MORAL ORIGINS by Christopher Boehm


The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame
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Boehm (Anthropology and Biological Sciences/Univ. of Southern California in Los Angeles; Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, 1999, etc.) probes the origins of human conscience and altruism.

Trained as an evolutionary biologist, the author is the director of the Jane Goodall Research Center. He questions why altruistic behavior—“being generous to people lacking any blood ties to the generous party”—is a matter of everyday human practice, theorizing that generosity and other moral virtues evolved genetically according to the principle of natural selection as a byproduct of social selection, which rewarded impulse control and punished aggressive behavior. Boehm suggests that egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups would have needed strong social controls to ensure cooperation and equitable sharing of the kill. This, he contends, could have caused a biological shift. While highly competitive Chimpanzee alpha males dominate and receive disproportionate shares of food and sexual favors—thus gaining competitive advantage for the perpetuation of their genes—in hunter-gatherer societies such behavior could not be tolerated and would confer a reproductive disadvantage. The universal existence of blushing as an expression of shame exists only among humans; therefore, writes the author, it must be genetically based rather than just a cultural phenomenon. Boehm cites recent work establishing the existence of empathy, undoubtedly a precursor to morality, in primates, but he contends that altruism and shame are distinctly human qualities. People recognize virtue and feel shame; animals seek approval and fear disapproval. Boehm also cites instances in which Inuits and Pygmy tribes have used gossip and shaming to discipline would-be freeloaders, and even harsher methods to deal with bullies, thieves and murderers.

A provocative though speculative thesis related in a chatty, occasionally repetitive style.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-465-02048-5
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2012


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