email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
A Companion to GenethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Cooperative SpeciesA Mind So RareA Natural History of RapeAcquiring GenomesAdapting MindsAgeing, Health and CareAlas, Poor DarwinAn Introduction to Evolutionary EthicsAncient Bodies, Modern LivesAnimal ArchitectsAping MankindAre We Hardwired?Bang!BehavingBeyond EvolutionBeyond GeneticsBlood MattersBody BazaarBoneBrain Evolution and CognitionBrain StormBrave New BrainBrave New WorldsChoosing ChildrenCloneCloningConceptual Issues in Evolutionary BiologyConsciousness EvolvingContemporary Debates in Philosophy of BiologyControlling Our DestiniesCooperation and Its EvolutionCreatures of AccidentDarwin Loves YouDarwin's Brave New WorldDarwin's Gift to Science and ReligionDarwin's UniverseDarwin's WormsDarwinian ConservatismDarwinian PsychiatryDarwinism and its DiscontentsDarwinism as ReligionDebating DesignDecoding DarknessDefenders of the TruthDo We Still Need Doctors?Doubting Darwin?Early WarningEngineering the Human GermlineEnhancing EvolutionEnoughEntwined LivesEthical Issues in Human CloningEthical Issues in the New GeneticsEvil GenesEvolutionEvolutionEvolution and Human BehaviorEvolution and Human BehaviorEvolution and Human Sexual BehaviorEvolution and LearningEvolution and ReligionEvolution and the Human MindEvolution in MindEvolution, Gender, and RapeEvolution: The Modern SynthesisEvolutionary Ethics and Contemporary BiologyEvolutionary Origins of MoralityEvolutionary PsychiatryEvolutionary PsychologyEvolutionary Psychology and ViolenceEvolutionary Psychology as Maladapted PsychologyExploding the Gene MythFaces of Huntington'sFlesh of My FleshFrom Chance to ChoiceFrom Darwin to HitlerGenesGenes in ConflictGenes on the CouchGenes, Environment, and PsychopathologyGenes, Environment, and PsychopathologyGenes, Women, EqualityGenetic Nature/CultureGenetic PoliticsGenetic ProspectsGenetic ProspectsGenetic SecretsGenetics of Criminal and Antisocial BehaviourGenetics of Mental DisordersGenetics of Original SinGenetics of Original SinGenomeGenomeGenome: Updated EditionGenomes and What to Make of ThemGlowing GenesHow Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So StoriesHuman CloningHuman Evolution, Reproduction, and MoralityImproving Nature?In Our Own ImageIn Pursuit of the GeneIn the Name of GodIngenious GenesInheritanceInside the Human GenomeInside the O'BriensIntegrating Evolution and DevelopmentIntelligence, Race, and GeneticsIs Human Nature Obsolete?Language OriginsLess Than HumanLiberal EugenicsLiving with Our GenesMaking Genes, Making WavesMaking Sense of EvolutionMan As The PrayerMean GenesMenMood GenesMoral OriginsMothers and OthersNature Via NurtureNever Let Me GoNot By Genes AloneOf Flies, Mice, and MenOn the Origin of StoriesOrigin of MindOrigins of Human NatureOrigins of PsychopathologyOur Posthuman FuturePhilosophy of BiologyPlaying God?Playing God?Portraits of Huntington'sPrimates and PhilosophersPromiscuityPsychiatric Genetics and GenomicsPsychologyQuality of Life and Human DifferenceRe-creating MedicineRedesigning HumansResearch Advances in Genetics and GenomicsResponsible GeneticsResponsible GeneticsScience, Seeds and CyborgsSex and WarSociological Perspectives on the New GeneticsStrange BedfellowsStrange BehaviorSubjects of the WorldSubordination and DefeatThe Age of EmpathyThe Agile GeneThe Ape and the Sushi MasterThe Biotech CenturyThe Blank SlateThe Book of LifeThe Bridge to HumanityThe Case Against PerfectionThe Case for PerfectionThe Case of the Female OrgasmThe Century of the GeneThe Common ThreadThe Concept of the Gene in Development and EvolutionThe Debated MindThe Double-Edged HelixThe Epidemiology of SchizophreniaThe Ethics of Human CloningThe Evolution of CooperationThe Evolution of MindThe Evolution of MindThe Evolved ApprenticeThe Evolving WorldThe Fact of EvolutionThe Folly of FoolsThe Future of Human NatureThe God GeneThe Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Impact of the GeneThe Innate MindThe Innate MindThe Innate Mind: Volume 3The Limits and Lies of Human Genetic ResearchThe Lives of the BrainThe Maladapted MindThe Meme MachineThe Misunderstood GeneThe Moral, Social, and Commercial Imperatives of Genetic Testing and ScreeningThe Most Dangerous AnimalThe New Genetic MedicineThe Nurture AssumptionThe Origin and Evolution of CulturesThe Origins of FairnessThe Paradoxical PrimateThe Perfect BabyThe Robot's RebellionThe Selfish GeneThe Shape of ThoughtThe Shattered SelfThe Stem Cell ControversyThe Story WithinThe Stuff of LifeThe Talking ApeThe Temperamental ThreadThe Terrible GiftThe Theory of OptionsThe Top 10 Myths About EvolutionThe Triple HelixThe Triumph of SociobiologyThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaTwinsUnderstanding CloningUnderstanding the GenomeUnnatural SelectionUnto OthersUp From DragonsWar Against the WeakWhat Genes Can't DoWhat It Means to Be 98 Percent ChimpanzeeWho Owns YouWhose View of Life?Why Evolution Is TrueWhy Think? WondergenesWrestling with Behavioral GeneticsYour Genetic Destiny
In this fascinating, accessible book, anthropologist Christopher Boehm, Professor at the University of Southern California and author of Hierarchy in the Forest (Harvard University Press, 1999) makes an important contribution to the growing body of scientific literature on the evolution of morality. Attempting to answer one of Darwin's chief problems -- i.e. an account, consistent with natural selection, of how altruistic genes were selected -- Boehm paints a Darwinistic yet historically and ethnographically informed picture of how we became the moral animals we have been for at least 45,000 years, and perhaps five times as many.
Boehm traces back the evolution of our moral psychology to our primate ancestors: we share a hypothetical common "Pan Ancestor" with chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus). Boehm emphasizes that this ancestor must have shared, with both us and other Pan species, "preadaptations" for moral evolution. But he also argues for a marked distinction. Chimpanzees and bonobos are not unequivocally moral as we are. Boehm thus dates the actual birth of morality after the first hominids appeared. His scenario is avowedly hypothetical, but further empirical evidence (archeological, genetic) would bring it further plausibility. He begins by hypothesizing that knowledge of our immediate, culturally modern ancestors can be reasonably inferred from recollected data about contemporary hunter-gatherers--nomadic "Late Pleistocene-appropriate foraging societies", whose societies are in many respects morally analogous to what they must have been in the Late Pleistocene. Boehm's first-hand knowledge of Serbian mountain pastoralists, coupled with anthropological data about the !Kung bushmen and Inuits communities, among others, provide empirical data, as well as picturesque narratives, to support his hypotheses. The scenario involves three major steps.
1) The break from Pan Ancestor occurs as hunting and meat-sharing practices evolve: bigger catches concur with a need for more efficient distribution. In parallel, higher cognitive capacities enhance our abilities for cooperative hunting. Gradually, chimps' "tolerated theft" becomes routinized sharing for early hominids. Since the yield of hunting is likely of great variance, it is in everyone's interest to be sharing one's meat with those who will later be in a position to cooperate, both in hunting and sharing. The unstable availability of resources pushed leading hunters to be more tolerant of sharing, while making everyone suspicious of cheaters--the selfish will reap less benefits in the long run than the sharing-friendly.
2) The strong egalitarian aversion to dominance (expressed at a lower degree in chimps and bonobos) translates into an aversion to thieves, bullies and free-riders (despotic alpha-males in chimpanzees). Cooperation is enforced through repressing selfish and dominant tendencies: the violence of punishment (ostracism, banishment, physical sanctions, death) is gradually redirected toward oneself (in a move strikingly reminiscent of Nietzsche's insights in the Genealogy of Morals in 1887). And social control breeds social selection (modifies gene pools): individuals unable to suppress their impulses are at an obvious genetic disadvantage in terms of survival and reproduction. At the same time, those who are capable of self-control not only remain to pass on their genes, but also are socially favored by being selected as reliable partners, either in hunting or mating. Thus, over generations, surviving individuals have evolved a conscience that turned from self-control based on fear of sanction for rule-breaking into an internalized sense of the rule involving shame.
3) This internalized conscience finally gave rise to altruism in addition to the two more fundamental drives: egoism and nepotism, which kin selection theory reconciles, but which cannot explain distinctive forms of extra-familial generosity. Boehm takes insights from most existing models: kin selection, reciprocal altruism, indirect reciprocity, costly signaling, as well as the controversial, if theoretically tempting notion of group selection. But none of these, he thinks, is sufficient. Generosity does not fit with kin selection (it is directed toward non-kins), and it hardly fits with indirect reciprocity (it frequently really is costly). So he puts to use R. D. Alexander's selection-by-reputation theory. This form of social selection explains both how altruistic genes (in theory more costly to their bearers than free-riding genes) get selected, and how, nonetheless, free-riding genes do not disappear. Tied to sexual selection, it predicts that those with the best reputation in a group will tend to be favored as partners, while those able to hide their free-riding impulses when required will also pass on their genes. Since in egalitarian foraging societies, being seen as a good partner often involves prosocial traits having to do with generosity or trustworthiness, those who best proved not only to have such reputations, but whose reputations were consistently checked as reliable, had the best chances to pass on their genes. The mechanisms that foster such selection are: gossip (for it is likely that misbehaving could be talked about and bad reputation would ensue) and political and parental promotion of prosocial character.
In this evolution our unusually large brains were critical. They allowed for self-awareness (e.g. in shame) and perspective-taking (e.g. in sympathy). Flexibility too: essential during the unpredictable Late Pleistocene, when climate was often changing and limiting resources could get scarce, but also essential in preventing us from being too altruistic in times of need, while being appropriately responsive to the need of others in times of abundance (and when the costs of selfishness were too high). (Otherwise, group selection favors those groups where altruism is promoted, which therefore tend to have more altruists in them. As a result, since altruistic groups are more successful than others, cheaters, though initially advantaged, tend to disappear at the group-level.) Selection by reputation simultaneously explains our ambivalence: an innate tendency to act sympathetically toward non-kins without expecting payback, and a well-preserved selfishness. Finally, our brains allowed us to evolve this sophisticated self-consciousness which supports a reflective sense of shame in contrast to a fear-based sense of rule (e.g. in dogs and chimpanzees).
Two noteworthy objections now. 1. It might be argued that, just as nepotism reduces to egoism under kin selection, selection by reputation might be doing no more than offering a reduction of altruism to selfish concern for one's fitness. The appearance of a disinterested conscience could be just this: an appearance. Our "ambivalence" does in fact question the sincerity of generosity. It might be truly moral in a sense, but then perhaps this tells us that morality is nothing more than a hidden yet socially useful fitness-enhancing mechanism. 2. Boehm's most controversial, if ambiguous, take might be on group selection which is known to be very disputed among evolutionary biologists. He ties moral traits to their effects on the group, which in turn shapes individual traits. However, none of his hypotheses are seems deeply incompatible with individuals being the actual targets of selection. But despite these misgivings, Boehm's book is incredibly rich and far-reaching, enjoyable to read, though it could have been much shorter and less repetitive. It is bound to set an agenda for all research to come and to remain a cornerstone on the subject.
© 2012 Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon is a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Picardie, Amiens, in France. His research is in the area of moral philosophy, especially animal ethics. He also has interests in meta-ethics, the origins of morality, moral psychology, experimental philosophy, and philosophy of biology. Webpage: ndelon.chez.com.