Boehm’s claim is that at some point during the last half-million years, well after the advent of language, our ancestors created the first true moral communities.32 In these communities, people used gossip to identify behavior they didn’t like, particularly the aggressive, dominating behaviors of would-be alpha males. On the rare occasions when gossip wasn’t enough to bring them into line, they had the ability to use weapons to take them down. Boehm quotes a dramatic account of such a community in action among the !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert: A man named Twi had killed three other people, when the community, in a rare move of unanimity, ambushed and fatally wounded him in full daylight. As he lay dying, all of the men fired at him with poisoned arrows until, in the words of one informant, “he looked like a porcupine.” Then, after he was dead, all the women as well as the men approached his body and stabbed him with spears, symbolically sharing the responsibility for his death.33
For hierarchy, according to the anthropologist Christopher Boehm. Boehm studied tribal cultures early in his career, but had also studied chimpanzees with Jane Goodall. He recognized the extraordinary similarities in the ways that humans and chimpanzees display dominance and submission. In his book Hierarchy in the Forest, Boehm concluded that human beings are innately hierarchical, but that at some point during the last million years our ancestors underwent a “political transition” that allowed them to live as egalitarians by banding together to rein in, punish, or kill any would-be alpha males who tried to dominate the group. Alpha male chimps are not truly leaders of their groups. They perform some public services, such as mediating conflicts.28 But most of the time, they are better described as bullies who take what they want. Yet even among chimpanzees, it sometimes happens that subordinates gang up to take down alphas, occasionally going as far as to kill them.29 Alpha male chimps must therefore know their limits and have enough political skill to cultivate a few allies and stave off rebellion.
In the last chapter I suggested that humans are, like our primate ancestors, innately equipped to live in dominance hierarchies that can be quite brutal. But if that’s true, then how come nomadic hunter-gatherers are always egalitarian? There’s no hierarchy (at least among the adult males), there’s no chief, and the norms of the group actively encourage sharing resources, particularly meat.26 The archaeological evidence supports this view, indicating that our ancestors lived for hundreds of thousands of years in egalitarian bands of mobile hunter-gatherers.27 Hierarchy only becomes widespread around the time that groups take up agriculture or domesticate animals and become more sedentary. These changes create much more private property and much larger group sizes. They also put an end to equality. The best land and a share of everything people produce typically get dominated by a chief, leader, or elite class (who take some of their wealth with them to the grave for easy interpretation by later archaeologists). So were our minds “structured in advance of experience” for hierarchy or for equality? For hierarchy,
But if that were the case, then moral philosophers—who reason about ethical principles all day long—should be more virtuous than other people. Are they? The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel tried to find out. He used surveys and more surreptitious methods to measure how often moral philosophers give to charity, vote, call their mothers, donate blood, donate organs, clean up after themselves at philosophy conferences, and respond to emails purportedly from students.48 And in none of these ways are moral philosophers better than other philosophers or professors in other fields. Schwitzgebel even scrounged up the missing-book lists from dozens of libraries and found that academic books on ethics, which are presumably borrowed mostly by ethicists, are more likely to be stolen or just never returned than books in other areas of philosophy.49 In other words, expertise in moral reasoning does not seem to improve moral behavior, and it might even make it worse (perhaps by making the rider more skilled at post hoc justification). Schwitzgebel still has yet to find a single measure on which moral philosophers behave better than other philosophers.
Those same three factors applied to human beings. Like bees, our ancestors were (1) territorial creatures with a fondness for defensible nests (such as caves) who (2) gave birth to needy offspring that required enormous amounts of care, which had to be given while (3) the group was under threat from neighboring groups. For hundreds of thousands of years, therefore, conditions were in place that pulled for the evolution of ultrasociality, and as a result, we are the only ultrasocial primate. The human lineage may have started off acting very much like chimps,48 but by the time our ancestors started walking out of Africa, they had become at least a little bit like bees. And much later, when some groups began planting crops and orchards, and then building granaries, storage sheds, fenced pastures, and permanent homes, they had an even steadier food supply that had to be defended even more vigorously. Like bees, humans began building ever more elaborate nests, and in just a few thousand years, a new kind of vehicle appeared on Earth—the city-state, able to raise walls and armies.49 City-states and, later, empires spread rapidly across Eurasia, North Africa, and Mesoamerica, changing many of the Earth’s ecosystems and allowing the total tonnage of human beings to shoot up from insignificance at the start of the Holocene (around twelve thousand years ago) to world domination today.50 As the colonial insects did to the other insects, we have pushed all other mammals to the margins, to extinction, or to servitude. The analogy to bees is not shallow or loose. Despite their many differences, human civilizations and beehives are both products of major transitions in evolutionary history. They are motorboats.
These groups were a new kind of vehicle: a hive or colony of close genetic relatives, which functioned as a unit (e.g., in foraging and fighting) and reproduced as a unit. These are the motorboating sisters in my example, taking advantage of technological innovations and mechanical engineering that had never before existed. It was another transition. Another kind of group began to function as though it were a single organism, and the genes that got to ride around in colonies crushed the genes that couldn’t “get it together” and rode around in the bodies of more selfish and solitary insects. The colonial insects represent just 2 percent of all insect species, but in a short period of time they claimed the best feeding and breeding sites for themselves, pushed their competitors to marginal grounds, and changed most of the Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems (for example, by enabling the evolution of flowering plants, which need pollinators).43 Now they’re the majority, by weight, of all insects on Earth. What about human beings? Since ancient times, people have likened human societies to beehives. But is this just a loose analogy? If you map the queen of the hive onto the queen or king of a city-state, then yes, it’s loose. A hive or colony has no ruler, no boss. The queen is just the ovary. But if we simply ask whether humans went through the same evolutionary process as bees—a major transition from selfish individualism to groupish hives that prosper when they find a way to suppress free riding—then the analogy gets much tighter. Many animals are social: they live in groups, flocks, or herds. But only a few animals have crossed the threshold and become ultrasocial, which means that they live in very large groups that have some internal structure, enabling them to reap the benefits of the division of labor.44 Beehives and ant nests, with their separate castes of soldiers, scouts, and nursery attendants, are examples of ultrasociality, and so are human societies. One of the key features that has helped all the nonhuman ultra-socials to cross over appears to be the need to defend a shared nest. The biologists Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson summarize the recent finding that ultrasociality (also called “eusociality”)45 is found among a few species of shrimp, aphids, thrips, and beetles, as well as among wasps, bees, ants, and termites: In all the known [species that] display the earliest stages of eusociality, their behavior protects a persistent, defensible resource from predators, parasites, or competitors. The resource is invariably a nest plus dependable food within foraging range of the nest inhabitants.46 Hölldobler and Wilson give supporting roles to two other factors: the need to feed offspring over an extended period (which gives an advantage to species that can recruit siblings or males to help out Mom) and intergroup conflict. All three of these factors applied to those first early wasps camped out together in defensible naturally occurring nests (such as holes in trees). From that point on, the most cooperative groups got to keep the best nesting sites, which they then modified in increasingly elaborate ways to make themselves even more productive and more protected. Their descendants include the honeybees we know today, whose hives have been described as “a factory inside a fortress.”47
A few hundred million years later, some of these eukaryotes developed a novel adaptation: they stayed together after cell division to form multicellular organisms in which every cell had exactly the same genes. These are the three-boat septuplets in my example. Once again, competition is suppressed (because each cell can only reproduce if the organism reproduces, via its sperm or egg cells). A group of cells becomes an individual, able to divide labor among the cells (which specialize into limbs and organs). A powerful new kind of vehicle appears, and in a short span of time the world is covered with plants, animals, and fungi.37 It’s another major transition. Major transitions are rare. The biologists John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry count just eight clear examples over the last 4 billion years (the last of which is human societies).38 But these transitions are among the most important events in biological history, and they are examples of multilevel selection at work. It’s the same story over and over again: Whenever a way is found to suppress free riding so that individual units can cooperate, work as a team, and divide labor, selection at the lower level becomes less important, selection at the higher level becomes more powerful, and that higher-level selection favors the most cohesive superorganisms.39 (A superorganism is an organism made out of smaller organisms.) As these superorganisms proliferate, they begin to compete with each other, and to evolve for greater success in that competition. This competition among superorganisms is one form of group selection.40 There is variation among the groups, and the fittest groups pass on their traits to future generations of groups. Major transitions may be rare, but when they happen, the Earth often changes.41 Just look at what happened more than 100 million years ago when some wasps developed the trick of dividing labor between a queen (who lays all the eggs) and several kinds of workers who maintain the nest and bring back food to share. This trick was discovered by the early hymenoptera (members of the order that includes wasps, which gave rise to bees and ants) and it was discovered independently several dozen other times (by the ancestors of termites, naked mole rats, and some species of shrimp, aphids, beetles, and spiders).42 In each case, the free rider problem was surmounted and selfish genes began to craft relatively selfless group members who together constituted a supremely selfish group.
Suppose you entered a boat race. One hundred rowers, each in a separate rowboat, set out on a ten-mile race along a wide and slow-moving river. The first to cross the finish line will win $10,000. Halfway into the race, you’re in the lead. But then, from out of nowhere, you’re passed by a boat with two rowers, each pulling just one oar. No fair! Two rowers joined together into one boat! And then, stranger still, you watch as that rowboat is overtaken by a train of three such rowboats, all tied together to form a single long boat. The rowers are identical septuplets. Six of them row in perfect synchrony while the seventh is the coxswain, steering the boat and calling out the beat for the rowers. But those cheaters are deprived of victory just before they cross the finish line, for they in turn are passed by an enterprising group of twenty-four sisters who rented a motorboat. It turns out that there are no rules in this race about what kinds of vehicles are allowed. That was a metaphorical history of life on Earth. For the first billion years or so of life, the only organisms were prokaryotic cells (such as bacteria). Each was a solo operation, competing with others and reproducing copies of itself. But then, around 2 billion years ago, two bacteria somehow joined together inside a single membrane, which explains why mitochondria have their own DNA, unrelated to the DNA in the nucleus.35 These are the two-person rowboats in my example. Cells that had internal organelles could reap the benefits of cooperation and the division of labor (see Adam Smith). There was no longer any competition between these organelles, for they could reproduce only when the entire cell reproduced, so it was “one for all, all for one.” Life on Earth underwent what biologists call a “major transition.”36 Natural selection went on as it always had, but now there was a radically new kind of creature to be selected. There was a new kind of vehicle by which selfish genes could replicate themselves. Single-celled eukaryotes were wildly successful and spread throughout the oceans.
as the social sciences advanced in the twentieth century, their course was altered by two waves of moralism that turned nativism into a moral offense. The first was the horror among anthropologists and others at “social Darwinism”—the idea (raised but not endorsed by Darwin) that the richest and most successful nations, races, and individuals are the fittest. Therefore, giving charity to the poor interferes with the natural progress of evolution: it allows the poor to breed.12 The claim that some races were innately superior to others was later championed by Hitler, and so if Hitler was a nativist, then all nativists were Nazis. (That conclusion is illogical, but it makes sense emotionally if you dislike nativism.)13 The second wave of moralism was the radical politics that washed over universities in America, Europe, and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. Radical reformers usually want to believe that human nature is a blank slate on which any utopian vision can be sketched. If evolution gave men and women different sets of desires and skills, for example, that would be an obstacle to achieving gender equality in many professions. If nativism could be used to justify existing power structures, then nativism must be wrong. (Again, this is a logical error, but this is the way righteous minds work.)
In 1960, Peter Wason (creator of the 4-card task from chapter 2) published his report on the “2–4–6 problem.”18 He showed people a series of three numbers and told them that the triplet conforms to a rule. They had to guess the rule by generating other triplets and then asking the experimenter whether the new triplet conformed to the rule. When they were confident they had guessed the rule, they were supposed to tell the experimenter their guess. Suppose a subject first sees 2–4–6. The subject then generates a triplet in response: “4–6–8?” “Yes,” says the experimenter. “How about 120–122–124?” “Yes.” It seemed obvious to most people that the rule was consecutive even numbers. But the experimenter told them this was wrong, so they tested out other rules: “3–5–7?” “Yes.” “What about 35–37–39?” “Yes.” “OK, so the rule must be any series of numbers that rises by two?” “No.” People had little trouble generating new hypotheses about the rule, sometimes quite complex ones. But what they hardly ever did was to test their hypotheses by offering triplets that did not conform to their hypothesis. For example, proposing 2–4–5 (yes) and 2–4–3 (no) would have helped people zero in on the actual rule: any series of ascending numbers. Wason called this phenomenon the confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm what you already think. People are quite good at challenging statements made by other people, but if it’s your belief, then it’s your possession—your child, almost—and you want to protect it, not challenge it and risk losing it.19
If you are a member of a WEIRD society, your eyes tend to fall on individual objects such as people, and you don’t automatically see the relationships among them. Having a concept such as social capital is helpful because it forces you to see the relationships within which those people are embedded, and which make those people more productive. I propose that we take this approach one step further. To understand the miracle of moral communities that grow beyond the bounds of kinship we must look not just at people, and not just at the relationships among people, but at the complete environment within which those relationships are embedded, and which makes those people more virtuous (however they themselves define that term). It takes a great deal of outside-the-mind stuff to support a moral community. For example, on a small island or in a small town, you typically don’t need to lock your bicycle, but in a big city in the same country, if you only lock the bike frame, your wheels may get stolen. Being small, isolated, or morally homogeneous are examples of environmental conditions that increase the moral capital of a community. That doesn’t mean that small islands and small towns are better places to live overall—the diversity and crowding of big cities makes them more creative and interesting places for many people—but that’s the trade-off. (Whether you’d trade away some moral capital to gain some diversity and creativity will depend in part on your brain’s settings on traits such as openness to experience and threat sensitivity, and this is part of the reason why cities are usually so much more liberal than the countryside.) Looking
I once overheard a Kohlberg-style moral judgment interview being conducted in the bathroom of a McDonald’s restaurant in northern Indiana. The person interviewed—the subject—was a Caucasian male roughly thirty years old. The interviewer was a Caucasian male approximately four years old. The interview began at adjacent urinals: INTERVIEWER: Dad, what would happen if I pooped in here [the urinal]? SUBJECT: It would be yucky. Go ahead and flush. Come on, let’s go wash our hands. [The pair then moved over to the sinks] INTERVIEWER: Dad, what would happen if I pooped in the sink? SUBJECT: The people who work here would get mad at you. INTERVIEWER: What would happen if I pooped in the sink at home? SUBJECT: I’d get mad at you. INTERVIEWER: What would happen if you pooped in the sink at home? SUBJECT: Mom would get mad at me. INTERVIEWER: Well, what would happen if we all pooped in the sink at home? SUBJECT: [pause] I guess we’d all get in trouble. INTERVIEWER: [laughing] Yeah, we’d all get in trouble! SUBJECT: Come on, let’s dry our hands. We have to go. Note the skill and persistence of the interviewer, who probes for a deeper answer by changing the transgression to remove the punisher. Yet even when everyone cooperates in the rule violation so that nobody can play the role of punisher, the subject still clings to a notion of cosmic justice in which, somehow, the whole family would “get in trouble.” Of course, the father is not really trying to demonstrate his best moral reasoning. Moral reasoning is usually done to influence other people (see chapter 4), and what the father is trying to do is get his curious son to feel the right emotions—disgust and fear—to motivate appropriate bathroom behavior.