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Academic & Professional Books  Evolutionary Biology  Human Evolution & Anthropology

Moral Origins The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism and Shame

By: Christopher Boehm(Author)
418 pages, 6 tables
Publisher: Basic Books
Moral Origins
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  • Moral Origins ISBN: 9780465020485 Hardback May 2012 Usually dispatched within 1-2 weeks
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About this book

This is the natural and cultural history of the evolution of our sense of ethics, by a leading anthropologist of human morality. Conventional wisdom holds that human morality is based on two things: kindness to kin and the ability to remember and reciprocate the behavior of others. In Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism and Shame, anthropologist Christopher Boehm tells a different story. Boehm argues that morality is a means for individuals to avoid punishment at the hands of the group. Beginning with the earliest hominid communities, transgressors were punished, and often killed, because of the threat they posed to others. Those who survived were simply more likely to be nice, as were their descendants. Boehm calls this "social selection", and the result was the first stirrings of our moral sense. Rigorously researched and expertly argued, Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism and Shame offers a new evolutionary paradigm of human generosity and cooperation.

Customer Reviews


Christopher Boehm is Director of the Jane Goodall Research Center and Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Boehm's work has been featured in publications including New Scientist, the Times, and the New York Times, and in films for National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. Boehm is the author of many scientific articles and several previous books, including Hierarchy in the Forest. He divides his time between Los Angeles and Santa Fe.

By: Christopher Boehm(Author)
418 pages, 6 tables
Publisher: Basic Books
Media reviews

- Kirkus Reviews

"Astronomers have the Hubble telescope to look back through time, and social scientists have Chris Boehm. Boehm's monumental accomplishment is to give us the most careful and compelling portrait ever created of how our ancestors lived, from three hundred thousand generations ago to five hundred generations ago. Boehm's work is vital for understanding why we are so tribal, punitive, gossipy, religious, and cooperative today."
- Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia, and author of The Righteous Mind

"Few scientists have thought longer and harder about the origins of morality than Christopher Boehm, who brings to the issue a wealth of experience studying both humans and other animals. His thesis that our species has taken moral evolution into its own hands is new and refreshing. It overcomes conventional wisdom, which places emphasis solely on moral reasoning, as if the revolution in our understanding of emotions in human evolution had never happened."
- Frans de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy

"Moral Origins is an exciting study on the evolution of human morality that is appropriate for scientific researchers and also of interest for the general public as well. Christopher Boehm brilliantly ties fundamental aspects of human cooperation such as altruism, free-riding, and bullying to both primitive and advanced societies. This book is a must for all who are interested in how human morality evolved and functions."
- Ernst Fehr, Professor of Economics, University of Zurich

"In Moral Origins, Christopher Boehm uses his vast knowledge of the literature on primates and human hunter-gather populations to address the issue of the origins of human morality. It is a must-read for any social scientist, primatologist, or humanist studying human morality. Equally important, it is beautifully written in an easy and graceful style. Certainly the most informed and best work written by an anthropologist on this set of issues, Moral Origins is a book that I would recommend to any thoughtful person."
- Jonathan Turner, Distinguished Professor of Sociology, University of California, Riverside

"Christopher Boehm's Moral Origins is a tour de force of a sort rarely seen in any science. He seeks nothing less than to discover in the darkness of prehistory how and why humans first developed a moral conscience – a self-regulating sense of right and wrong. How did we come, many thousands of years ago, to acquire internalized conceptions of morality and virtue to such a degree that we would not only punish wrongdoers in our midst but even take pleasure in altruism – helping those in need beyond our own families? Boehm's surprising, even amazing answer is that it all started with the enforcement of radical egalitarianism, a refusal of the earliest humans to tolerate anyone who would dare to dominate, cheat, or otherwise take advantage of them. Moral Origins is a remarkable leap of the imagination – full of illuminating and delightful detail – about the deep history of our uniquely ethical species. It is a stimulating experience that a wide range of readers will find difficult to resist."
- Donald Black, University Professor of the Social Sciences, University of Virginia, and author of Moral Time

"[An] engrossing work[...]. Boehm does a remarkable job of extending previous work and incorporating a historical approach. He deftly combines studies of earlier hominids with ethological work on primates and ethnographic analyses of contemporary human hunter-gatherer groups to offer a new explanation for moral behavior[...]. His thesis, clearly articulated and well supported by available data, encompasses the egalitarian nature of most hunter-gatherer groups, their need to share large but rarely killed prey, and the human penchant for gossiping about the reputation of others[...]. Boehm himself notes that this may not be the last word, but his ideas are provocative, thoughtful, and worth considering."
- Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Boehm marshals extensive evidence showing how hunter-gatherers use rigidly enforced social rules to suppress free riding today, providing a model for how our ancestors could have cooperated in a natural 'welfare state' that was crucial to their survival. A key new insight Boehm provides is that humans are both able and inclined to 'punish resented alpha-male behavior'[...]. [Moral Origins] contains many important ideas."
- Wilson Quarterly

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