A new book was just published and I'm putting it in my reading queue, possibly bumping down a few others. The reason why I'm enthusiastic about this new book on the evolution of morality is this review: Noble Savages, by Jag Bhalla. The book in question is Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame; I will post a review when I'm done. Basically, the author, Christopher Boehm, a professor of anthropology at Harvard, argues that our moral sense is a sophisticated defense mechanism that enables individuals to survive and thrive in groups. This is not new, in the sense that by now it seems pretty clear that our moral sense derives from being a highly social species. He argues that individuals who are difficult to get along with (psychopaths, abusers, free-loaders, thieves, etc.) got punished by exclusion from the group and that selected against the behavior. In that context, especially explored within hunter-gatherer societies, actually positive selects for altruistic behavior because everyone likes altruists and helpful people.
Excerpt from the review:
The stories we’ve been told about the role of competition in our evolution have been unnaturally selective. Sound-bite pop science, of the “red in tooth and claw” and “selfish gene” variety, has left out much that is essential to human nature. Anthropologist Christopher Boehm aims to resurrect some of those missing elements in Moral Origins. In his view, cooperation, along with the traits and rules needed to make it work, was as essential to our survival as large brains.Boehm has spent 40 years studying hunter-gatherers and the behavior of our primate cousins. His book’s explanatory quest started with a 10-year review of all 339 hunter-gatherer cultures ethnographers have described, 150 of which were deemed representative of our ancestors. Fifty of these have so far been coded into a detailed database. Boehm says this deep data set shows that we have been “vigilantly egalitarian for tens of thousands of years.”The dominant view of human evolution against which Boehm deploys his arguments and data is well summarized in evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s hugely influential 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins famously warned that “if you wish . . . to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.” In nature, he declared, there is “no welfare state.” Indeed, he wrote, “any altruistic system is inherently unstable, because it is open to abuse by selfish individuals, ready to exploit it.” These ideas, aided by others’ similar claims, became barrier beliefs, preventing further analysis for decades.Boehm’s story begins when the survival of our ancestors became a team sport. About 250,000 years ago, collaborative hunting of big game became more successful than solo hunting. Teams that chased the game toward hunters could be much more productive—but only if the profits were sustainably shared. A further complication arose in harsh environments where success depended on luck as well as skill. Both problems were solved, then as now, by the logic of shared profits and risks. Even the best hunters, when unlucky, benefited from rules that required meat sharing. Solving this collective carnivores’ dilemma radically changed the rules of our evolutionary game. Those who were skilled at cooperating fared better, as did those with the fittest sharing rules. Our ancestors, Boehm writes, went through a “major political transition,” developing from “a species that lived hierarchically” into one that was “devoutly egalitarian.”Dawkins argued that the benefits enjoyed by selfish exploiters, or free riders, are a key constraint on the viability of generous cooperation. Though he was right about that, he was deeply wrong in being so pessimistic about evolution’s ability to overcome such hurdles. Boehm marshals extensive evidence showing how hunter-gatherers use rigidly enforced social rules to suppress free riding today, providing a model for how our ancestors could have cooperated in a natural “welfare state” that was crucial to their survival.A key new insight Boehm provides is that humans are both able and inclined to “punish resented alpha-male behavior”—for example, when powerful individuals hog more than their fair share of meat. He illustrates this phenomenon with examples from present-day hunter-gatherer societies, in which social rules are used to prevent excessive egoism, nepotism, and cronyism. For example, meat is never distributed by the hunter who made the kill, but by another stakeholder. Rules of this kind are socially enforced by means of “counterdominant coalitions” and techniques such as ridicule, shaming, shunning, ostracism, and, ultimately, the death penalty. (Typically, the task of execution is delegated to a kinsman of the condemned to prevent escalating revenge by other relatives.) The result is a sort of inverted eugenics: the elimination of the strongest, if they abuse their power. Astonishingly, such solutions aren’t rare; rather, they’re nearly universal. Our ancestors likely unburdened themselves of the “Darwinian” overhead costs of Hobbes’s “war of all against all.” Lincoln’s principle of government “of the people, by the people, for the people” ran deeper than he knew.
By the way, I think it's time to let go of Dawkins' outdated vision of "The Selfish Gene": each species faces different selective pressures and in our species, the pressures we faced were best dealt with as a group, hence, it is no surprise that altruists and good team players were rewarded with passing on more genes, and we ended up being empathic and altruistic, generous and helpful, by nature, and not against nature.
And I think the 1% should stop paying attention to this: whoever hogs more than their fair share, will not do well in the end in human societies. It's in our nature.
The one percent should pay attention to this - no one likes a person who hogs most of the profit from a hunt.