Moral Origins

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  • Book: Moral Origins. By Christopher Boehm.


1. By Jag Bhalla:

"Social contracts are written into our biology. As is the justice they need. The arc of our evolution has long bent towards the justice of “laws” fittest for team survival. We bred ourselves, by artificial selection, to internalize and feel strongly about social rules.

Christopher Boehm in Moral Origins concludes, after intensive analysis of 50 representative hunter-gatherer cultures, that our ancestors likely experienced a “radical political change,” evolving from a hierarchic “apelike ‘might is right’…social order,” to become more egalitarian. About 250,000 years ago, their survival became a team sport because chasing big-game toward teammates was much more productive than solo hunting. But only if profit-sharing was sustainable. Even with fit teammates hunting needs luck (e.g. 4% success today). Then, as now, the logic of social insurance solved team problems by sharing profits and risks. Productivity gains in interdependent teams radically changed our evolution. Cooperators thrived. As did teams with the best adapted sharing rules, provided they were well enforced.

Boehm says all surviving hunter-gatherers enforce law-like social rules to prevent excessive egoism, nepotism, and cronyism. They use rebukes, ridicule, shame, shunning, exile and execution (typically delegated to close male kin of the condemned, to avoid inter-family feuding). For example, meat isn’t distributed by the successful hunter but by neutral stakeholders. Excessively dominant alpha-male behavior—like hogging more than a fair share of meat—is punished by “counterdominant coalitions.” If the strong abused their power they were eliminated, in a sort of inverted eugenics. Resisting injustice and tyranny are universal traits in today’s hunter-gatherers. They likely run 10,000 generations deep in our prehistory.

Social punishment created powerful selection pressures. Self-control becomes the lowest-cost strategy for avoiding social penalties. Shame and guilt likely evolved as mechanisms for internalizing the logic of team rules—a social contract written into our biology. We intuitively recognize what is considered punishable. And often punish ourselves. Cultures configure shame and guilt system triggers differently. But rules balancing short term individual selfish gain with longer-term or team interests are more evolutionarily productive. Thinking of our evolved urges as irresistible is a deep error, since self-control, especially relative to social rules, has long been needed for survival (see “evo-irresistible error”)

Our ancestors bred themselves to be team players. They used intelligently directed artificial selection of good cooperators as mates (“auto-domestication”). Bad cooperators were less likely to be selected for, or successful at, the hugely costly and highly collaborative business of raising long helpless offspring." (


On the occasion of a polemic and review of the book: BMoral Origins. By Christopher Boehm.

1. Christopher Boehm, from Hierarchy in the Forest:

"Collectively creating and maintaining an egalitarian society requires a high degree of political intelligence and a systematic understanding of political dynamics and outcomes. It also requires a political capacity to operate in large coalitions and a cognitive capacity to arrive at a shared plan of action. Deciding to move vigorously against an aggressive deviant can be a politically risky act, so it is necessary for the rank and file to feel they are acting together, or at least for the leading “moralists” to sense the potential force of their group solidly behind them. A preexisting shared conception of group goals stimulates such solidarity, and that is where cognitive “blueprints” fit in. (p. 193)

…such people are guided by a love of personal freedom. For that reason they manage to make egalitarianism happen, and do so in spite of human competitiveness – and in spite of innate human tendencies to dominance and submission that easily lead to the formation of social dominance hierarchies. People can arrest this process by reacting collectively, often pre-emptively, to curb individuals who show signs of wanting to dominate their fellows. Their reactions involve fear of domination, angry defiance, and a collective commitment to dominate, which is based on a fear of being individually dominated. As potential subordinates, they are able to express dominance because they find collective security in a large, group-wide political coalition. (p. 65)" (

2. Boehm quotes Lee on the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert:

"Egalitarianism is not simply the absence of a headman and other authority figures, but a positive insistence on the essential equality of all people and a refusal to bow to the authority of others, a sentiment expressed in the statement “Of course we have headmen… each of us is headman over himself”. Leaders do exist, but their influence is subtle and indirect. They never order or make demands of others, and their accumulation of material goods is never more, and often much less, than the average accumulation of the other households in their camp. (p. 61)." (

More Information

  • Boehm, C. 2001. Hierarchy in the Forest. The evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.