In his new book, Moral Origins, Boehm speculates that human morality emerged along with big game hunting. When hunter-gatherers formed groups, he explains, survival essentially boiled down to one key tenet—cooperate, or die.
Why is altruism so difficult to explain in evolutionary terms?
A typical hunter-gatherer band of the type that was universal in the world 15,000 years ago has a few brothers or sisters, but almost everyone else is unrelated. The fact that they do so much sharing is a paradox genetically. Here are all these unrelated people who are sharing without being bean counters. You would expect those who are best at cheating, and taking but not giving, to be coming out ahead. Their genes should be on the rise while altruistic genes would be going away. But, in fact, we are evolved to share quite widely in bands.
What did Charles Darwin say about this “altruism paradox?”
Charles Darwin was profoundly perplexed by the fact that young men voluntarily go off to war and die for their groups. This obviously didn’t fit with his general idea of natural selection as being individuals pursuing their self-interests.
He came up with group selection as an answer to this paradox. The way it worked, if one group has more altruists than another, it is going to outcompete the other group and outreproduce it. The groups with fewer altruists would have fewer survivors. Therefore, altruism would spread at the expense of selfishness.
The problem with group selection has been that it is very hard to see how it could become strong enough to trump selection between individuals. You need an awful lot of warfare and genocide to really make group selection work.
According to your theory, how did the human conscience evolve?
People started hunting large ungulates, or hoofed mammals. They were very dedicated to hunting, and it was an important part of their subsistence. But my theory is that you cannot have alpha males if you are going to have a hunting team that shares the meat fairly evenhandedly, so that the entire team stays nourished. In order to get meat divided within a band of people who are by nature pretty hierarchical, you have to basically stomp on hierarchy and get it out of the way. I think that is the process.
My hypothesis is that when they started large game hunting, they had to start really punishing alpha males and holding them down. That set up a selection pressure in the sense that, if you couldn’t control your alpha tendencies, you were going to get killed or run out of the group, which was about the same as getting killed. Therefore, self-control became an important feature for individuals who were reproductively successful. And self-control translates into conscience.
In what ways is morality continuing to evolve?
It is very hard to make a statement about that. I’ll make a few guesses. Prehistorically, psychopaths were probably easy to identify and were dealt with, as they had to be dealt with, by killing them. And, today, it would appear that in a large anonymous society many psychopaths really have free rein and are free to reproduce. We may need to take further moral steps at the level of culture to deal with an increase of psychopathy in our populations. But this would be over thousands of years.
Morality certainly evolves at the cultural level. For example, the American media in the last year have suddenly become very, very interested in bullies—so have school officials. Our social control is now focused much more than it ever was on bullying. It has been a major topic with hunter-gatherers. So, in a sense, you could say our moral evolution at the cultural level has rather suddenly moved back to an ancient topic.
Still curious? Check out Moral Origins.