The stories we’ve been told about the role of competition in our evolution have been unnaturally selective. Sound-bite pop science, of the “red in tooth and claw” and “selfish gene” variety, has left out much that is essential to human nature. Anthropologist Christopher Boehm aims to resurrect some of those missing elements in Moral Origins. In his view, cooperation, along with the traits and rules needed to make it work, was as essential to our survival as large brains.
Boehm has spent 40 years studying hunter-gatherers and the behavior of our primate cousins. His book’s explanatory quest started with a 10-year review of all 339 hunter-gatherer cultures ethnographers have described, 150 of which were deemed representative of our ancestors. Fifty of these have so far been coded into a detailed database. Boehm says this deep data set shows that we have been “vigilantly egalitarian for tens of thousands of years.” (ed. emphasis)
The dominant view of human evolution against which Boehm deploys his arguments and data is well summarized in evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s hugely influential 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins famously warned that “if you wish . . . to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.” In nature, he declared, there is “no welfare state.” Indeed, he wrote, “any altruistic system is inherently unstable, because it is open to abuse by selfish individuals, ready to exploit it.” These ideas, aided by others’ similar claims, became barrier beliefs, preventing further analysis for decades.