This is an excerpt from Sebastian Gunger’s latest book, Tribe. This section deals specifically with the idea of morality and how it developed among ancient hunter-gatherer tribes. It serves as a great response to the Argument for Morality often used by apologists attempting to prove the existence of God.
Because tribal foragers are highly mobile and can easily shift between different communities, authority is almost impossible to impose on the unwilling. And even without that option, males who try to take control of the group – or of the food supply – are often countered by coalitions of other males. This is clearly an ancient and adaptive behavior that tends to keep groups together and equitably cared for. In his survey of ancient-type societies, Boehm found that – in addition to murder and theft – one of the most commonly punished infractions was “failure to share”. Freeloading on the hard work of others and bullying were also high up on the list. Punishments included public ridicule, shunning, and finally “assassination of the culprit by the entire group” […]
Boehm’s research has led him to believe that much of the evolutionary basis for moral behavior stems from group pressure. Not only are bad actions punished, but good actions are rewarded. When a person does something for another person – a prosocial act, as it’s called – they are rewarded not only by a group approval but also by an increasing of dopamine and other pleasure hormones in their blood. Group cooperation triggers higher levels of oxytocin, for example, which promotes everything from breast-feeding in women to higher levels of trust and group bonding in men. Both reactions impart a powerful sensation of well-being. Oxytocin creates a feedback loop of good-feeling an group loyalty that ultimately leads members to “self-sacrifice to promote group welfare”, in the words of one study. Hominids that cooperated with one another – and punished those who didn’t – must have outfought, outhunted, and outbred everyone else. There are the hominids that modern humans are descended from.
For a more in depth look at this topic you can check out Christopher Boehm’s (mentioned above) book, Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame.
Thanks for reading.