Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism & Shame

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The Mbuti Pygmy tribes live in the dense forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC is an African country the size of Europe minus Scandiavia. The DRC also houses the 2nd largest rain forest in the world. The Mbuti are skilled hunters. Like all foraging nomadic tribes, Mbuti survival depends on the success of group hunts. Each hunter hands his kill over to the tribe and the food is distributed to everyone.

Cephu steals from his tribe

Boehm recounts a story in which Cephu, one of the Mbuti tribesmen, 'cheats' during a hunt. Cephu tries to take more food for himself than is his due. After the hunt, an adult male named Kenge addresses the group.
“Cephu is an impotent old fool. No, he isn’t, he is an impotent old animal – we have treated him like a man for long enough, now we should treat him like an animal. Animal!”
When confronted in front of the whole tribe, Cephu bursts into tears. Then, Cephu attempts to defend his actions. During his defence, Cephu makes a grave mistake. ‘...after all,' Cephu retorts, 'am I not an important man, a chief, in fact, of my own band?’
Start Quote This is an unforgivable statement within hunter-gatherer societies. Such groups are militantly egalitarian: no man is allowed to be of higher standing than his fellows. Cephu quickly realises the extent of his mistake and apologises profusely. He then offers to give his food back to the tribe. End Quote

The whole tribe ridicules Cephu

Colin Turnbull, who recounts this story in Boehm's book, describes what happened next.
‘…accompanied by most of the group [Cephu] returned to his little camp and brusquely ordered his wife to hand over the spoils. She had little chance to refuse, as hands were already reaching into her basket and under the leaves of the roof where she had hidden some liver in anticipation of just such a contingency.' '…Cephu tried hard to cry, but this time it was forced and everyone laughed at him. He clutched his stomach and said he would die; die because he was hungry and his brothers had taken away all his food; die because he was not respected.’ 1

Kindness does not fit well with the theory of evolution

During the latter part of the 20th century, evolutionary theorists began to hold the view that animals only act in their own self-interest. Animals may appear to perform acts of kindness. However, this was believed to be façade. The underlying reasons for such altruism were always considered to be selfish. It was therefore believed that even humans only act in their own self-interest. But to many of us, this kind of logic seems intuitively incorrect. If humans are all selfish, then why do people donate blood? Or why do people give money to the homeless? Is this all done for some inherently selfish reason?

Why did biologists believe that humans can only act selfishly?

The theoretical problem with altruism (acts of true kindness) is as follows. It has traditionally been proposed that:
  • If a group of people all help each other, everyone benefits.
  • However, if one person chooses to take more for herself, then she will have a survival advantage over others in the group. This is because she will gain more food, or resources, than people who are committed to sharing. Her offspring will then inherit her selfish genes. As a result, throughout the generations, her offspring will continue to act selfishly. They will therefore be more likely to survive and multiply than those who share.
  • So, eventually, selfish people will survive better than altruists and the altruistic gene will gradually fade away.

Humans have evolved 'kindness' genes

A number of authors have opposed this line of thought. One such author is Christopher Boehm. Boehm has sought to reconstruct our recent human ancestral environment stretching back over the last 50,000 years. He has done this by studying tribal hunter-gatherer societies that exist today.
Start Quote Boehm painstakingly sifted through contemporary studies of over 300 nomadic groups. He found around 150 tribes that he believes approximately represent the kinds of societies our ancient ancestors used to live in. Such groups would have existed before we began to build settlements and engage in mass cultivation of plants and domestic animals. Humans only began to settle in this manner around 10,000 years ago. End Quote
What emerges from his research, are societies that exhibit a remarkable number of common characteristics.

All hunter gatherer societies demonstrate remarkable similarities

All 150 tribes shared certain characteristics. Importantly, all 150 tribes were highly egalitarian. This means that:
  1. Hunter-gatherer tribes universally extol the value of caring for the needs of others.
  2. They also militantly oppose any individuals who attempt to dominate or bully others within the tribal community.

Selfish genes were literally exterminated!

One of Boehm’s central theses will come as somewhat of a shock to some readers. Boehm proposes that selfish genes were literally destroyed within the context of ancient tribal communities. Occasionally, individuals continue to engage in acts of bullying and aggressive control despite fierce opposition from the rest of their community. In such an instance, decisive action is taken. A tribe will come to a consensus and the abusing party will be dealt the death sentence. Here we see the reverse situation of that proposed in the 'animals who are selfish survive better' theory. Far from promoting the survival of its owner, in this account, the selfish gene is a deadly pathogen. She who inherits the self-seeking tendency, risks her own future and that of her offspring forever.

One of the most important books for understanding the origins of social values and shame

The ideas you will find on this website have been hugely influenced by the work of Harry Stack Sullivan. Sullivan proposed that our need to obtain social approval is one of our central human needs. Sullivan also recognised that our own desires often conflict with those of the community we live within. He proposed that this conflict is one of the primary causes of emotional disturbance. Moral Origins describes why human societies so militantly uphold social values and ideals. (Click here to read our series on Morals & Guilt.) It sets the stage for our discussion of why society rejects those who do not conform to expected social standards. For this reason, I see Boehm's book as one of the most important books available relating to the core ideas that you will find on this website. I can’t possibly overstate the importance of this book. For anyone who wishes to better understand these issues, this book is a must.

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Live Life Satisfied is a website dedicated to improving our emotional wellbeing. We do this by trying to understand ourselves better. I publish 1 or 2 articles per week in which I share lessons I have learned that have significantly improved my life outcomes. Why not have my e-mail updates sent directly to your inbox? SIGN UP FOR MY EMAIL UPDATES to have my articles sent directly to you! Quiz: Try our Social Appropriateness quiz and find out how socially appropriate you are - CLICK HERE Please Give Feedback: Did you find this article helpful? I love to receive feedback from people: it's what makes writing these articles worthwhile. If you found this article useful, or if you have any questions or comments please let me know. Click here to e-mail me, or leave a COMMENT BELOW. Your feedback means a great deal to me. 1Boehm quotes from Turnbull, C. M., 1961. The forest people. Garden City, NY: Natural History Press. A truly wonderful book if you can get hold of it.


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