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, Christopher 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, Christopher 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.


Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior

Are humans by nature hierarchical or egalitarian? Hierarchy in the Forest addresses this question by examining the evolutionary origins of social and political behavior. Christopher Boehm, an anthropologist whose fieldwork has focused on the political arrangements of human and nonhuman primate groups, postulates that egalitarianism is in effect a hierarchy in which the weak combine forces to dominate the strong.

The political flexibility of our species is formidable: We can be quite egalitarian, we can be quite despotic. Hierarchy in the Forest traces the roots of these contradictory traits in chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla, and early human societies. Christopher looks at the loose group structures of hunter-gatherers, then at tribal segmentation, and finally at present-day governments to see how these conflicting tendencies are reflected.

Hierarchy in the Forest claims new territory for biological anthropology and evolutionary biology by extending the domain of these sciences into a crucial aspect of human political and social behavior. This book will be a key document in the study of the evolutionary basis of genuine altruism.