Monday, June 24, 2013

For Shame

When I wrote about reading Christopher Boehm's Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, Lee mentioned that he had read his later book, Moral Origins:The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. Well, I couldn't resist and now am reading it also. I have to say that Moral Origins is far more accessible in style, and that it is written with exceptional clarity and elegance. The issues and arguments (so far, I'm a slow reader) are very well presented, as are remaining controversies. Here is a sample I liked a lot:

What Darwin did about this last problem was quite remarkable. He initiated the first systematic research across cultures by writing to colonial administrators and missionaries all over the world to ask them whether indigenous people in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere blushed with shame. Having one’s face “color” for social reasons is unique to humans, and Darwin was interested in knowing whether morally based, shameful blushing was merely something that certain groups did because their local cultures led them in that direction or whether, as he suspected, there might well be a strong hereditary component. What his far-flung anthropological research project told him was that indigenous people everywhere did seem to blush with shame. And on this basis he could assume that, as an important aspect of our conscientious moral sense, human shame reactions surely had to have an innate basis.

This research project stands today as a true landmark in the anthropological science of human nature, and what it suggested more generally was that conscience and morality had to have evolved, in the biological sense of the word. Carrying this line of research forward, I shall show that the human conscience is no mere evolutionary side effect, as Darwin had to imply it was. Rather, it evolved for specific reasons having to do with the Pleistocene environments humans had to cope with prehistorically and, more specifically, with their growing ability to use group punishment to better their own social and subsistence lives and create more socially equalized societies. Boehm, Christopher (2012-05-01). Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame (pp. 14-15). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.