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

How Humans Became Moral Beings

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

According to your theory, how did the human conscience evolve?

People started hunting large ungulates, or hoofed mammals. They were very dedicated to hunting, and it was an important part of their subsistence. But my theory is that you cannot have alpha males if you are going to have a hunting team that shares the meat fairly evenhandedly, so that the entire team stays nourished. In order to get meat divided within a band of people who are by nature pretty hierarchical, you have to basically stomp on hierarchy and get it out of the way. I think that is the process.

My hypothesis is that when they started large game hunting, they had to start really punishing alpha males and holding them down. That set up a selection pressure in the sense that, if you couldn’t control your alpha tendencies, you were going to get killed or run out of the group, which was about the same as getting killed. Therefore, self-control became an important feature for individuals who were reproductively successful. And self-control translates into conscience.

Over how long of a period did it take to evolve?

Well, Edward O. Wilson says that it takes a thousand generations for a new evolutionary feature to evolve. In humans, that would come to 25,000 years. Something as complicated as a conscience probably took longer than that. It has some bells and whistles that are total mysteries, such as blushing with shame. No one has the slightest idea how that evolved. But I would say a few thousand generations, and perhaps between 25,000 and 75,000 years.

In what ways is morality continuing to evolve?

It is very hard to make a statement about that. I’ll make a few guesses. Prehistorically, psychopaths were probably easy to identify and were dealt with, as they had to be dealt with, by killing them. And, today, it would appear that in a large anonymous society many psychopaths really have free rein and are free to reproduce. We may need to take further moral steps at the level of culture to deal with an increase of psychopathy in our populations. But this would be over thousands of years.

Morality certainly evolves at the cultural level. For example, the American media in the last year have suddenly become very, very interested in bullies—so have school officials. Our social control is now focused much more than it ever was on bullying. It has been a major topic with hunter-gatherers. So, in a sense, you could say our moral evolution at the cultural level has rather suddenly moved back to an ancient topic.

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