Monday, December 17, 2012

Steven Nadler, A Book Forged in Hell (2011)

In 1632, Galileo Galilei published a book entitled Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World SystemsThe book compared the Copernican System, in which the earth is described as orbiting the sun, with the Ptolemaic System, in which everything in the universe circles the earth.  A year later, based on the views expressed in the Dialogue. Galileo was convicted of heresy and the book was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, a list of publications prohibited by the Catholic Church because they were considered immoral due to theological errors.   Galileo knew the Church might be provoked by the book, because it defended the Copernican System.  Despite the fact that three paragraphs in the Bible stated that the earth did not move and the sun circled around the earth, Galileo had hopes he could persuade friends in the Church that the Copernican System was not a theological error.  St. Augustine, after all, took the view that not every word in the Bible was to be taken literally, and this should be the case with respect to the biblical assertions that the earth did not move. Galileo did not prevail with the Church in his defense of the Copernican System.  His book was banned, and he lived another nine years, the remainder of his life, under house arrest.   Of course, we now know that Galileo and Copernicus were right, the Church was wrong and it took the Church a couple of centuries to admit it was wrong.

Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632, the same year that the Dialogue was published:  a coincidence tinged with irony given the course Spinoza's life would take over the next 45 years.  A Book Forged in Hell, Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age is Spinoza biographer, Steven Nadler's third book about Spinoza's life, but in this book the subject is narrowed to Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico Politicus and what prompted Spinoza to not only write the book but also publish it during his lifetime (albeit anonymously, deceptively listing the location and name of the publisher).  Spinoza had written a number of unpublished works, several of which were never completed, and some of which were manuscripts circulated among a small group of intellectual sympathizers who questioned the divinity of Jesus, the nature of God, and organized religion and its relationship to the State.  In 17th century conservative, Calvinist Netherlands, these views were heresy. Fortunately for Spinoza, control of the Dutch Government was in the hands of Johan DeWitt and his States faction who favored religious toleration and opposed government oversight and censorship of religion. Spinoza did not rush to publish, because he knew he faced a Galilean type threat as well.  As Nadler describes it, Spinoza hoped to undercut ecclesiastic influence in politics and other domains and weaken the sectarian dangers facing liberal Netherlands.  Notwithstanding a formal policy of freedom of religion, Spinoza was taking on powerful clerical voices who sought to influence public policy.

In the March 12, 2012 post discussing Spinoza's Emendation of the Intellect (1660), his first unpublished, unfinished manuscript, the origin of Spinoza's post-excommunication intellectual journey is revealed.  "After experience had taught me the hollowness and futility of everything that is ordinarily encountered in daily life," he wrote, "and I realized that all the things which were the source and object of my anxiety held nothing of good or evil in themselves save insofar as the mind was influenced by them, I resolved at length to enquire whether there existed a true good, one which was capable of communicating itself and could alone affect the mind to the exclusion of all else, whether, in fact, there was something whose discovery and acquisition would afford me a continuous and supreme joy to all eternity."  He seeks to know "true good" by understanding "the circumstances with which the fictitious, the false, and the doubtful perception are concerned, and how we may be delivered from each of them."  The "true good" can be discovered by being delivered from superstition.  The pursuit of being delivered from superstition remained with Spinoza in writing the Tractatus, and through the end of his life.

By the time Spinoza published the Tractatus Theologico Politicus (Theological Political Treatise) in 1670, he had more or less completed his Ethics, which remained unpublished until after his death in 1677.  The Ethics was Spinoza's systematic view of nature, which he labeled 'god,' expressed in a Cartesian manner of postulates and proofs.  (See March 6, 2012 post).  A few friends had seen manuscripts of The Ethics, but for most reading the Tractatus, they would not have appreciated Spinoza's systematic view of nature, god and religion.  He had a reputation across Europe for being an atheist, although there was nothing in print by his hand that confirmed that reputation.  According to Steven Nadler, correcting that reputation was one of Spinoza's motivations for publishing the Tractatus.  The Tractatus failed to change his reputation, but ironically if we are looking for one book --- more than any other --- to discover the roots (although perhaps not the blueprint) of the American Constitution --- democratic, representative government that protected the individual's freedom to philosophize or practice religion and express himself without public sanction, it would be the reputed atheist's Tractatus.  Modern American religious fundamentalists would shiver and bristle at that notion, but it is undeniable.  Why would they shiver and bristle?  Here is how Nadler's fine biography about a book summarizes Spinoza's views in the Tractatus:

A central tenet of Spinoza's system, as explained in The Ethics, is the unity of nature:  everything in nature consists of substance (what I would label material); nature operates by discoverable laws.  Spinoza does not elaborate on this in the Tractatus, and hence the reader of the Tractatus in Spinoza's lifetime does not fully appreciate the worldview that Spinoza brings to the Tractatus.  The unity of nature has consequences for the proper way to look at religion: mind and body are both part of the single substance; there is nothing in the nature of the infinite universe that is immaterial, there are no forms that exist separate from reality, there are no spirits, no ghosts (holy or otherwise), and there is nothing transcendent.  This leaves little room for the way the human mind typically conceives the attributes of god and the human "soul."  Human mental life is made up of various passions and actions, which are determined just like everything else in nature. We know this now, nearly four and one-half centuries later, and Spinoza was not the first to advance the materiality of everything in the universe.    And even if the reader of the Tractatus in Spinoza's lifetime had read The Ethics and appreciated Spinoza's systematic worldview of the universe, humanity, and mental life, it is doubtful Spinoza would have been able to save his reputation.  While it is true, as I say, that we know now that thought and action are both material, it is also true that we still don't know it now.

Humans are natural born dualists, says Michael Gazzaniga.  (See September 27, 2009 post).  Paul Bloom has documented that dualism emerges early in the child's mind; children naturally see the world as two distinct domains: physical objects and real events, and mental states and entities.  While children show they know they have a brain and they use it for thinking, they do not understand that the brain is needed for physical action and consequently thinking and action are assigned to different parts of reality.  As Pascal Boyer writes in Religion Explained, "A human mind is not condemned to consider and represent only what is currently going on in its immediate environment.  Indeed, human minds are remarkable in the amount of time they spend thinking about what is not here and now.  Fiction is the most salient illustration. . . One of the easiest things for human minds to do is to produce inferences on the basis of false premises,such as, 'If I had had lunch I would not be hungry now.'  This can focus on future possibilities too.  Worries about what would happen if the roof caved in and came crashing down on your head do not require the usual input (e.g., seeing the roof coming down) and do not produce the normal output (an attempt to dash off as fast as possible).  This is why psychologists say that these thoughts are decoupled from their standard inputs and outputs. *** Decoupled cognition is crucial to human cognition because we depend so much on information communicated by others.  To evaluate information provided by others, you must build some mental simulation of what they describe."  Previous posts have elaborated on this decoupling mechanism within the human brain.  (See June 12, 2011 post, June 28, 2011 post, and February 15, 2012 post).  This "decoupling of thoughts from their standard inputs and outputs" is part and parcel of what enables humans to engage in self-deception and deception, the subject of Robert Trivers' The Folly of Fools. (See February 4, 2012 post).  Religion has its foundation in this decoupling.  (December 5, 2012 post, February 4, 2012 post, June 12, 2011 post, May 22, 2011 post and September 9, 2010 post). And as I have said in previous posts, so does science.  (See July 30, 2011 post).  The difference is that science is subject to test and verification. Religion is not and resides entirely in the imagination.  Spinoza's materialism or monism is at the core of his differences with the ecclesiasticals of his time, and it would be at the core of any differences with religious fundamentalists today.

Gods and Prophets.  Nadler describes Spinoza's account of God as follows.  "[B]ehind the major organized religions lies a a certain convenient but ultimately irreverent and harmful conception of God.  The superstitious rites and ceremonies of Judaism and Christianity, calculated to win God's favor and avoid his wrath, rest on the false assumption that God is very much a rational agent, endowed as we are with a psychological life and moral character.  God is, in other words, supposed to be a kind of person, possessed of intelligence, will, desire, and even emotion.  The Judaeo-Christian deity is a wise and just God, a transcendent providential being who has purposes and expectations, makes commands and judgments, and is capable of great acts of mercy and vengeance.***It is precisely this traditional religious picture of God that Spinoza rejects [in The Ethics] as foolish anthropomorphism.*** God is not some goal-oriented planner who then judges things by how well they conform to his purposes.  Things happen only because of Nature and its laws. *** To believe otherwise is precisely what leads to those superstitions that are so easily manipulated by preachers and rabbis."

Spinoza rejects revealed religion.  "Central to all faiths in the Abrahamic tradition is prophecy," Nadler says, "or the idea that certain people are endowed with the special gift to receive and pass on the word of God.  Like the power of diviners and seers of pagan antiquity, this endowment is usually construed as the ability to access information not available to others or by ordinary means.  The prophet may be someone who is the direct recipient of divine revelation, a beneficiary of angelic mediation, or simply an inspired interpreter of signs that God has placed before humankind.  He may have a real foreknowledge of the future, or a less infallible but still reliable ability to predict what the outcome of events will be, based perhaps on special interpretive powers to read the significance of past and present states of affairs.  Prophetic power may, on some accounts, be a supernatural gift or it may be grounded in natural faculties.  The information can come to the prophet by way of visions, or dreams, or (in the rarest instance) it might result from an unmediated encounter with God himself."  The evolution of this profession within human social structures was the subject of the previous post. "In Spinoza's system," says Nadler, "there is no transcendent God exercising supernatural, ad hoc communications.  There is room for divine revelation, but only in a very particular sense.  Because for Spinoza God is identical with Nature, and all human knowledge is natural, it follows that all human knowledge is divine.  If God is Nature understood as active, substantial cause of all things, then whatever is brought about by Nature and its laws is, by definition, brought about by God.  The human mind being as much a part of Nature as anything else is, its cognitive states all follow ultimately from 'God or Nature.'***When 'prophecy' or 'divine revelation' is correctly understood in this broad sense, as whatever knowledge casually and cognitively depends on God, then it includes natural knowledge.  More specifically, it includes philosophy and science, as well as other products of the intellect, and is therefore 'common to us all men."  And here is the crux of what bothers Spinoza about prophecy: prophecy is no more or less divine than any other kind of knowledge including science and philosophy, and prophets, ecclesiasticals, rabbis and preachers have no special claim to the truth and there is no reason why their authority should be superior to any other authority.  We see here, Spinoza continuing the theme that he began with in the Emendation of the Intellect (see March 12, 2012 post):  "I resolved at length to enquire whether there existed a true good, one which was capable of communicating itself and could alone affect the mind to the exclusion of all else, whether, in fact, there was something whose discovery and acquisition would afford me a continuous and supreme joy to all eternity."  Although Spinoza does not exactly say it this way, Spinoza is telling us exactly what I said two paragraphs ago in the penultimate sentence:  "science is subject to test and verification. Religion is not and resides entirely in the imagination."  For Spinoza, Nadler says, "prophecy is a highly subjective affair.  It is an individualistic product shaped by both nature and nurture.*** Since Joshua was no astronomer, he believed that the earth does not move and that the sun goes around the earth."

Miracles.  Spinoza's treatment of miracles rests on the same foundational view of Nature.  "Nothing happens in Nature that does not follow from her laws . . .her laws cover everything that is conceived even by the divine intellect, and . . . Nature observes a fixed and immutable order."  Belief in miracles, according to Spinoza, is not an expression of divine insight, but of ignorance.  "Miracles and ignorance are the same," wrote Spinoza.  "The word miracle can be understood only with respect to men's beliefs, and means simply an event whose natural cause we --- or at any rate the writer or narrator of the miracle---cannot explain by comparison with any other normal event."  Spinoza does not merely anticipate David Hume nearly a century later, (see February 27, 2011 post) who believed that miracles were not believable because a person does or does not have good reason to believe something, but Spinoza says that miracles are impossible.  This is the Spinoza of the Emendation of the Intellect written ten years earlier in pursuit of a true good that was capable of communicating itself, free of superstition.

Scripture.  If there was one subject in the Tractatus that was likely to confirm in the minds of god-believing persons that Spinoza was an atheist, it was Spinoza's view of scripture.  He was very knowledgeable about the contents of the The Bible.  He studied The Bible closely, and he had studied the views of others who commented on it.  Spinoza was not the first to adopt the view that scripture was a human document --- like a novel or a work of history --- and was not supernaturally delivered.  "It is not a message for mankind sent down by God from heaven."  Spinoza's view of the historical compilation and editing of The Bible is now widely accepted.  The ultimate teaching of scripture, says Spinoza, whether it is the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Gospels, is found in the various expressions of a single, universal mantra:  the Golden Rule (reciprocal altruism).  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  And as the previous series of posts have demonstrated, this universal expression across all cultures has natural, not divine supernatural origins.  (See September 12, 2012 post, September 17, 2012 post, and November 21, 2012 post). 

Judaism and Christianity.  In his discussion of organized religion, Spinoza says that what really defines them is their ceremonial rituals.  These rituals contribute nothing to blessedness.  They contribute only to group identity.  Rituals are not divine or supernatural in their origin.  Organized religions are a source of divisiveness in society.  (See for example December 2, 2011 post and April 1, 2012 post). Nadler points out that Spinoza's critique of organized religion focuses heavily on Judaism, and less so on Christianity.  This led some to believe that he had a favorable view of Yeshua and that he had accepted Christianity.  Nadler dismisses this for the simple reason that Spinoza's systematic worldview of nature, his view of miracles, prophets and God, would not tolerate that conclusion.

Religion and the State.  If Spinoza's views on scripture, organized religion, miracles and prophecy were not enough to alarm the ecclesiasticals, his views on the proper form of government would have alarmed the political leadership across Europe, many of who claimed their political legitimacy by the Divine Right of Kings.  Religion and political power, though separate, were mutually accommodating because they needed each other.  (See previous post).  Religious leadership curried favor with national crowns and was highly influential; political leadership reciprocated to legitimize the purported divine derivation of its authority.  It should not be surprising that ecclesiasticals and monarchs would share a common view of Spinoza.

Spinoza was a social contractarian.  As Nadler writes about Spinoza's views, "Political obligation is, at least in principle if not in historical fact, the result of a rational, voluntary agreement among individuals to hand over their right and power to pursue their own advantage to a common authority and to be governed by the will of all insofar as this will is guided by reason.  What they receive in turn is peace, a more secure life, and the stable enjoyment of the goods they value."  For this reason, individuals submit to an all-powerful state.  But for Spinoza, unlike his contemporary Thomas Hobbes, who shared Spinoza's views on religion, the all-powerful state does not have to invest sovereignty in a single individual or monarchy.  For Spinoza, it can be given to the people at-large.  A democratic polity is more stable from Spinoza's point of view:  when a sovereign becomes tyrannical and self-serving, citizens will resist authority and take back the power they originally gave to the sovereign.  "Democracy is the most natural form of state; approaching most closely to that freedom which nature grants to every man.  For in a democratic state nobody transfers his natural right to another so completely that thereafter he is not to be consulted; he transfers it to the majority of the entire community of which he is a a part." 

Notwithstanding his views on democracy, Spinoza was skeptical about the wisdom of the masses.  As Spinoza states in The Ethics, "It rarely happens that men live according to the guidance of reason.  Instead, their lives are so constituted that they are usually envious and burdensome to one another." Nadler is not the first to observe that Spinoza did not hold common humans in high esteem.  This is not to say that he was contemptuous of the masses.  But he did believe that there were certain people who, like Plato's "philosopher king," were "philosophically gifted," and enjoyed a capacity to understand Nature in a way that most people did not.  Those who were philosophically gifted were not enslaved to passions, gullible to superstition, or stuck in ritual.  Obviously, Spinoza would have treated himself as philosophically gifted.  But Spinoza believed firmly that a democratic sovereign would properly reflect the public will and determine the public good.

The democratic state, in Spinoza's view, could not tolerate the intermeddling of the ecclesiasticals, who "represent a threat not only to progress in philosophy and science, but to the well-being of the state as well," says Nadler.  "In fact, the ability of clergy to exercise censorship over philosophical inquiry is directly proportional to the influence in domestic politics.  Spinoza's argument in the Treatise for the freedom of philosophizing in the state is thus, at the same time, an argument for a state in which sectarian religious authorities have no influence over public affairs, including intellectual and cultural matters.  In the end, Spinoza goes even further and argues that religion, to the extent it is a matter of practice and public activity, is to be controlled by the secular leaders of society."  This latter view does not sound entirely in sync with the First Amendment of the American Constitution and it is not.  According to Nadler, Spinoza did believe that when it comes to religious belief, people should be left alone to believe (or not believe) whatever they want.  Furthermore, Spinoza believed that the free expression of one's religious beliefs should be tolerated by the state and the state should not prosecute anyone for heresy or atheism.  But for Spinoza, the expression of religion was not entirely free from political regulation.  That is true for the First Amendment of the American Constitution to a very limited extent, where the Government can show a compelling state interest.  But the First Amendment's separation of church and state has been interpreted by the US Supreme Court to prohibit the State from endorsing a particular set of religious practices or forms of worship.  For Spinoza, the sovereign was responsible for the "interpretation of religion."  The governing body in a democracy has authority to decide how religion is to be translated into practice, since it has the authority to decide what conduct is consistent with the public good. It was Spinoza's view, according to Nadler, that the "greatest threat to civil peace --- both in theory and as ancient (biblical) and contemporary (Dutch) events have shown --- is the divisions introduced into society by sectarian religion.  The multiplication of large, unregulated religious bodies, even the existence of one sizable congregation independent of the official public one, poses a danger to even a powerful and prosperous society.  Organized religions set citizens against each other --- Christians against Jews, Protestants against Catholics, Protestants against other Protestants --- and more important, against the state itself.  As soon as there are alternative sources of authority besides the sovereign, the citizens are divided."   Recall that in Spinoza's view, God is not a ruler, lawgiver.  The sovereign people are lawgivers.  "When priests and preachers acquire the authority to issue decrees and to transact government business, their individual ambitions will know no bounds, and the will each seek self-glorification both in religious and secular matters.  They will fall out among themselves, increasing sectarian divisions in society.  Corruption will necessarily follow, as the affairs of state will be run according to the self-interest of whichever sect happens to gain the reins of power."

But we find in Spinoza's Tractatus the combination of democratic republican government, the free expression of religion and the right of even heretics to be free from government persecution.  What Spinoza is more broadly interested in is the freedom to philosophize, free from not only government persecution but also from religious persecution.  This also reflects the freedom of speech component of the First Amendment as well.  It is this combination of democracy and tolerance that finds its way into the American Constitution and puts Spinoza as the seminal advocate for the political religious foundations that became enshrined in the American Constitution.

As with Galileo's book, the ecclesiastical authorities marshaled support from the political authorities to ban the Tractatus, even in the tolerant Netherlands.   Spinoza was never able to to persuade the Christian community, as he hoped.  It is difficult to categorize Spinoza, including claiming he was an atheist, and this is true for the ecclesiasticals of his time as well the 20th century Nazis who could not figure out why German intellectuals held him in high regard.  (See April 1, 2012 post).  But Nadler correctly concludes, "Without a doubt, the Theological Political Treatise is one of the most important books in the history of philosophy, in religious and political thought, and even in Bible studies.  More than any other work, it laid the foundation for modern critical and historical approaches to the Bible.  And while often overlooked in books on the history of political thought the Treatise also has a proud and well-deserved place in the rise of democratic theory, civil liberties, and political liberalism.  The ideas of the Treatise inspired republican revolutionaries in England, America and France, and it encourage early modern anticlerical and antisectarian movements."

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil (2004)

Christopher Boehm's thesis (see November 21, 2012 post) is that members of egalitarian late-Pleistocene human hunter-gatherer groups suppressed their egoistic self-interest that had long been a part of their genetic fabric dating back millions of years to their chimpanzee roots and adopted altruistic, cooperative sharing practices in order to avoid ostracism, deprivation and perhaps more severe forms of punishment directed at those group members who cheated on the egalitarian expectations of others in their group.  Survival or "fitness" for continued survival within the group favored those who were able to exercise greater self-control over their egoistic impulses and cohere with the group.  Sharing of meat within a group on roughly equal shares became a key behavioral norm sustaining individual and group success/survival/fitness. 

Michael Shermer would agree with Boehm's thesis, and he even cites Boehm's earlier works on this subject.  Yet while there is some "science" covered in Shermer's The Science of Good and Evil --- including many of the facts and ideas mentioned in the three previous posts --- the book seems largely devoted to defending Shermer's self-described status as a "skeptic" and the view likewise found in Boehm's Moral Origins (see November 21, 2012 post) that the evolution of human morality preceded the development of religion and religious institutions.  Shermer wastes no time asserting that religion co-opted the moral sentiments and behaviors that hominid evolution already established among humans over hundreds of thousand of years resulting in the development of morality and ethics within paleolithic humans.  The significance of Shermer's claim is his conclusion that morality does not need religion or god.  "While individual religious believers may be exceptionally moral and tolerant people, and while religion may inspire some individuals' extraordinary morality and tolerance, religion does not necessarily foster these desirable traits."  The history of religion is littered with intolerance and even hatred of others, particularly those outside of a group, and that is even true today.  Here is what Shermer says:

"At the foundation of the Bio-Cultural Evolutionary model is an evolving moral sense.  By moral sense, I mean a moral feeling or emotion generated by actions.  For example, positive emotions such as righteousness and pride are experienced as the psychological feeling of doing "good."  These moral emotions likely evolved out of behaviors that were reinforced as being good either for the individual or the group.  Negative emotions such as guilt and shame are experienced as the psychological feeling of doing "bad."  These moral emotions probably evolved out of behaviors that were reinforced as being bad for the individual or for the group.  This is the psychology of morality --- the feeling of being moral or immoral.  These moral emotions represent something deeper than specific feelings about specific behaviors.  While cultures may differ on what behaviors are defined as good or bad, the general moral emotion of feeling good or feeling bad about behavior X (whatever X may be) is an evolved emotion that is universal to all emotions."  Later Shermer adds, "[S]pecific behaviors in a culture may be considered right or wrong and these may vary over cultures and history . . .[b]ut the sense of being right or wrong in the emotions of righteousness and pride, guilt and shame, is a human universal that had an evolutionary origin. **** The codification of moral principles out of the psychology of moral traits evolved as a form of social control to ensure the survival of individual within groups and the survival of human groups themselves.  Religion was the first social institution to canonize moral principles, but morality need not be the exclusive domain of religion.  Religions succeeded in identifying the human universal moral and immoral thoughts and behaviors most appropriate for accentuating amity and attenuating enmity.  But we can improve on the ethical systems developed thousand of years ago by people of agricultural societies whose moral codes are surely open to change.***[R]eligion codified these moral principles for sound reasons having nothing to do with divine inspiration.  The moral sentiments and principles came first, evolving over the course of a hundred thousand years of humans living in a Paleolithic environment.  Religion came second, co-opting morality and codifying it to its own end, all of which happened in just the past couple of thousand years.  What would happen if we jettisoned religion altogether?  Would society collapse into immoral chaos?" Shermer asks.  "No, it would not," he responds.  Our moral sense is older than religion and would continue to survive even if a titanic cultural change occurred with the disappearance of religion." 

Both Boehm and Shermer put the origins of moral sentiments in humans --- the equivalent of the Golden Rule --- at about 35,000 years ago.  Religion, a cultural phenomenon emerged later, "as bands and tribes gave way to chiefdoms and states.  Religion encouraged altruism and selflessness, discouraging excessive greed and selfishness, promoting cooperation over competition, and revealing the level of commitment to the group through social events and religious rituals."

The emergence of religion was not a sudden phenomenon, and religion probably did not emerge  to encourage altruism and selflessness. Anthropologists and archaeologists have documented that human social structure likely evolved from egalitarian bands and tribes to chiefdoms to states and nations.  If we accept Boehm's characterization that the hunter-gatherers lived in small, but relatively mobile egalitarian groups (30-100 persons).  There is evidence that the origins of religion are  found here and its origins probably had nothing to do with origins of altruism and morality.  Anthropological studies of contemporary hunter-gatherers reveal a variety of perceptions of supernatural beings, typically animate, but sometimes inanimate aspects of nature that are perceived to be "alive." But as Robert Wright reports in The Evolution of God, if you ask hunter-gatherers what their religion is, they would not know what you are asking about. Religion as we know it does not exist for the hunter-gatherer.  They do believe that a spirit exists that moves animate life, and what the hunter-gatherer is interested in from their spirits is an explanation of why bad things happen and how can things be made better.  Hunter-gatherers do not worship gods; they treat their spirits or gods like other humans. Available evidence indicates that the origins of religious experience lie in shamanism, a spiritual phenomenon  linked to magical practices designed to encourage a successful hunt and healing. Anthropological evidence of shamanism is found as early as the upper paleolithic (10-30,000 years ago). That would place the development of shamanism several thousand years after the origins of morals in humans.

In The Evolution of God (see May 12, 2010 post), Robert Wright suggests how shamans might emerge in an egalitarian environment, citing an example from research on the Crow tribe of the North American Plains:  "any tribesman might become a shaman after going on vision quest and having an apparition signifying his adoption by a particular spirit." He cites the !Kung San where, during an all night curing dance, "any man or woman was eligible to enter a trancelike state and thus summon num, a spiritual healing energy." Shamans often rely on dreams or visions or an altered state of consciousness to bring them special "knowledge," which they believe is possessed uniquely by them and which they translate to prophecy.  But in the end, to maintain one's status as a shaman depended upon their efficacy in curing, causing rain to fall, or ensuring a successful hunt.  If the shaman was not effective, he or she was replaceable.  Wright suggests that shamans may have practiced deception in order to sustain their status.  Successful shamans possess a certain power within their group, but this power may or may not have been necessarily political like the power of a local governor or mayor, says Wright.  Political leadership within a group may have emerged from the leadership of the shaman where the shaman emerged to become a mediators of within group conflict and conflict between groups.

According to Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel, archaeological evidence indicates that hunter-gatherer societies evolved to chiefdoms about 5500 B.C., perhaps earlier.  The emergence of chiefdoms however follows by about 4500 years the beginning of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, the beginning of the Neolithic Period, when the cultivation of food (as opposed to merely harvesting wild food) would have encouraged settlement rather than nomadic mobility.  As the homo sapien population grew around these settlements, small groups or bands started aligning into communities, perhaps consisting of a thousand or thousands of people.  Characterized by several settled communities controlled by a single leader, equality is no longer a characteristic of the group and heredity is a source of status within the chiefdom.  Hierarchical forms of leadership emerged within chiefdoms.  The chief probably became involved in directing the distribution of food within his communities. 

In describing religion in the age of chiefdoms, Robert Wright writes in The Evolution of God:

"Shamanism, then, turns out to have been the start of something big. This early form of religious expertise, found in hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies, was at most an amorphous leadership. Though the shaman’s claims to supernatural skill earned him or her social status and a kind of power over people’s lives, shamanic influence rarely translated into clear-cut political clout. But as agriculture emerged and chiefdoms crystallized, political and religious leadership matured and fused, and the fusion held these newly complex societies together."

While noting considerable diversity among chiefdoms, Wright describes the Polynesian chiefs studied by anthropologists as possessing a "divine authority," even emanating from the divine and perhaps returning to the divine after death, possessing a divine or supernatural power referred to as mana.  According to Wright, this represented a natural extension of shamanism: "elevate your importance by claiming special access to the supernatural." In chiefdoms, we see the merging of supernatural religion and political leadership.  Wright continues:

"In this phase of cultural evolution ---- with personal policing having lost its charm but with government not yet taking up the slack --- a supplementary force of social control was called for.  Religion seems to have responded to the call.  Whereas religion in hunter-gatherer societies didn't have much of a moral dimension, religion in the Polynesian chiefdoms did:  it systematically discouraged antisocial behavior."

This is the point in time that Shermer is referring to when religion embraced and co-opted morals.  Now human social sanctions were supplemented by threats of supernatural sanctions.  It took religion between 25,000 and 30,000 years of human history, one thousand generations, to embrace the Golden Rule and encourage self-restraint.  Wright concludes, "When you add up all the little ways Polynesian religion encouraged self-restraint ---- enough perhaps to compensate for the absence of a centralized legal system.  And religion in chiefdoms was doing more than fill in for not-yet-invented secular laws; it was paving the way for secular laws."

According to Boehm, morality and altruism emerged when individual humans began to submit to the interest of the hunter-gatherer group.  Submissiveness and obedience became a human trait in the late Pleistocene.  Religion encourages submissiveness, and studies suggest that religion exploits the submissive tendencies of naturally submissive persons.  Robert Wright's reporting on religion in the era of chiefdoms would suggest that chiefs were not submissive, because they viewed themselves as among the gods.  At some point in human history, very recently I submit, religious leaders shed the view that they had some special connection to the supernatural and to gods and became submissive to the god(s) they worshipped.  This may reflect a return, perhaps not completely, to a more egalitarian group environment and it would be interesting to know what prompts this circumstance, but I would suggest that survival as leader in the cultural milieu might have something to do with it as well.  And in that vain, the separation of political leader and the "priestly class" as evidenced in the history of the Jews in the Old Testament may have had something to do with the submissiveness of religious leaders as well.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Christopher Boehm, Moral Origins, The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame (2012)

Anthropologist Christopher Boehm is interested in this question:  Why did humans evolve a conscience?  Before exploring this question and what Boehm believes may be the answer to his question, I want to develop some facts and opinions of others on issues that I believe bear on this question, some of which Boehm does discuss and some of which he does not discuss in his book Moral Origins.

The first issue I want to address is the role of emotions, and in particular the social emotions in the origins of human morality.  Boehm concludes Moral Origins by saying that in a few generations we "may have identified some of the genetic mechanisms that help us to behave egoistically, nepotistically, and altruistically, along with others that make for sympathetic generosity, domination and submission, and a variety of other socially significant behaviors that are relevant to morality, including our shame responses."  Boehm may well be right that we will identify the genetic mechanisms behind moral and immoral behavior in a few generations, but the roadmap of investigation is already before us and it begins with emotions.  I say this for two reasons:  first, if anything, genes code for our body chemistry; genes may or may not code for specific behavior (moral or otherwise), although I doubt it (see November 30, 2009 post).  But emotions are driven by electro-chemical actions and reactions in our various body systems and ultimately the neurological system leading to our brains, and genes do code for these electro-chemical actions and reactions and genes code for our brain and other body organs.  If we want to understand the genetic basis for moral and immoral behavior we will look for the genes tied to these body systems and the chemistry that drives emotions.  The second reason is not biological, but an observation that philosophers have made since the 18th century: that emotions, and in particular certain social emotions shape our "moral sentiments." (See April 8, 2011 post).  I am thinking particularly of David Hume (see February 27, 2011 post)  and Adam Smith (see January 11, 2011 post).  Research is beginning to show that emotions trigger moral behavior. 

The second issue is the growth of the brain in the evolution of hominids leading to homo sapiens.  Antonio Damasio's works confirm that the evolution of consciousness in humans is tied to the growth and development of the brain, particularly the cortical regions, and without "extended" consciousness apparently enabled by the larger human brain we very likely have no conscience.  (See April 8, 2011 post and October 25, 2011 post).  Damasio hits a theme in these two paragraphs from his book, Looking for Spinoza, that I quote at length below, and which I don't believe Boehm would disagree with:

"The construction of what we call ethics in humans may have begun as part of an overall program of bioregulation.  The embryo of ethical behaviors would have been another step in a progression that includes all the nonconscious, automated mechanisms that provide metabolic regulation; drives and motivations; emotions of diverse kinds; and feelings.   Most importantly, the situations that evoke these emotions and feelings call for solutions that include cooperation.  It is not difficult to imagine the emergence of justice and honor out of the practices of cooperation.  Yet another layer of social emotions, expressed in the form of dominant or submissive behaviors within the group, would have played an important role in the active give and take that define cooperation.

"It is reasonable to believe that humans equipped with this repertoire of emotions and whose personality traits include cooperative strategies would be more likely to survive longer and leave more descendants.  That would have been the way to establish a genomic basis for brains capable of producing cooperative behavior.  This is not to suggest that there is a gene for cooperative behavior, let alone ethical behavior in general.  All that would be necessary would be a consistent presence of the many genes likely to endow brains with certain regions of circuitry and with the attendant wiring --- for example, regions such as the ventromedial frontal lobe that can interrelate certain categories of perceived events with certain emotional feeling responses.  In other words, some genes working in concert would promote the construction of certain brain components, and the regular operation of those components, which, in turn, given the appropriate environmental exposures, would make certain kinds of cognitive strategy and behavior more probable under certain circumstances.  In essence, evolution would have endowed brains with the apparatus necessary to recognize certain cognitive configurations and trigger certain emotions related to the management of the problems or opportunities posed by those configurations.  The fine tuning of that remarkable apparatus would depend on the history and habitat of the developing organism." (emphasis added).

The social emotions: Shame, Sympathy and Empathy. The so-called "social emotions" --- embarrassment, guilt, shame, and pride --- are linked to moral behavior in humans, and therefore no discussion of moral origins can ignore social emotions. "It is highly probable that the availability of such social emotions has played a role in the development of complex cultural mechanisms of social regulation," writes Antonio Damasio in Looking for Spinoza. "It is also apparent that some social emotional reactions are elicited in human social situations without the stimulus for the reaction being apparent to the reactor and to observers." Damasio believes that the social emotions are buried deep in the organism's brain, innate rather than taught. (See April 8, 2011 post). Researchers have concluded that social emotions are not unique to humans. As Damasio observed in Looking for Spinoza, "Because the term 'social' inevitably conjures up the notion of human society and of culture, it is important to note that social emotions are by no means confined to humans. Look around and you will find examples of social emotions in chimpanzees, baboons, and plain monkeys; in dolphins and lions; in wolves; and, of course, in your dog and cat. The examples abound --- the proud ambulations of a dominant monkey; the literally regal deportment of a dominant great ape or wolf that commands the respect of the group; the humiliated behavior of the animal that does not dominate an must yield space and precedence at mealtimes; the sympathy an elephant shows toward another that is injured and ailing; or the embarrassment the dog shows after doing what he should not." (See also June 17, 2010 post).

Psychologists distinguish between basic emotions and social emotions.  Moral emotions are treated as a subset of social emotions.  Which emotions constitute the "basic" emotions is a matter of debate, but they at least include happiness, sadness, disgust, anger, and fear --- emotions that require an awareness of one's own somatic state.  These are ancient emotions that are tied to survival, driving us away from harm and directing us toward some reward.  Social emotions require the existence of a group, a theory of mind (TOM) and an awareness of the mental states of others.  The social emotions include embarrassment, guilt, shame, contempt, indignation, sympathy, compassion, gratitude and pride.  Following Jonathan Haidt's paper on The Moral Emotions, Antonio Damasio in Looking for Spinoza has described the basic emotions underlying the social emotions and what he calls the emotionally competent stimulus (ECS) for and consequences of the social emotions as follows:

Social emotion
Basic emotion
Embarrassment, shame, guilt
Weakness or failure or violation in individual’s own behavior
Prevent or avoid punishment by others; restore balance to self or group
Fear, sadness
Contempt, indignation
Other individual’s violation of norms
Punishment or violation, enforcing of social norms
Disgust, anger
Sympathy, compassion
Another individual suffering, in need
Comfort, restoration of balance in other or group
Attachment, sadness
Awe, gratitude, pride
Recognition in others or self of contribution to cooperation
Reward for cooperation, reinforcing tendency to cooperate

These social emotions, the ECS, and consequences become central to Boehm's discussion of moral origins.  Damasio's point:  "In a society deprived of such emotions and feelings, there would have been no spontaneous exhibition of the innate social response that foreshadow a simple ethical system---no budding altruism, no kindness when kindness is due, no censure when censure is appropriate, no automatic sense of one's own failings.  In he absence of the feelings or such emotions, humans would not have engaged in a negotiation aimed at finding solutions for problems faced by the group, e.g., identification and sharing of food resources, defense against threats or disputes among its members."  Boehm at least implicitly recognizes this in the subtitle of his book --- The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism and Shame --- but the genetic foundations of our emotions is not clearly called out.

Shame is particularly called out by Boehm as an emotion central to moral origins in humans, but I will address that more specifically later.  Boehm repeatedly treats sympathy and empathy as synonyms; they are not and I want to comment on that here.  But in discussing moral origins, Boehm is correct to emphasize "sympathy."  Sympathy, as Damasio's categories above suggest, is proactive: the consequence is for one person to provide comfort to another person.  As Frans DeWaal says in The Age of Empathy (see November 9, 2010 post), "Sympathy, in contrast, reflects concern about the other and a desire to improve the other's situation."  In contrast, "Empathy is the process by which we gather information about someone else."  Empathy is more of a feeling rather than an emotion.  As Jonathan Haidt writes in his article The Moral Emotions,  "Empathy is not an emotion at all; it is a tendency to feel whatever another person is feeling, including happiness, anger, or boredom."  With respect to empathy, we can recall the discussion of mirror neurons in monkeys, apes, and humans, that would facilitate these feelings.  (See October 25, 2011 post and July 16, 2010 post)  "Empathy is easily aroused," says DeWaal, but "sympathy is anything but automatic."  Sympathy is common in both humans, chimpanzees and bonobos who can be consoling.  Sympathy, however, would not occur without a capacity for empathy. 

This brings us to shame, embarrassment and guilt. Shame attracted the attention of Charles Darwin. He noted that humans universally blushed with shame that appeared to be associated with a moral conscience. This behavior is seen only in humans. By definition, shame is provoked when an individual recognizes that his or her own conduct (or perhaps the conduct of another group member, for example shame due to the conduct of one's own child or spouse) has transgressed the social rules or expectations of others.  Shame implicitly, if not explicitly, acknowledges the applicability of those social rules to one's own conduct.  It is similar to guilt, but guilt could apply to an individual's own rules and not merely social rules.  Boehm says that during his research in the African forest "the apes never appeared to me as though they were upset over their own behavior, let alone ashamed of it or remorseful. I did notice that between individuals there were postures and gestures that seemed to ask for or grant forgiveness, and in fact chimpanzees often make up after conflicts. . . However, this seems to be aimed merely at reducing tension or restoring positive relations, so reading a morally-based element of remorse into such behavior would be patently anthropocentric. Nothing I observed ever convinced me that there was something like morally based self-recrimination in the wild, for aggressors never appeared to be troubled by their actions afterward." How did humans come to blush with shame so predictably, asks Boehm? Much of the answer has to lie in biology, he says, but in considering actual selection process that might have supported the existence of a conscience Boehm's social selection' theory described above "explains the rather unusual set of agencies that created this moral faculty for us." Once shame feelings emerged "there would have been no question about [humans] moral status, reflecting that humans had strongly internalized group values and a sense of right and wrong," concluded Boehm. The expression of shame, guilt, and embarrassment enables the deviant to avoid punishment by others and restores one's place in the group.  But was the environmental trigger that induced the expression of the shame emotion in humans the behavior of other humans?  Although he does not expressly say this, Boehm's "social selection" theory seems to suggest this.

What we are ultimately interested in here is the development of altruistic behavior: direct and indirect reciprocal behavior (see September 27, 2012 post and September 12, 2012 post) in terms of the consequences described in Damasio's categories above, cooperation. What were the environmental drivers that triggered the development of moral emotions and ultimately the capacity to engage in altruistic reciprocal exchange, particularly that exchange that does not require direct reciprocal exchange?  As Martin Nowak observed in Supercooperators, "We are the only species that "can summon the full power of indirect reciprocity, thanks to our rich and flexible language."  (See September 17, 2012 post).

Human brain size and structure.  While the social insects demonstrate that cooperation is not a function of brain size (see November 4, 2009 post) , in hominids, I submit, it is highly relevant. Also relevant, according to recent research, are variations between species in the relative size of certain areas of this larger brain and the extent of interconnections between areas that can explain differences in temperament and behavior that translates into greater empathy and less aggression, which may or may not have co-evolved with the enlargement of the brain.  Also relevant may be differences in neurons between species.  (See November 9, 2010 post).  Boehm also believes this subject is relevant to his inquiry about the evolution of conscience, but he is not certain just how much weight to assign to his answer. According to Lynch and Granger in their book Big Brain, the chimpanzee has a brain size roughly 350-400 cubic centimeters (cc); the extinct Australopithecus, a brain size of about 440-450cc; extinct homo habilis, a brain size of about 600cc; the extinct homo erectus, a brain size of about 800cc-1000cc; the extinct homo heidelbergensis, a brain size of about 1200cc; the extinct neanderthal (homo neanderthalensis), a brain size of about 1500cc; and homo sapiens, a brain size of about 1350cc. In the evolutionary trail from the genus pan to the genus homo and the species within the genus homo, the brain enlarged over time (although the human brain has apparently shrunk in more modern times). The pan/homo divergence is believed to have occurred about 6 million years ago, and an emergent characteristic of the new species was bipedalism --- upright walking - which evolved with austalopithecines, perhaps as early as 3.6 million years ago, long before larger brain size. According to Lynch and Granger, changes to body that support walking increased lower trunk, and a side effect of a longer, lower trunk is to increase the space into which a uterus can expand during pregnancy. In women, this is accompanied by a wider pelvic girdle and the result is bigger babies. Bigger brains follows bigger babies. As the brain becomes bigger, most of the increase is not dedicated to sensory and motor needs, but to new neocortical areas. The biggest brains have much more cortex than smaller brains, and moreover, a bigger cortex has within it much more association cortex than sensory regions. This results in different relative intelligence for different brain size. Natural selection, conclude Lynch and Granger, did not select for intelligence. Intelligence was enabled by larger brains. Intelligence has been enabled by an expanded neocortex, which in humans is involved in higher functions such as sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought and language. The neanderthal evolved roughly 200-250,000 years ago in Europe and Asia; the homo sapien approximately 150-200,000 years ago in Africa. These capabilities of larger brains in homo sapiens did not emerge immediately. Language, for example, is not believed to have emerged until roughly 100,000 years ago. Language, I believe, is crucial for the evolution of a conscience, and Boehm appears to agree ("Morality is a group affair . . . Critical to this process is talking . . .").  Proto-languages, however, may have existed with earlier species such as homo erectus, but we will never know.  Equally critical to cooperative behavior in my view, particularly because it must be tied to indirect reciprocity, is the development of long-term memory, which is said to be encoded in the medial temporal lobe

As Antonio Damasio described above, parts of the prefrontal cortex are significant to social emotional associations, decision-making and moderating social behavior. Studies show that damage to a part of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex can impair empathetic responses in humans.  While other pan species have a prefrontal cortex, the prefrontal cortex of the human brain is significantly larger than that of chimpanzees, bonobos, and other apes, it also has more substantial folding (hence greater surface area) in this area than chimps and apes, and this has significant implications for behavioral differences that distinguish chimpanzees from humans.  Since we have seen that sympathy and empathy have been observed in the pan species, chimpanzees and bonobos, and that these species have prefrontal cortex structures similar, but not identical to humans, the human capacity for empathy and sympathy has its origins long ago in our non-human ancestors.  The larger brain capacity in homo, it is my belief, together with relative enlargement of certain areas of the brain and the connections between them, has probably contributed to their greater ability to engage in self-control over their egotistical impulses and greater empathy and compassion for other humans and perhaps other animals.  What we don't possess at this time is much in the way of research on the neural correlates of shame and guilt.  An Internet search came across only a couple of recent papers that acknowledged there had not been much research in this area, and that research might advance this discussion a bit.

Selfish or self-control?  In a prior post discussing Richard Wrangham's Demonic Males (see July 1, 2010 post), I noted, "If this was the only book one read on the subject of the origins of human behavior, you would conclude that male humans are born to kill, but empirical observation tells us that is not the only truism one can declare about male humans. Demonic Males is very interesting for what it documents: the apparent origins of human violence can be found in other primate species closest to humans, which indicates a genetic and evolutionary foundation for violent behavior among human males. But there is more to the story that primatologists are telling us about the commonalities among primate behaviors, including the origins of social cohesion, cooperation, and even morality and altruism. Michael Gazzaniga's Human (September 27, 2009 post) contributes much to this broader understanding of human evolution. Wrangham barely mentions these other common attributes of primate social systems. Violence is only one behavioral aspect of our social nature."  Boehm would agree that humans are very different than chimpanzees, and what he endeavors to explain in Moral Origins is that notwithstanding the fact that selfish, egoistic impulses are stronger in humans than altruistic impulses, humans have evolved a capacity for self-control that suppresses selfishness and campaigns for generosity and the Golden Rule. Boehm falls in the line of thinkers that includes Frans DeWaal and repeatedly emphasizes our dual nature:  we are selfish egoists and we are selfless altruists.  As I described in the post discussing DeWaal's The Age Empathy (see November 9, 2010 post),   "DeWaal takes aim at three myths: (1) the myth that our ancestors --- 4 foot bipedal apes --- ruled the savanna in Africa; (2) that human society is a voluntary creation of autonomous men; and (3) that our species has been waging war for as long as it has been around. Our ancestors were likely both prey and predator and survival favored genes that encouraged collaboration and companionship. The idea that humans were autonomous falsely presumes they had no need for anybody else and could voluntarily choose to live apart, uncommitted to anyone else or any place. A warlike initial state of nature that philosophers like Rousseau imagined that was overcome by social compacts is actually the reverse of human evolution: war on a grand scale, like we have known for centuries, came only after social hierarchies were formed and wealth was created. The early human species was probably defined more by social commitments and small scale collaboration that promoted primitive economic exchange and division of labor."  Moral Origins is an attempt to provide a historical account of how these social commitments and small scale collaboration evolved. 

Fire and group behavior.  Recall E.O. Wilson's view that a key event (but certainly not the only event) in the development of human eusociality was the mastery of fire.  (See September 12, 2012 post).  The nest, or its equivalent, is viewed by Wilson as a key to eusociality, and the campfire, according to Wilson, is the human equivalent of a nest found in other eusocial species.  For genus homomastery of fire occurred first during the era of homo erectus, perhaps as early as one million years ago but certainly 600-800,000 years ago, and long before the emergence of homo sapiens and homo neanderthalensis 200,000 years ago.  The development and use of early tools is also associated with homo erectus, and homo erectus may have lived in small bands of 30-50 men and womenWhat we do not know is whether homo erectus' ability to control fire was merely the use of fire otherwise started naturally, or resulted in the development of a campfire created by homo erectus --- the equivalent of the nest in other eusocial species.  There is a debate as to whether or not homo erectus had vocal communications ability.   But clearly we can see in this species some of the precursors of human eusociality that both Wilson (September 12, 2012 post) and Martin Nowak (see September 17, 2012 post) addressed. 

The campfire is not merely a nest but it is a location where food, particularly protein-rich meat is cooked and consumed.  This is significant for the larger-brain hominid described above.  Recent studies indicate that increased consumption of cooked vegetation and meat supports larger brains.  The larger brain is not, as described above, merely defined in terms of cranial capacity, but greater neuronal capacity ("neuron rich").  If larger hominids had larger brains, as Lynch and Granger posit, it is plausible that the more successful ("fit") of these larger hominids would put these larger brains to better use than other hominids.  The brain with greater neuronal connections to other parts of the brain and increased neuronal capacity is more likely to do that, and to support those connections and neurons requires increased consumption of cooked vegetation and meat to meet the energy demands of that brain.  It is also plausible that the larger hominid with the larger brain would have to kill larger animals and consume them more frequently than the chimpanzee and other apes and hominids, and to accomplish that feat it is plausible that hunting, killing, and cooking meat in groups is a more successful ("fit") strategy.  To incent that group behavior and longer-term group cohesion for capturing and killing large animals, it is plausible that sharing meat in the vicinity of the campfire would enhance success/survival ("fitness").  Thus, the campfire and brain size are plausibly linked to survival of the hominid phenotype. 

Christopher Boehm notes that most other researchers have taken an ahistorical approach to moral origins among humans, focusing as does E.O. Wilson (September 12, 2012 post) on evolutionary theory as applied to kin selection and group selection or, as does Martin Nowak,(September 17, 2012 post) on mathematical fitness estimations for conditions favoring reciprocal behavior. Boehm offers a historical approach, but to his own credit he, like Charles Darwin, admits to the difficulties in this approach:  we have no written record from the pan troglodytes of 3-6 million years ago, or the austalopethicines of 3.5 million years or the homo habilis or the homo erectus, or even the more recent homo neanderthalensis that followed, about how these extinct species interacted socially (the extent of their within group or other group competition or cooperation), how they communicated.  Furthermore, we have a sketchy, but growing fossil record of these now extinct species, but the fossil record tells us no more about the organization of the brains of these species; all we know is their cranial capacity.  What we do have is evidence of fires, markings on bones, shaped rocks that indicates their use as tools or hunting devices found in the vicinity of the remains of these extinct species and capable of carbon dating, as well as the bones of animals nearby indicating that humans or their predecessors consumed the meat of these animals.  These are true challenges for developing a historical record of what these extinct species were actually like, and Boehm, like Darwin, is forced to describe a history based on its "general plausibility" by providing a working hypothesis, some of which are no more than "glorified hunches, while others may seem them as highly worthwhile leads for future research." 

In addition to the sketchy fossil record described above, Boehm also has at his disposal a body of evidence that can be observed today that is relevant to developing his history:  chimpanzee and bonobo behavior that is presumably similar to their behavior 6 million years ago when the ancestors of genus homo split from pan troglodytes, and the recorded observations of scholars about these species are growing; furthermore, we have a record of observations about a dwindling number of  homo sapiens hunter-gatherer groups developed over the past century to the current period, which behavior is presumably not much different than homo sapiens hunter gatherers who existed 35,000 to perhaps 200,000 years ago.  Based on these observations, Boehm concludes that human hunter gatherers, both now and then, exhibit a behavior that is distinctly different than the behavior of our closest relative, the chimpanzee.  Whereas, the male chimpanzee, is obsessed with dominance and rank and lives in social groups organized hierarchically led by an "alpha male," often displaying in-group aggression against one another and instability in rank, and female chimpanzees less obsessed with rank and dominance, less social, and less aggressive than their male counterparts, the human hunter gatherer of the late Pleistocene, based on modern observations, is characterized by egalitarian relations among persons within small groups, says Boehm.  Something happened in the evolution of the genus pan, to the australopethicines, and genus homo over the 5.8 million year period from the time of split and the emergence of homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago that transformed one species from a hierarchical dominance obsessed social group marked by within group aggression to another species characterized by within-group egalitarianism.  That is the historical trail Boehm seeks to describe in discovering how humans developed a conscience, whereby humans internalize group rules. 

Boehm believes there is a special type of natural selection that he calls "social selection" that involves "the effects of human preferences in choosing others in useful partnerships or in coming down hard on disliked deviants [cheaters]."  His working hypothesis is that at some point in the course of human history, group punishment of cheaters became severe and frequent and affected the human gene pool and ultimately favored human individuals with greater self-control in order to avoid group punishment. Group punishment could have been lethal, Boehm surmises, but it could have involved ostracism or deprivation of what was treated as community property, notably meat.  Whatever the form of punishment invites submissiveness to the group.  The "instrument" of self-control, believes Boehm, is the conscience.  What triggered this development, he submits, is humans embarking on a "new kind of subsistence pattern based on hunting" large animals for food that could only be met by groups.  For these groups to have any kind cohesion required an efficient, equitable sharing of the meat of these large animals.  The obstacle to setting up this egalitarian scenario for a small band of human hunters, Boehm recognizes, is the nature of the ancestral alpha male prone to appropriating the meat of others, which has not altogether disappeared from human nature today.  To achieve egalitarian relations among a small group of human hunters required the threat of force, enforced by the small group.  He believes that this evolutionary trend began around 200-250,000 years ago and culminated approximately 45,000 years ago.  He says this is a "tentative hypothesis," and new archaeological finds and future developments in behavioral genetics could lead to alternative hypotheses. 

Boehm suspects that the step from hierarchically-organized rank-oriented aggressive chimpanzees to egalitarian human hunter-gatherers was motivated by "rank-and-file envy over the perks of alpha bullies, which related to power, food, and sex."  In other words, at some point in time a few million years ago along the trail to homo sapiens, the submissive gradually said we have had enough, we are tired of being intimidated.  The submissive "would have developed some systematic type of collectivized and potentially lethal social control . . . to prevent high-ranking bullies from just naturally monopolizing large carcasses killed by group members and acting as free-riders, when it was the undernourished others in the band who were doing the hard work of hunting."  This type of social sanctioning is observed in modern human hunter gatherer groups in the modern era.  The alpha males are compelled to adapt to the group's will by achieving greater self-control over their egoistic impulses in order to gain greater fitness.  Boehm admits that it is possible that the evolution to egalitarianism began earlier than 200-250,000 years ago when homo sapiens first appeared on the scene (e.g. during the era of homo erectus as early as 1.8 million years ago), but at this point this is even more speculative than the plausible scenario found in the human fossil record.  Boehm points to evidence of carcasses butchered by archaic humans 400,000 years ago that show cut marks on bones that are "chaotic and varied" suggesting that several people did the butchering, consistent with what is observed in chimpanzee and bonobo meat eating scenes.  More recently, about 200,000 years ago there is evidence of cut marks on the bones of animal carcasses that are consistent with a single individual acting as butcher "reminiscent of what takes place with modern hunter-gatherers, where in effect the meat becomes a vigilant band's common property, to be widely shared in a systematic, culturally routinized fashion that averts serious conflict" where the hunters turn the carcass over to a "neutral meat distributor who is uninvolved with the kill," preventing a successful hunter from egoistically controlling the meat.  In contrast, while chimpanzees do share meat, it not a significant part of their diet and the meat does not come from large animals. The strategic motivation for meat sharing among chimpanzees appears to be for the support alliances with other chimps to maintain alpha male dominance within a group rather than support an egalitarian social environment between them. 

We can note several things about Boehm's hypothesis.  The timetable is consistent with the evolution of a larger brain in humans that we know is organized to be more socially responsive to others, both emotionally but also in terms of exercising self-control.  Boehm estimates that human moral origins appeared 35-45,000 years ago.  Interestingly, this suggests that it took about 150,000 - 160,000 years for the larger-brained homo sapiens to evolve their group structures and emotions to support collaborative hunter-gatherer groups. Did the structure of the human brain subtly evolve during this period so that certain homo sapiens with a particular brain structure and types of neurons were selected over other homo sapiens who did not have the same organization? The timetable is also consistent with what we believe occurred with the development of spoken language in humans, which has to be a key to the development of moral rules among humans. Boehm cites evidence of "preaching behavior" among egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies that may have been important to "behaviorally amplify the sympathetic generous tendencies of group members," a behavior that carried over to later hierarchical societies among humans that evolved when settled agrarianism later took root.

Finally, "social selection" is not merely the effect of the suppression of free-riding egoists; rather the intimidation and punishment of deviants acts in combination with "reputational selection."  This is a reference to what we have referred to in the previous posts (see September 17, 2012 post and September 12, 2002 post) as indirect reciprocity.  Simply put, for Boehm, there must be an explanation for why humans extend altruism to non-kin and developed a sense of virtue.  I wonder if we are not over-labeling "selection."  I think Boehm is getting close to saying that there is a gene for altruism, and in fact in his chapter titled "Testing the Selection-by-Reputation Hypothesis" he begins to refer to "altruistic genes" and "genes made for altruism."  I am skeptical of this line of thinking.  Clearly, indirect reciprocity among persons who do not know each other well or know each other at all is based on reputation.  It is a real phenomenon. We often join groups based on reputation. But what nature selects for is emotions and feelings, like attachment and sympathy and empathy, and these emotions in combination with other biological attributes selected by nature end up promoting reciprocal altruism, directly and indirectly.

Finally, what the research described by Christopher Boehm reveals is that the origins of human morality appeared tens of thousands of years before humans created social institutions and hierarchies, including religious and governmental institutions.  Importantly, morality precedes religion and the genetic origins (at least some of the genetic origins) of morality can be linked back to hundreds of thousands if not millions of years ago in other species.  Moral behavior is thus part of nature; it is not owned by religion, nor is it religiously inspired, and it predates the human mind's invention of deities.  Boehm suspects that the origins of religious belief in the brain's capacity for patternicity and agenticity, as described by Michael Shermer (see June 12, 2011 post) probably co-evolved with the origins of morality during the late Pleistocene, but gods, religious institutions, and the co-opting of morality by religious institutions came later, when humans began creating permanent communities as they transformed from hunter-gatherers to agrarian life and domestication of animals.