Boehm seeks to trace the origins of morality in the human species back to the very beginning. He begins by identifying traits shared by chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans (and going back further, by gorillas) under the assumption that these species probably inherited such shared traits from a common ancestor.He goes on to employ findings from archeological research and from ethnographic accounts of contemporary hunters and gatherers to draw inferences about culturally-universal aspects of the social behavior of early humans who lived in the late Pleistocene era, about 45,000 years ago.Then, moving to an explanatory level of analysis, Boehm uses evolutionary theory to develop “working hypotheses” that account for the differences between archaic humans and humans who lived in the Pleistocene era. Finally, Boehm notes differences between the social behaviors of modern humans and the social behaviors of hunters and gatherers, and offers a brief explanation for these differences.
Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Boehm's Moral Origins
There is a fine review of Christopher Boehm’s recent book at the Evolutionary Psychology site. The book is Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. The review is by Dennis L. Krebs and Kaleda K. Denton.
I have the heavy version on the book on my desk. It is third on my reading list right now. To judge by the review, it will be a very interesting read. Here is the reviewers’ synopsis:
I am not sure about that “very beginning” language, but the general strategy seems right. Why do I and my brother have hands? Because our father had hands. Why do I and a chimpanzee share a capacity to be socialized by the group we are raised in? Because a common ancestor of both of us had trait. Why did I “pair-bond”, i.e., marry for life, whereas chimpanzees do not? Because at some point human and chimpanzee evolution diverged. Figuring out how and why that divergence occurred goes a long way toward explaining the evolution of morality.
Boehm’s most important argument, which he has been elaborating for some time, is described by Krebs and Denton in these terms:
Central in Boehm’s analysis is the inference that the social order of archaic human groups was hierarchical, dominated by Alpha males. Dominant members of groups are relatively well equipped to induce subordinate members to obey the rules, but this method of social control inevitably gives rise to a significant social problem, namely, how to induce the dominant members of groups to resist the temptation to bully subordinate members of the group and to hog all the resources for themselves.
Boehm suggests that in response to this problem, mechanisms evolved in subordinate members of groups to constrain the domineering behavior of Alpha males. Power comes from numbers. As in living primate groups, subordinate members of archaic human groups formed coalitions that enabled them to gang up on Alpha males to reduce their power and access to resources.
In other words, human evolution produced two traits that are at odds. One was the dominance and submission schema that is familiar to anyone who is the least bit familiar with chimpanzees. Alpha males dominate the group, which makes for political order but allows the dominant individual to take unfair advantage and bully pretty much everyone. The other is the tendency of the subordinate members to resist that domination.
Boehm believes that early human communities were largely egalitarian because the group resistance to the power of dominant individuals was sufficient to limit that power. That is a plausible and very interesting thesis. Whether it is true or not, remains to be seen. It certainly gives a lot of material for any Biopolitical theory to work on. To state the obvious, limited government appears as a highly refined expression of the politics that played out in the simplest human communities. That is worth chewing on.
ps. Doesn't Boehm look smashing under that hat?