Seriously Tough Love: Morality the Hard Way

Cover art for MORAL ORIGINS

My post yesterday on morality and evolution drew a useful heads-up from the writer and entrepreneur Jag Bhalla: a review he wrote for The Wilson Quarterly of a recent book on the same subject, evolutionary biologist Christopher Boehm’s Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. This book, published last month, slipped under my radar. It looks like a valuable add to the debate over the evolutionary and cultural origins of altruism and pro-social behavior, and particularly welcome as a bit of coherent signal amid all the recent and rather tired spat between E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins.

One thing that sounds promising is that Boehm appears to draw smartly on a line of evidence that too often gets a hand-waving treatment: The actual behavior of hunter-gatherer societies. Before we went all agricultural 10,000 years or so ago, we humans spent about 20 times that long as hunter-gatherers. It stands to figure that our behavior and sense of morality during that period probably has much to say about what we’re capable of, if not what we’re actually up to lately. And according to Bhalla’s review, hunter-gathering societies, as reflected by the handful around today, are perfectly capable of enforcing a high level of prosocial and altruistic behavior — and in ways that go beyond the sort of selfish-gene math that too often dominates discussion of the issue:

The dominant view of human evolution against which Boehm deploys his arguments and data is well summarized in evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s hugely influential 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins famously warned that “if you wish . . . to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.” In nature, he declared, there is “no welfare state.” Indeed, he wrote, “any altruistic system is inherently unstable, because it is open to abuse by selfish individuals, ready to exploit it.” These ideas, aided by others’ similar claims, became barrier beliefs, preventing further analysis for decades.

Boehm’s story begins when the survival of our ancestors became a team sport. About 250,000 years ago, collaborative hunting of big game became more successful than solo hunting. Teams that chased the game toward hunters could be much more productive—but only if the profits were sustainably shared. A further complication arose in harsh environments where success depended on luck as well as skill. Both problems were solved, then as now, by the logic of shared profits and risks. Even the best hunters, when unlucky, benefited from rules that required meat sharing. Solving this collective carnivores’ dilemma radically changed the rules of our evolutionary game. Those who were skilled at cooperating fared better, as did those with the fittest sharing rules. Our ancestors, Boehm writes, went through a “major political transition,” developing from “a species that lived hierarchically” into one that was “devoutly egalitarian.”

Dawkins argued that the benefits enjoyed by selfish exploiters, or free riders, are a key constraint on the viability of generous cooperation. Though he was right about that, he was deeply wrong in being so pessimistic about evolution’s ability to overcome such hurdles. Boehm marshals extensive evidence showing how hunter-gatherers use rigidly enforced social rules to suppress free riding today, providing a model for how our ancestors could have cooperated in a natural “welfare state” that was crucial to their survival.

A key new insight Boehm provides is that humans are both able and inclined to “punish resented alpha-male behavior”—for example, when powerful individuals hog more than their fair share of meat. He illustrates this phenomenon with examples from present-day hunter-gatherer societies, in which social rules are used to prevent excessive egoism, nepotism, and cronyism. For example, meat is never distributed by the hunter who made the kill, but by another stakeholder. Rules of this kind are socially enforced by means of “counterdominant coalitions” and techniques such as ridicule, shaming, shunning, ostracism, and, ultimately, the death penalty. (Typically, the task of execution is delegated to a kinsman of the condemned to prevent escalating revenge by other relatives.) The result is a sort of inverted eugenics: the elimination of the strongest, if they abuse their power. Astonishingly, such solutions aren’t rare; rather, they’re nearly universal. Our ancestors likely unburdened themselves of the “Darwinian” overhead costs of Hobbes’s “war of all against all.” Lincoln’s principle of government “of the people, by the people, for the people” ran deeper than he knew.

This suggests something quite important: The power of culture to override the sort of math Dawkins tends to revert to, and to serve as a sort of evolutionary force itself.

Do take in the whole thing at WQ. And if you wish, discuss — prosocially, or course — in the comments.

via The Wilson Quarterly: Book Reviews: Noble Savages by Jag Bhalla.  Jag, btw, keeps a smart and mischievous blog at “I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears,” has a book of the same title; and is an ace Twitter follow.

One response

  1. Given the “inclination to punish alpha male behavior”, why, in the agrarian societies that supplanted hunter-gatherers, was this egalitarian nature seemingly cast aside for a rigid hierarchy in society after society? Is it possible that a hierarchical, unequal society is more fit for a large and complex society than a truly egalitarian one? Are our desires to ensure no one is left to starve still valid from a cultural evolutionary standpoint today, when losing the contribution of an individual to death or illness is of almost no consequence to society as a whole (I imagine the situation being quite different to an early hunter-gatherer society)?

    I don’t agree with Dawkins that nature necessarily precludes altruism as a survival advantage, but while I agree with Boehm that humans seem to be able and inclined to punish ‘alpha male behavior’, modern society seems to progress very well in terms of survival and proliferation by functioning as a very hierarchical machine where some cogs on the bottom are all but expendable, lending credence to Dawkins’ view that nature really doesn’t give a shit about our altruistic intentions. The give and take between ruthless efficiency and protecting the weak is a good thing to have…but from a pure evolutionary survival standpoint, is it still necessary?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *