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.
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' 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.
"Christopher Boehm's Moral Origins is a tour de force of a sort rarely seen in any science."—Donald Black, university professor of the social sciences, University of Virginia, and author of Moral Time
"[An] engrossing work.... Boehm does a remarkable job of extending previous work and incorporating a historical approach."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"What sets Boehm's approach apart is his effort 'to make the natural history of moral origins more historical'. In so doing he provides a new and coherent map of the evolution of morality.... It is a complex story..., but Boehm's experience doing fieldwork with humans and wild chimps makes him a wonderfully knowledgeable guide. And some of his ideas are truly revolutionary."—New Scientist
"How did evolution produce a species that blushes? To explain the uniquely human moral sense, Boehm teases a provocative neo-Darwinian theory out of cutting-edge archaeological, anthropological, and psychological research.... Those looking for a daring new application of empirical science will find it here."—Booklist
"[A] provocative scientific contribution...to the millennia-long discussion about the nature of morality.... Thinkers everywhere will be forced--as they are in many arenas--to consider biology in realms that once seemed strictly matters of the heart and soul."—Michael Shermer, Wall Street Journal
"One rarely finds such a fully Darwinian, scientifically sound, and wisely accessible book for both professionals and lay audiences as Boehm's study of moral origins; it is far superior to any previous attempts to discuss the subject."—Choice
"Astronomers have the Hubble telescope to look back through time, and social scientists have Chris Boehm. Boehm's monumental accomplishment is to give us the most careful and compelling portrait ever created of how our ancestors lived, from three hundred thousand generations ago to five hundred generations ago. Boehm's work is vital for understanding why we are so tribal, punitive, gossipy, religious, and cooperative today."—Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology, University of Virginia, and author of The Righteous Mind
"Few scientists have thought longer and harder about the origins of morality than Christopher Boehm, who brings to the issue a wealth of experience studying both humans and other animals. His thesis that our species has taken moral evolution into its own hands is new and refreshing."—Frans de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy
"Moral Origins is an exciting study on the evolution of human morality that is appropriate for scientific researchers and also of interest for the general public as well. Christopher Boehm brilliantly ties fundamental aspects of human cooperation such as altruism, free-riding, and bullying to both primitive and advanced societies. This book is a must for all who are interested in how human morality evolved and functions."—Ernst Fehr, professor of economics, University of Zurich
"In Moral Origins, Christopher Boehm uses his vast knowledge of the literature on primates and human hunter-gather populations to address the issue of the origins of human morality. It is a must-read for any social scientist, primatologist, or humanist studying human morality. Equally important, it is beautifully written in an easy and graceful style. Certainly the most informed and best work written by an anthropologist on this set of issues, Moral Origins is a book that I would recommend to any thoughtful person."—Jonathan Turner, distinguished professor of sociology, University of California, Riverside