Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame

Christopher Boehm

My review 2019-05-19

Interesting attempt at formulating a plausible scenario for the emergence of morality in Homo sapiens. The starting point is the propensity in chimpanzees for the collective in a flock to react and take action against an overbearing and severely abusive alpha male. The author argues that this propensity must have been present in the common ancestor to humans and chimpanzee. Add to this the egalitarian trends that followed (or preceded?) ancient humans developing a hunting strategy for larger prey. Such prey could be brought down only through collaboration, and the meat had to be divided in reasonably equal shares, or the group would not be able to maintain this strategy. An important step was the development of a conscience and of shame, which the author hypothesizes was the evolutionary result of the group's aversion to alpha-male bullying and free-riding. Being thrown out of the group, or killed outright, because the rest of the group got fed up with them, was a risk that put a severe selection pressure on strong and successful individuals to rein in their egoistical impulses. By anticipating and internalizing the judgement of the group, such individuals could pass on their genes. Altruism, primarily with the immediate next-of-kin but also with the rest of the group, would bestow a reputational benefit on individuals, thus enhancing their chance of passing on their genes. This argument depends on reputation being communicated, so language is required. This text does not discuss how language evolved, so there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here. Did language evolve for this kind of communication (gossip), or, as Mercier and Sperber suggest, as a means of justifying an individuals actions? Possibly both, but reasonable scenarios remain to be provided.