How Humans Became Moral Beings

In a new book, anthropologist Christopher Boehm traces the steps our species went through to attain a conscience

In his new book, Moral Origins, evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm speculates that human morality emerged along with big game hunting. (Basic Books; Jenny Cool)

Why do people show kindness to others, even those outside their families, when they do not stand to benefit from it? Being generous without that generosity being reciprocated does not advance the basic evolutionary drive to survive and reproduce.

Christopher Boehm, an evolutionary anthropologist, is the director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at the University of Southern California. For 40 years, he has observed primates and studied different human cultures to understand social and moral behavior. In his new book, Moral Origins, Boehm speculates that human morality emerged along with big game hunting. When hunter-gatherers formed groups, he explains, survival essentially boiled down to one key tenet—cooperate, or die.

First of all, how do you define altruism?

Basically, altruism involves generosity outside of the family, meaning generosity toward non-kinsmen.

Why is altruism so difficult to explain in evolutionary terms?

A typical hunter-gatherer band of the type that was universal in the world 15,000 years ago has a few brothers or sisters, but almost everyone else is unrelated. The fact that they do so much sharing is a paradox genetically. Here are all these unrelated people who are sharing without being bean counters. You would expect those who are best at cheating, and taking but not giving, to be coming out ahead. Their genes should be on the rise while altruistic genes would be going away. But, in fact, we are evolved to share quite widely in bands.

What did Charles Darwin say about this “altruism paradox?”

Charles Darwin was profoundly perplexed by the fact that young men voluntarily go off to war and die for their groups. This obviously didn’t fit with his general idea of natural selection as being individuals pursuing their self-interests.

He came up with group selection as an answer to this paradox. The way it worked, if one group has more altruists than another, it is going to outcompete the other group and outreproduce it. The groups with fewer altruists would have fewer survivors. Therefore, altruism would spread at the expense of selfishness.

The problem with group selection has been that it is very hard to see how it could become strong enough to trump selection between individuals. You need an awful lot of warfare and genocide to really make group selection work.


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