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:
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.
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?  


  1. My memory is less than perfect, but seems to me there are some apes or similar primates in which females rule the roost and may also be larger than the males in some types. I remember my father on seeing a couple with a rather diminutive slim husband and a large obese wife, wondering what happened to him when she rolled over in bed.

    More seriously, why should we care if some of our social institutions and behavior resulted from hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and genetic accidents or sprung from the imagination of pre-humans with larger brains thinking about how to control a population whether for their or their subject's benefit? Or if most religions fit this category of being convenient control mechanisms?

    To what extent do what we consider good and evil to be primarily the result of evolution and what are the implications of that for laws and regulations?

  2. Douglas: I am no expert on primatology, but I know of no apes or monkeys where the female is larger than the male or "rules the roost". Among bonobos (closely related to chimpanzees) females discourage male aggression by acting in mass to defend their sons. Sisterhood is powerful. But the females don't exercise alpha-like authority.

    I want to know what the evolutionary origins of our social and political institutions are because I am curious. I think that understanding these things can help us to understand us. It can also correct grave misunderstandings underlying policy. If we think that male aggression is a product of society, we will expect that we can extinguish it by social reform. If we find that it is a product of biology, we may better control it but we will not expect it to go away any time soon.