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Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame
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Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame

3.64  ·  Rating details ·  177 Ratings  ·  29 Reviews
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 emphasizin ...more
ebook, 432 pages
Published 2012 by Basic Books
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Bryn Hammond
I am on-side with social selection, that allows for ‘human preferences’ in how we have evolved. Yes, we help pick who survives and define our own fitness: we select for cooperation and ‘extra-familial generosity’ (altruism) that help everybody in the group eat well.

This doesn’t mark us out as distinct from animals, who cooperate in ways we can’t conceive.

Where he goes after this rests on the ‘human uniqueness’ argument, and in my personal search for understanding I have crossed that off, throug
Clarence Williams
Oct 05, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I recommend this book because it introduces archaeological evidence into the discussion of how human-level cooperation evolved. It is nice to hear an account from a cultural anthropologist. I especially liked Boehm’s lengthy discussion of what he calls “Late-Pleistocene-appropriate (LPA)” behavior. He bolsters his evolutionary theory by using the behavior of not just extant hunter-gatherers, but only those who have not been “tainted by modernity” (my characterization). Moreover, he borrows heavi ...more
Bob Nichols
Boehm argues that our morally modern self first developed around 45,000 before present (BP) because we needed the group to hunt large game. Selection pressure created good social traits (cooperation, modesty, respect) and suppressed free riders (selfish, thieves, bullies, etc.). The former enabled group success and group success enabled individual success (survival and reproductive), whereas selfishness was curbed through self control. Without self-control, various forms of ostracism led to non- ...more
Jan 18, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The central theme of the book is the evolutionary development of the human conscience and the associated social mechanisms. The non-scientist can see at least one indication that physiology (indicating evolution) is involved: people from cultures and ethnic groups around the world blush when experiencing shame.

Throughout the book the author works to provide as much evidence as possible for his hypothesis. On various occasions he is clear that he isn't claiming the evidence is at the level of a s
The main point that the author tries to demonstrate in this book is how human morals have been shaped by evolutionary pressures on the group level since prehistoric times. Although his premises and conclusions are probably correct in principle, his arguments seem incomplete and his analysis methods seem to be not sufficiently rigorous from the scientific point of view.

Firstly, in order to do a statistical analysis of human societies that lived in the Late Pleistocene period, he arbitrarily selec
Sep 10, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The content of this book was fascinating. Christopher Boehm analyzes the existing data and presents a compelling case to describe the manner in which the human species evolved a sense of morality. His explanations are believable, his arguments compelling, and the overall feeling of the book is one of enlightenment. Unfortunately, however, this is a difficult book to read. In the first three chapters, it felt like reading an extended introduction. I kept thinking, okay, get on with it already. He ...more
Rob Sica
Sep 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Essential. Perhaps the closest approximation to date of a sequel to Darwin's natural historical project in 'Descent of Man'
Jul 05, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: neuropolitics
I loved this synthesis between anthropology, palaeontology and primatology. A very thoughtful and I think important book on the origins of human morality.
Jim Vanderwall
Aug 16, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great read! Very solid theory.
Apr 13, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A lot of people who've read this seem to think he's short changing animals' emotional abilities. I actually think he might just be giving humans too much credit. One of the things he keeps bringing up as evidence that we are truly moral, and that animals aren't, is the fact that we blush and they don't. After finishing the book I still don't really understand why he considers that any different than wolves bowing their heads down and sticking their butts up in the air or any of the million other ...more
Jul 22, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Anthropologist Christopher Boehm has written an engaging account hypothesizing the remote prehistorical origins of virtue, altruism, and shame; although much of this work is highly speculative, the results are quite readable. Boehm, who has studied chimpanzee behavior, examines the behavioral homologies among humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas, and from these makes guesses about the behaviors of our hypothetical (but unknown) common ancestor 8 million years ago. He also summarizes what i ...more
Ryan Mishap
An intriguing hypotheses mired in redundant verbiage and ponderous writing style. Nevertheless, the central theme is quite fascinating: the idea that our moral conscience grew out of group social selection, evolutionarily speaking, due to our ancestor's egalitarian impulses. Initially, the small groups of human forager/hunter/gatherers would form factions to deal with any, mostly male, people who tried to dominate the group and horde resources. Over time, this fear of group sanction was internal ...more
Mar 30, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's a good book, though definitely more a theory piece with limited support.

The premise is group selection theory with a twist. Utilizing economics concepts of free-rider suppression and basic genetics, he proposes that morality was a way of checking against those that took advantage of groups and leveled the playing field for cooperative, but more passive hunter gatherers. His basis for this is LPD data sets and observations, which he has hard coded with some values as well as a few datasets.
Jay Kamaladasa
Felt more like an essay than a science book. The author has some good points but the evidence for most of the claims he makes are so-so. It was interesting reading the various real life examples of humans/chimps/bonobos in the wild and that was probably the only thing that kept me going. Even those examples however are interpreted through the lens of the author who tries hard to drive the point of uniqueness of humans that are supposed to have special moral traits like shame and conscience.

If t
Daša Bombjaková
Nov 07, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Christopher Boehm did great job in transforming scientific material into an easy-to-read popular publication. I recommend to everyone who is interested in understanding current hunter-gatherer societies. One can learn about the hierarchy and egalitarianism as well as what tools hunter-gatherers employ to achieve egalitarian state. I mostly enjoyed Boehm's explanation of ridicule and laughter by using an ethnographic example from Collin Turnbull's The Forest People.
Tom Breton
Moral Origins starts off well enough. The first 6 or 7 chapters are a good read. He presents his data in a very readable way and seems to focus on the right things. The problems come when he goes to draw conclusions. The last half flails in a frustratingly weak attempt to support his hypothesis.

It's worth reading for his presentation of what he calls Late Pleistocene Appropriate societies. But I'd be wary of his theoretical analysis.
A. J.
Apr 15, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A provocative book on to
He origins of morals, shame, consciousness... The author does a nice job of making his case based on evidence and speculation (admittedly of course). The base of egalitarian hunter groups was suppressing egos and those who could control their egos spawned human kind. Altruism built one's reputation and thus increased odds of mating... Unfortunately the writing would benefit from better editing. Redundancy abounds.
Marty Troyer
May 11, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An evolutionary approach to moral development among homo sapiens over the last couple million years.

Boehm explores the role of agriculture, big-game hunting, preaching, discipline, and a host of other influences on moral evolution. Pretty fascinating, if a bit too long.

Marty Troyer
Author, The Gospel Next Door
Jun 03, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting read that had to have one star docked for the writing style, repetitiveness and some gaping holes in the reasoning.

Irony: there would have been no veganism if we hadn't started hunting large game on regular bases.

A conclusion I agree with: this species would benefit from a small nuclear war.
John Wylie
Jun 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A great follow up to his 1999 "Hierarchy in the Forest" as he updates his theory that the "rough egalitarianism" of human hunter-gathers arose from the need to cooperate in big game hunting originating 250,000 years ago. He is a pioneer in suggesting that group selection occurred within and not between group.
Jul 28, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I am only on page 85, but it seems every 10 minutes I read "this will be explained later in Chapter 7,10...". This is really annoying. It is interesting but hard to get through. I couldn't finish it.
Pierre A Renaud
"How Will the 99% Deal with the Psychopaths in the 1%? A lot of the world's misery can be traced to people who lack the wiring for empathy. What can we do to contain the damage they cause ?"
The model of evolution here, and the light it casts on the history of our social arrangements, seems to be hugely important. Generally it's an interesting read, but it doesn't quite hold together as a great book. Essential but not completely riveting reading.
May 14, 2012 marked it as to-read-3rd  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, cognition
Excellent, detailed review at The Wilson Quarterly : Noble Savages.
Jul 28, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
It's ok. Your now-standard ev. psych/sociobiology mix of speculation, theories, and historical facts.
May 11, 2016 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Boehm attempts to explain the origin of morals while denying the existence of God. This endeavor is obviously impossible but he provided me with a glimpse into the confused viewpoint of atheists.
rated it liked it
Sep 17, 2013
Carlo Popuchet
rated it it was amazing
Jun 12, 2017
Bram Hessels
rated it really liked it
Apr 17, 2017
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