just the idea that human behavior or morality has evolved at all which they object to. In this case, though, they would also object to the idea that bullies are a worse threat to a community than "free riders."

The extent to which conservative Christianity has become wedded to extreme capitalism is part of the reason. I wonder, though, if the extent to which conservative Christianity has become an ideology for bullies plays a role as well.

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