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Moral Origins

Cover of Moral Origins

Moral Origins

The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame

From the age of Darwin to the present day, biologists have been grappling with the origins of our moral sense. Why, if the human instinct to survive and reproduce is “selfish,” do people engage in self-sacrifice, and even develop ideas like virtue and shame to justify that altruism? Many theories have been put forth, some emphasizing the role of nepotism, others emphasizing the advantages of reciprocation or group selection effects. But evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm finds existing explanations lacking, and in Moral Origins, he offers an elegant new theory.

Tracing the development of altruism and group social control over 6 million years, Boehm argues that our moral sense is a sophisticated defense mechanism that enables individuals to survive and thrive in groups. One of the biggest risks of group living is the possibility of being punished for our misdeeds by those around us. Bullies, thieves, free-riders, and especially psychopaths—those who make it difficult for others to go about their lives—are the most likely to suffer this fate. Getting by requires getting along, and this social type of selection, Boehm shows, singles out altruists for survival. This selection pressure has been unique in shaping human nature, and it bred the first stirrings of conscience in the human species. Ultimately, it led to the fully developed sense of virtue and shame that we know today.

A groundbreaking exploration of the evolution of human generosity and cooperation, Moral Origins offers profound insight into humanity’s moral past—and how it might shape our moral future.

From the age of Darwin to the present day, biologists have been grappling with the origins of our moral sense. Why, if the human instinct to survive and reproduce is “selfish,” do people engage in self-sacrifice, and even develop ideas like virtue and shame to justify that altruism? Many theories have been put forth, some emphasizing the role of nepotism, others emphasizing the advantages of reciprocation or group selection effects. But evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm finds existing explanations lacking, and in Moral Origins, he offers an elegant new theory.

Tracing the development of altruism and group social control over 6 million years, Boehm argues that our moral sense is a sophisticated defense mechanism that enables individuals to survive and thrive in groups. One of the biggest risks of group living is the possibility of being punished for our misdeeds by those around us. Bullies, thieves, free-riders, and especially psychopaths—those who make it difficult for others to go about their lives—are the most likely to suffer this fate. Getting by requires getting along, and this social type of selection, Boehm shows, singles out altruists for survival. This selection pressure has been unique in shaping human nature, and it bred the first stirrings of conscience in the human species. Ultimately, it led to the fully developed sense of virtue and shame that we know today.

A groundbreaking exploration of the evolution of human generosity and cooperation, Moral Origins offers profound insight into humanity’s moral past—and how it might shape our moral future.

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About the Author-
  • Christopher Boehm is Director of the Jane Goodall Research Center and Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Boehm's work has been featured in such publications as New Scientist, the New York Times, The Times (London), Natural History, Science News, and in films for National Geographic, Wild Kingdom, and the Discovery Channel. He has lectured widely to groups as diverse as the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, the Chicago Academy of Sciences, the Sante Fe Institute, the Los Angeles and Cincinnati Zoos, and the Naval War College. Boehm is the author of many scientific articles and several previous books, including Hierarchy in the Forest (Harvard). He divides his time between Los Angeles and Santa Fe.

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  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from February 20, 2012
    The evolutionary origins of morals in humans has been a concern of scientists since Darwin. As Boehm, director of the Jane Goodall Research Center and professor of anthropology and biology at the University of Southern California, points out in his engrossing work, the issue is far from settled. Boehm does a remarkable job of extending previous work and incorporating a historical approach. He deftly combines studies of earlier hominids with ethological work on primates and ethnographic analyses of contemporary human hunter-gatherer groups to offer a new explanation for moral behavior. Boehm argues that social selection, or “intense social control” in prehistoric humans worked so well because “intense social control” meant “that individuals who were better at inhibiting their own antisocial tendencies, either through fear of punishment or through absorbing and identifying with their group’s rules, gained superior fitness.” His thesis, clearly articulated and well supported by available data, encompasses the egalitarian nature of most hunter-gatherer groups, their need to share large but rarely killed prey, and the human penchant for gossiping about the reputation of others. Social control explains how both dominance and free-loading behavior will be less favored than altruism. Boehm himself notes that this may not be the last word, but his ideas are provocative, thoughtful, and worth considering. Agent: Deirdre Mullane, Mullane Literary Associates.

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Moral Origins
Moral Origins
The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame
Christopher Boehm
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