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Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame [Hardcover]

by Christopher Boehm
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 1, 2012 0465020488 978-0465020485

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.

Frequently Bought Together

Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame + Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior + The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire
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Editorial Reviews


“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.”

Kirkus Reviews

Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia, and author of The Righteous Mind“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.” Frans de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy“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. It overcomes conventional wisdom, which places emphasis solely on moral reasoning, as if the revolution in our understanding of emotions in human evolution had never happened.” Ernst Fehr, Professor of Economics, University of ZurichMoral 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.” Jonathan Turner, Distinguished Professor of Sociology, University of California, Riverside“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.” Donald Black, University Professor of the Social Sciences, University of Virginia, and author of Moral Time
“Christopher Boehm’s Moral Origins is a tour de force of a sort rarely seen in any science. He seeks nothing less than to discover in the darkness of prehistory how and why humans first developed a moral conscience—a self-regulating sense of right and wrong. How did we come, many thousands of years ago, to acquire internalized conceptions of morality and virtue to such a degree that we would not only punish wrongdoers in our midst but even take pleasure in altruism—helping those in need beyond our own families? Boehm’s surprising, even amazing answer is that it all started with the enforcement of radical egalitarianism, a refusal of the earliest humans to tolerate anyone who would dare to dominate, cheat, or otherwise take advantage of them. Moral Origins is a remarkable leap of the imagination—full of illuminating and delightful detail—about the deep history of our uniquely ethical species. It is a stimulating experience that a wide range of readers will find difficult to resist.” Publishers Weekly, starred review
“[An] engrossing work…. Boehm does a remarkable job of extending previous work and incorporating a historical approach. He deftly combines studies of earlier hominids with ethological work on primates and ethnographic analyses of contemporary human hunter-gatherer groups to offer a new explanation for moral behavior…. His thesis, clearly articulated and well supported by available data, encompasses the egalitarian nature of most hunter-gatherer groups, their need to share large but rarely killed prey, and the human penchant for gossiping about the reputation of others…. Boehm himself notes that this may not be the last word, but his ideas are provocative, thoughtful, and worth considering.” Wilson Quarterly
“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’…. [Moral Origins] contains many important ideas.” Nature“Ethologist and anthropologist Christopher Boehm exposes the roots of generosity and peer disapproval. Eschewing evolutionary game theory, he opts instead for natural selection within the social environment.” New Scientist“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.” Booklist“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.”
 Michael Shermer, Wall Street Journal
“[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.”
Santa Fe New Mexican / Pasatiempo“In a shift away from conventional wisdom, Boehm employs a historic (rather than genetic) approach and explains moral evolution partly in terms of the importance of impulse control when living in social groups…. Moral Origins is clear, logical, and provocative.”

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’s 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.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (May 1, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465020488
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465020485
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #378,026 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
33 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best Book on Human Evolution June 14, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In "Hierarchy in the Forest, the evolution of egalitarian behavior" (1999,) Christopher Boehm brought to my attention the most important paradox to be solved in the subject of human evolution: how and why did hunter gatherer humans evolve egalitarian societies within their bands when those of chimpanzees (and Bonobos) are clearly hierarchical. As he points out, alone amongst all the books on how morality evolved that are endlessly focused on the abstractions of game theory and inclusive fitness, Boehm actually gives us an historical narrative about why it might have happened. He makes the case that it evolved due to the cooperative needs to share meat when big game hunting commenced about 250,000 years ago, similar to equitable meat sharing in other meat eaters like wolves and lions. In "Moral Origins," Boehm brings his argument up to date with what feels like his final statement. This is a marvelous book by a scientist who has committed his career to a vital question pertaining to human nature. Particularly admirable is the expression of the proper tone of scientific humility as to the tentative status of his hypothesis and that it gets the conversation going. It is not at all a criticism of this book to briefly state that my own view is that the "roughness" of the egalitarianism in late Pleistocene humans was a deterioration from total egalitarianism in Homo erectus, and that this breakdown was caused by increased sexual competition implicit in the changes that produced our own Homo sapiens species. The sole piece of evidence used to bolster increasing egalitarianism is a paper by Mary Stiner (2009) that demonstrates cut marks on bones were straight 200,000 years ago and "chaotic" 400,000 years ago indicating that they were done by many individuals. Read more ›
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A model for the evolutionary origin of morality October 19, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In Moral Origins, Christopher Boehm tackles the evolutionary origin of our conscience and the factors that might have propelled its integration into the species. Moral behaviour, from an evolutionary perspective, can seem a perplexing developement as altruism is hard to incorporate into an environment in which individuals are competing for resources. The author attempts to describe how such behaviour evolved and why it might not contradict any evolutionary principles and was in fact an attribute that improved genetic suitability.

The book is not particularly well structured but it start off with a discussion that includes some of the social features of chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos. It discusses the similarities and differences in group behaviour, group arbitration and generally the interpersonal dynamics of some of our closest genetic relationships. The author, through accounts as well as personal experience details how our primate relations do not exhibit moral behaviour. This is argued from experience but not in a rigourous scientific fashion, though that is probably impossible to achieve.

The author includes a discussion of hunter gatherer reciprocity and dynamics and ethics in the remaining tribes today. There are narratives and personal accounts. The overlap in ethics and morality is highlighted and so are the solutions fo conflict resolution. The similarities in how tribes deal with alpha male aggressive tendencies as well as subversive anti-social behaviour is detailed in several specific cases. The overlap in human tendencies in various foraging societies is detailed through personal narratives to demonstrate the similarity in how reciprocity and moral reasoning is valued.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Becoming Moral January 1, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In Christopher Boehm's earlier book Hierarchy in the Forest: the Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior (1999), he describes how hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies created egalitarian societies. The band or tribe members co-operated to prevent "alpha" type males from dominating their group. Having language helped them achieve this political equality, which chimpanzees would like to achieve and occasionally try to achieve but cannot maintain. Boehm is both an anthropologist and a primatologist and has studied egalitarian band, tribe and village customs and chimps in the wild. Without language that allows them to communicate and better co-operate, chimps end up with hierarchical societies. Human's egalitarianism is partly "natural" i.e. DNA driven and also made possible by abilities like language facilitated by DNA. Egalitarianism is the result of actions and a culture i.e. learned behavior. It is a question of the actions by all the adult members of the society to block potential tyrants or bullies from using physically force to dominate their group. It allows most males to have mates and requires hunters to share equally the meat of a large animal kill among all the members of the band. It requires alpha types to be generous, not aggressive, and not able to give orders or even assume "airs" of superiority.
In Moral Origins, Boehm looks at the evolution of conscience and the sense of shame, linked to the nearly universal (psychopaths do not have it) physiological response of blushing. He writes that only when humans achieved egalitarianism could human morality evolve. He dates these developments tentatively. Egalitarianism started evolving 250,000 thousand years ago and human morality was more or less completed by 50 thousand years ago.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Important synthesis
Important synthesis of primatology, anthropology and evolutionary psychology; brings a compelling and coherent argument to the issue of how altruism became a part of our... Read more
Published 23 days ago by Robert P. Mai
5.0 out of 5 stars Great analysis
There is much to be learned on this topic, but Boehm's book represents the cutting edge. It is engaging and thought-provoking.
Published 2 months ago by DH
2.0 out of 5 stars Sorry, but it didn't work for me
I wanted to like this book, because its subject matter is important, but I'm sorry to say that it just didn't communicate much to me. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Chris Crawford
4.0 out of 5 stars An out-of-date account of the evolution of human morality
Moral Origins seems like an out-of-date account of the evolution of human morality to me. It uses kin selection, reciprocity, reputations, punishment and game theory to explain... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Tim Tyler
4.0 out of 5 stars provocative
This is an author's speculation of where morals, shame, consciousness come from. He is clear to state what is supported by science and what are educated GUESSES. Read more
Published 10 months ago by A
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Touchdown
Moral Origins is a great read. Boehm has done it again, he has written a really great book. In Hierarchy in the Forest he set down his basic theories that support egalitarianism,... Read more
Published 11 months ago by jcrafts
5.0 out of 5 stars Morality as contingent evolution
A growing number of scholars approaches morality not as a set of timeless values grounded in God's commands, or transcendent philosophical principles, but as an "ethical project... Read more
Published 12 months ago by aldo matteucci
4.0 out of 5 stars Question for the author
It is a very deep and thorough study, sometimes above my wits.- The only thing I missed was a more clearly stated proposal por the current global need to act morally at a planetary... Read more
Published 15 months ago by Jose Vargas
1.0 out of 5 stars Redundant, repetitive and uninteresting
This book was required reading for a class and sadly, was really disappointing. We previously read Matt Ridley's book "Evolution of Virtue" which was excellent, so I was hoping... Read more
Published 16 months ago by kylie
4.0 out of 5 stars A true original view
The basic original proposal by the author becomes a third axis to understand evolution, bio-evolution, and now the basic political thinking and praxis of our past and present homo... Read more
Published 17 months ago by Jorge
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