The stories we’ve been told about the role of competition in our evolution have been unnaturally selective. Sound-bite pop science, of the “red in tooth and claw” and “selfish gene” variety, has left out much that is essential to human nature. Anthropologist Christopher Boehm aims to resurrect some of those missing elements in Moral Origins. In his view, cooperation, along with the traits and rules needed to make it work, was as essential to our survival as large brains.
Boehm has spent 40 years studying hunter-gatherers and the behavior of our primate cousins. His book’s explanatory quest started with a 10-year review of all 339 hunter-gatherer cultures ethnographers have described, 150 of which were deemed representative of our ancestors. Fifty of these have so far been coded into a detailed database. Boehm says this deep data set shows that we have been “vigilantly egalitarian for tens of thousands of years.”
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.
Socially enforced rules create powerful new environmental pressures. The lowest-cost strategy to avoid social penalties becomes preemptive self-control. Many evolutionary psychologists commit a grave error when they assume, for example, that our epidemic of obesity is a result of our evolved preference for fatty meat, which is irresistible in an environment of excess. Impulse control has likely long been adaptive, especially in regard to social rules.
This premium on self-control nurtured a capacity to internalize behavioral rules—to feel instinctively that some behaviors are definitively right or wrong. These rules tended to balance immediate selfish gain with longer-term or group interests. The enlightening moral emotions, such as shame and guilt, that implement these constraints created a means to administer a social contract without “policemen, judges, and juries.”
At some point we transitioned from an “apelike ‘might is right,’ fear-based social order to one also based on internalizing rules and worrying about personal reputations.” And conscious, reputation-based social selection for collaborative activities became dominant. If you were known not to cooperate generously, you were less likely to reap group benefits, and less likely to be selected for the massively resource-intensive collaborative venture of raising human offspring. Those who played by the moral rules tended to breed with others who did the same. Boehm describes these directed selection processes as “auto-domestication.”
When one is thinking about human evolution, a common error—which Boehm tends to repeat—is to fixate on genetically influenced behaviors. Much of what humans do is nowhere in our genes. For example, neither you nor I have genes coded specifically for what we are each doing at this precise moment. Writing and reading are marvels of our educability, learned at large cost—unlike spoken language, which is innate and emerges effortlessly.
Boehm’s book contains many important ideas, but its flaws risk reducing their impact. His fresh thinking is mired in a musty, baggage-laden vocabulary. For example, a less loaded term for “morals” would be “social coordination rules.” A better term for “conscience” might simply be “social rule processor,” very similar to our “language rule processor.” We easily absorb and use the rules of both. Because Boehm aims at two not easily compatible audiences, the general reader and the student-practitioner, he goes into too much detail in some places, and in others he assumes too much knowledge on the part of the reader. But those who persevere will be well compensated.
Boehm estimates that our dependence on social rules evolved some 250,000 years ago. That’s 10,000 generations. In comparison, only 15 generations have elapsed since Enlightenment thinkers began promoting the idea that self-interested social coordination rules were politically and economically viable. And it’s been perhaps two generations since those ideas began to prevail over the theory that unfettered egoistic competition is good and natural. Boehm shows that whatever the intellectual fashions are, our nature has long included adaptive constraints to counter the costs of unproductive competition. Models of our nature and social organization that lack these balancing forces ignore inalienable traits that have long served us well.
Scientific descriptions of human nature are particularly susceptible to Rorschach readings. Victorian capitalists and imperialists aggressively promoted the “survival of the fittest” strain in Darwin. (English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, a key popularizer of Darwin, went so far as to describe the merciless natural world a “holocaust . . . in every hedge.”) These ideas came to define what “Darwinian” meant, to the point where Darwin’s less convenient ideas were ignored. But that bitterly pessimistic view has too long held sway. As Charles Darwin himself wrote in The Descent of Man (1871), “Social instincts, which no doubt were acquired by man, as by the lower animals . . . will from the first have given to him some wish to aid his fellows.” Indeed, Darwin goes on to call any man who does not harbor such instincts an “unnatural monster.” Boehm helps us see again that we need not be so monstrously at odds with our social natures.