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Moral OriginsReview - Moral Origins
The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame
by Christopher Boehm
Basic Books, 2012
Review by Nicolas Delon
Sep 4th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 36)

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:


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