The birth of most of the basic human moral instincts:
full-blown empathy, cooperation, joint thinking, interdependence, altruism, the Golden
Rule, sharing, self-monitoring, social selection. Reciprocity and rudimentary empathy
and cooperation were already in existence.
2 million years ago until 15,000 years ago
Species: Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo sapiens
Human life is a cooperative enterprise. This is true of even the simplest human
From an evolutionary perspective, morality is a form of cooperation. Cooperation
requires individuals either to suppress their own self-interest or to equate it with
that of others.
Arguably, the main function of morality is to regulate an individual’s social interactions
with others in the general direction of cooperation, given that all individuals are
at least somewhat selfish. And so we may stipulate that at the very least moral
actions must involve individuals either suppressing their own self-interest in favor
of that of others (e.g., helping, sharing) or else equating their own self-interest
with that of others (e.g., reciprocity, justice, equity, and norm following and enforcement).
Michael Tomasello and Amrisha Vaish – “Origins of Human Cooperation and Morality”
Almost all human food has to be produced by many people collaborating. This obligation
to cooperate in order to obtain food first became necessary for early humans around
2 million years ago, just before the emergence of Homo erectus. At this time, the
world was cooling and drying and the African rainforests, the home of our ancestors,
were dying back to make way for grassland. Early humans were then forced to make
a living on the savannah where their normal diet of fruit, insects and leaves would
have been both less abundant and already taken by an expanded population of ground
monkeys. From the many flint animal butchery tools found with their remains, it
seems that Homo erectus turned to scavenging large carcases in order to survive.
Homo heidelbergensis are thought to have been the first human species to hunt large
game using projectile weapons, to bring the kill back to a central location, and
to cook using fire. Both these forms of subsistence require people to work together
towards a common goal, and in the case of hunting large game using hand weapons,
require sophisticated skills of coordination almost unique in the animal kingdom.
In scavenging, people would have had to band together to scare away the other predator
species trying to feed on a carcase.
“We” intentionality, joint thinking, thinking of “us” and not just “me”. This refers
to the ability of humans to collaborate with each other in shared activities with
shared goals and outcomes, for the benefit of all concerned. Within these shared
activities, in order to be able to coordinate their separate roles and perspectives
towards a common goal, humans needed to develop a new kind of social thinking. The
individual intentionality of great apes became “cooperativised” into the joint intentionality,
the shared goals and outcomes of human beings.
Chimpanzees are our nearest relatives as a species, and we assume that they can represent
the last common ancestor of humans and the other great apes – what we all evolved
from. Unlike ours, great ape social life is largely based on dominance and competition.
Chimpanzees will cooperate in some ways, such as travelling together, foraging next
to each other, hunting monkeys, fighting with another group, patrolling the borders
of their territory, forming alliances in order to compete with others, and forming
reciprocal friendships. For their own purposes they have evolved sophisticated social
skills and they have some idea of how other individuals function. But they have
no need to coordinate tightly with each other to form a single, cooperative machine,
acting towards a common goal, as humans must do in order to survive. Although they
need the support of the numbers in their group, they are not valuable to each other
as skilled cooperative partners, as humans are. Their thinking, their intentions
and their goals are individual and competitive rather than social and collective.
The Stag Hunt
There is a model within mathematical game theory, called the Stag Hunt, which offers
a plausible context for the evolution of shared intentionality in humans. In this
story, people in a group are foraging individually for food that is low in value,
and only temporarily available, such as, perhaps, small animals. Then somebody reports
that they have spotted a large game animal, which is a high value food that can keep
the group well fed. The hunters in the group would have been required to forsake
their reasonable chance of termites, or a tortoise, for the slim chance of catching
a large mammal. The challenge then is for the hunting partners to coordinate with
each other to solve a difficult, skill-intensive problem for the common good (or
else go hungry).
When humans collaborate, we do so in a way that is unique among species alive today,
inherited from our ancestors Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis. We typically
proceed like this: in experiments with children aged 1-3, it is found that humans
... coordinate a joint goal, commit themselves to that joint goal until all get their
reward, expect others to be similarly committed to the joint goal, divide the common
spoils of a collaboration equally, take leave when breaking a commitment, understand
their own and the partner’s role in the joint activity, and even help the partner
in her role when necessary.
Michael Tomasello – “A Natural History of Human Thinking”
In similar experiments, it is found that children aged 1-3 prefer to obtain what
they want by collaborating with others, while chimpanzees prefer to work on their
Coordinating the joint goal – deciding to act together
In the proposed Stag Hunt situation, it would have been necessary for the cooperative
partners, those who needed to work together, to coordinate their decision to act.
It was important to know whether it was appropriate to abandon your safe chance
of low-value food and embark on a risky stag hunt with a partner.
In other words, once a stag is spotted, each potential partner needs to know: I have
the goal to capture the stag together with you, you have the goal to capture the
stag together with me, and we both know that the other intends this and what his
intentions are towards the other. This mutual knowledge is a common ground, a shared
reality, between the partners. Those early humans who were most successful at this
initial coordination process would have had a survival advantage over others.
Joint goal, individual roles
When people are collaborating together, there are various jobs to do and therefore
various roles to play. It is thought that humans view this situation of a collective
goal with separate roles from a “bird’s eye view”, an abstract map, where the actual
people are, in principle, interchangeable within the different roles. In order to
work together more effectively, the participants will learn as much as they can about
each other’s roles and are likely to help each other where needed. Each member of
the party is interdependent with all the others: each needs all the others to play
their parts through to the completion of the common goal.
Joint attention, individual perspectives
Organisms attend to situations that are relevant to their goals.
Michael Tomasello – “A Natural History of Human Thinking”
Therefore, in a cooperative activity, each participant’s attention will necessarily
be on the shared goal; their own role in the activity; and on the other partners
and their roles and needs and what they are attending to.
All partners can attend to the object at the same time, but each has his own unique
perspective on it.
In order to achieve the joint goal it is necessary to coordinate the attention of
the partners. I will attend to your attention on the goal and to your attention
on my attention. We both know that we are looking at the same thing together. There
is a deep and recursive – back and forth – sharing of minds.
In a collaborative activity, there has to be all kinds of joint knowledge or common
ground between all participants in order for the operation to work effectively. Everyone
involved has to get with the programme. All need to be working from within the same
frame of reference. This extends to knowledge about others’ knowledge, roles, perspectives,
and view on oneself. Examples could include, “we both know the other’s goal”, “we
both know we want the same thing”, “we both know that we are seeing the same thing
from different perspectives”
The new complex coordination that human activities required, called for a new and
more effective method of communication than that used by our great ape ancestors.
The communication of great apes is insufficient for this task because: 1) it is
almost entirely self-serving and directed towards the needs of the individual, rather
than towards a common goal and needs shared with others; 2) the communication with
others is aimed simply at telling them what to do, whereas joint activity requires
that we can talk about external things and situations in the environment that are
relevant to our joint goals; it requires that we share information; I need you to
know what I am thinking. In a competitive environment, I am likely to keep this
It is thought that the first form of human communication, as distinct from that of
great apes, was the universal language that we all recognise: pointing and pantomiming.
However, of course, this is rather limited in content and requires that we have
a lot of knowledge in common. You need to know why I am pointing at that tree: we
need to establish a shared context between us in common ground. This required early
humans to further develop their skills of joint thinking.
A new motive for communication: helping
In a situation where two people are cooperating towards a joint goal, and each one
depends on the other to play their part in achieving that joint goal, it is often
necessary for one partner to help the other. One form that this can take is communication:
I will inform you helpfully, in signs or words, of things and situations that are
relevant to you. I advertise that I have something to tell or show you by using
signals such as eye contact, eye movement, gestures and noises.
This helpful motive, where I am informing you of things relevant to our joint goal,
led to the emergence of honesty and accuracy, that is, truthfulness, as an important
quality in its own right. In a cooperative situation of shared interest, it is in
both our interests that I am honest and accurate in the information I give you.
The need to communicate helpfully led to a further need to see things from another’s
I need to know from your point of view what is relevant to your concerns. I need
to know what you already know, and what is new to you and therefore worth telling
Given that you know I am being helpful, you need to know why I think the thing I
am pointing to is relevant and new to you.
The answers to these questions lie in our knowledge in common ground: our shared
intention of cooperating together and helping each other make progress, our shared
knowledge of the situation, my knowledge of your perspective on the situation, and
your knowledge of my perspective on you.
This is another form of joint thinking unique to humans, involving taking the perspective
of someone else within a cooperative situation of shared activity and goals.
It led to another requirement for early humans to monitor themselves from another’s
point of view. I need to communicate clearly and effectively with my cooperative
partner, and so I will try to imagine how he will see what I want to say. He needs
to help me to see his perspective, by taking my perspective, in order that I can
help him understand. This kind of back-and-forth perspective taking is called “recursive
It is thought that this simultaneous viewing of multiple perspectives upon the same
reality contributes to the quality of human thinking that we call objectivity: “...
the state or quality of being true even outside of a subject's individual biases,
interpretations, feelings, and imaginings.”
For a long time, all this was done without words: just using pointing, pantomiming
and knowledge of a common context. As the cooperation between early humans grew
ever more complex, it required ever more sophisticated language skills in order to
convey the necessary information, make plans, talk about situations and people, etc.
Highly visible eye direction in humans
There are around 200 species of primates, and of these, only humans have “whites
of the eyes”: white sclera. This has the effect that we can easily see the direction
in which someone is looking. It indicates to others what we are looking at, and
this suggests cooperative communication rather than competition. In experiments,
12-month old children tended to follow the direction of someone’s eyes even when
the head was turned in the other direction, while great apes tended to follow only
the head direction.
Fairness may be said to have three aspects: 1) proportionality, where the reward
gained is proportionate to the effort put in; 2) equality, where each person receives
the same as all the others in the situation; and 3) sharing according to need.
Natural selection is relative: among a population of individuals, although there
may be cooperation, there is always some competition as well. Relative flourishing
matters as well as individual flourishing.
Great apes are not good at sharing. They are very reluctant to give up their own
personal food in order to give to their comrades. Food is shared on the basis of
dominance, individual alliances, and stealing, begging and harassing.
By contrast, human beings living together in small groups will normally expect to
share the results of their collaboration equally or according to need, in some locally
conventional way. What lies behind this is interdependence. The idea is that the
members of the group have a shared destiny, and so all are willing to put in as much
effort as it takes for the survival and well being of all. Therefore each person
deserves an equal consideration and reward. Small-scale human hunter-gatherer societies
are noted for their egalitarian spirit where most people are treated with equal status.
In this small-scale collaboration where all are needed and all put in the necessary
effort, if some people were favoured over others, then cooperation would likely fall
apart as those less favoured would not feel proportionately rewarded and would resent
putting in the same effort and commitment as everyone else.
It appears that being tolerant of others around food, cooperating, and sharing the
results of the cooperation, may be fundamentally linked. In experiments by Michael
Tomasello and his team, it has been found that pairs of chimpanzees who are more
tolerant with each other around food are better at collaborating and more likely
to share the results of the collaboration. It is also found that bonobos are more
tolerant of each other around food than chimpanzees are, and are also more likely
to cooperate to find food and to share the spoils of the cooperation. In other experiments,
2-year old children, too young to have been affected by society’s expectations, were
more likely to help themselves gain a reward when it resulted in someone else being
rewarded too; and 3-year old children shared their resources more generously and
equitably when these were the results of a collaboration.
2 million years on, we can know almost nothing about the living-group structures
of Homo erectus. We do know that conditions were harsh and numbers were few. We
can only speculate on how loose or tight the groups were. So we must be unsure of
how the fruits of collaborative foraging and hunting were shared: whether only with
one’s foraging partners, or with the whole group.
There is evidence from 400 thousand years ago of Homo heidelbergensis bringing large
hunting kills back to a central home location.
Interdependence refers to a situation where people are cooperating together towards
a shared goal, and each person depends on the others to help them achieve that goal.
In the small groups in which early humans lived, the shared goals would have been
to do with survival.
The Golden Rule
This interchanging of people within the same role and perspective is a skill also
used in the Golden Rule, where, in our imagination, we put one person we already
know in another’s situation that we recognise. If we see the situation of a person,
who is suffering, through the eyes of someone we know and care about, then typically,
we feel sympathy (compassion) and wish to help.
Again, this changing of perspective is made possible in humans by their enhanced
skills of mind-reading, and willingness to share mental states, which we believe
evolved as a result of cooperative breeding and its associated prosocial food sharing.
Desire to help: for Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis, living in these small
hunter gatherer groups, because of the interdependence and shared intentionality
of this lifestyle, it would have made sense for the personal survival of each individual
to help the others in their daily survival tasks, wherever they recognised the need
and had the necessary skills and resources to help effectively.
... during their foraging, contemporary foragers help one another by doing such things
as cutting a trail for others to follow; making a bridge for others to cross a river;
carrying another’s child; climbing a tree to flush a monkey for another hunter; calling
the location of a resource for another to exploit while he himself continues searching
for something else; carrying game shot by another hunter; climbing a tree to knock
down fruit for others to gather; helping look for others’ lost arrows; and helping
repair others’ broken arrows. Hill (2002) documents that the Ache foragers of South
America spend from about 10% to 50% of their foraging time engaged in such altruistic
activities – pretty much all of which would be unthinkable for nonhuman primates.
Michael Tomasello and Amrisha Vaish – “Origins of Human Cooperation and Morality”
Extract from “How Compassion Made Us Human – the evolutionary origins of tenderness,
trust and morality” by Penny Spikins; pp. 50-57
Some moral aspects of life in small hunter-gatherer groups
... anthropologists who have studied modern nomadic hunting and gathering peoples,
such as the Hadza or !Kung of East Africa, Baka of Cameroon or Inuit of Canada and
the Arctic, agree that in almost all small-scale hunter-gatherer communities violence
is remarkably rare. Feuding is reported in some small-scale foraging societies,
but only rarely so. In many such societies violence is only rarely recorded with
the overriding impression being that nomadic hunting and gathering peoples are actually
gentle and non-violent, fiercely believing in sharing, equality and tolerance. For
some groups, such as the Piraha of Brazil or the Maniq of Thailand, violence is even
documented as unknown. ...
What explains the contrast between remarkably peaceful societies, and ones where
feuds and violent death are more common? Are peaceful hunter-gatherers somehow innately
non-aggressive? Anthropologists suggest that the answer may be more complex. For
one thing, it may be that violence is something that tends to ‘flare up’ under certain
contexts even if it is only rarely seen normally, and so on the timescales in which
societies are studied might never be seen. However, more than this there does seem
to be something about the structure of most small-scale foraging societies which
keeps aggression firmly under wraps.
Why would nomadic hunter-gatherers live a remarkably peaceful existence? The first
clues to such a harmonious lifestyle came from their economic system. Widespread
sharing and a firm belief in equality were ubiquitous in hunting societies. Indeed,
nomadic hunter-gatherers everywhere believed that everyone is equal and all should
be willing to give to those in need. Food is always shared, such as meat from a
kill, well beyond just their immediate families. This ‘sharing ethic’ was based
on principles according to which anyone who has should give to those who have not,
without expecting anything in return.
However much we might be impressed by such principles, from an economic perspective,
the widespread sharing, particularly of meat, seems to play an important role in
survival, perhaps explaining why such principles came to be so widely held. Through
widespread sharing to those in need, hunting peoples even out shortfalls, as for
each of them sharing what you have now becomes a kind of insurance for the future.
Of course, individuals only see sharing as important in moral terms and as part
of how things should be. However, when we look at this system with an analytical
eye, we can see that it is by giving away food to those in need when they have it,
such as just after killing an animal, people become respected and they ‘socially
store’, guaranteeing that as respected and included members of the community they
will be provided for in times of need. Given the vagaries of climate, resources
and illness, such times of need are often just around the corner. Even the fittest
and most able – the adult males – among the Ache of Paraguay were unable to hunt
due to illness or injury around a third of the time and then found themselves dependent
on others .
Polly Weissner, working with the Jo’huansi, measured the amount of food which was
given away or shared, and how much people relied on sharing to support them .
Of 297 meals eaten by eight families at Xamsa village between July 1996 and January
1997, 197 were provided by other families or included contributions from others.
Such social storage even works between bands, with people able to depend on distant
friends as an essential back-up in times of large-scale famine. In a time of food
shortages following high winds and the destruction of the mongongo nuts in /Xai/xai,
for example, half of the population moved in with distant exchange partners and would
not have survived if this social support were not possible.
High degrees of ‘give and take’ make hunter-gatherers much more resilient to the
whims of nature. In fact, it was probably not just a flair for making new technologies,
but also such interdependence between and across groups which allowed our own species
to occupy difficult and risky environmental extremes, such as desert fringes or the
frozen Arctic. It isn’t difficult to see how such a system would discourage anyone
from falling out with neighbours – the very people who may one day be holding your
life in their hands.
Nomadic hunter-gatherers also have many means of resolving conflicts before any potential
violence, thereby stopping a fall-out from becoming a fight. The most obvious is
that everyone can move to another group or ‘vote with their feet’ whenever they like;
the most common way to cool off a dispute is just for the parties involved to avoid
each other. Of course, serious conflicts (often arising over sexual jealousies)
sometimes require other mechanisms to resolve them. Someone may step in to adjudicate,
but there are other, perhaps surprising mechanisms. A set of traditions commonly
called ‘ritualised conflict’ exist in many societies to prevent any conflict from
spreading to a larger feud. The anthropologist Asen Balicki noted, for example,
that the Netsilik have a form of ritual fighting in which they take it in turns to
hit each other over the head until one gives in, after which the fight is all over.
Other groups have an even less violent approach, taking it in turns to ridicule
each other. It must take a great deal of courage to stand and wait for someone to
hit you without defending yourself, and the participants gain in reputation from
displaying the courage and self-restraint needed to resolve their grievances in what
is seen as the ‘proper way’ (albeit violent!).
However, there appears to be more than economics or mobility at the heart of hunter-gatherer
harmony, and while it was economics that first drew the attention of anthropologists,
other less visible parts of their lifestyles may also be important. Hunter-gatherers
themselves were unaware of how they related to others in economic terms, giving things
away because they felt like it, and trusting others to be there for them. For them,
it was how they felt about those around them that made them human. What was seen
as naïve to the wider economics of their survival can also be seen as a strength
in the willingness to trust others, and give and take without weighing up consequences.
Barry and Bonnie Hewlett from the Department of Anthropology at Washington State
University have for many years studied the Aka (traditionally termed pygmies) of
the Congo Basin, typical of simple hunter-gatherers. They remain impressed with
the close-knit emotional ties developed in such groups. They explain that a single
hunter-gatherer group often all occupy a space the size of a typical dining and living
room in the US, and whenever they sit they are usually touching someone. From infancy,
children are held almost constantly, with three- to four-month old infants held 91
per cent of the day (compared to around half of that in traditional agricultural
communities) . From an early age the most important things children learn are
to share food, respect others and show self-restraint. Parents are exceptionally
tolerant and rarely ever direct children to learn or do anything, they are simply
free to learn. Perhaps most tellingly, children of hunter-gatherers cried almost
half the time of that typical for those in agricultural societies.
Brian Wood at the Department of Anthropology at Yale University found the same environment
among the Hadza of Tanzania . Food sharing was taught from a very early age,
and even very small children were taught to ask for and to give away food. Sharing
food is not easy, especially when you are small and perhaps hungry, and children
are encouraged to learn self-restraint. Highly valued food is often given to the
young to share – it certainly demands self-restraint to wait for a toddler to divide
up honey before you get your portion. Infants soon learn that not only food but
material things are almost always shared between people, making their lives centred
around their relationships with adults. Polly Weissner noted that the !Kung took
beads from infants’ necklaces to give them to other people to enable them to learn
about sharing  and Melvin Konner noted that mothers will stop infants from eating
– when the food is on the way to their mouth – and expect them to give it to someone
else so that they can learn the self-restraint needed to share rather than eat the
food . Hunter-gatherer children are much less likely to get into conflict over
possessions. Not only this, as adults they have learnt a level of self-restraint
which allows them to give food away no matter how hungry they are, as well as to
be tolerant and unreactive to anger. Putting others first is not just a nicety but
essential to survival, and learning to live this way is a lesson not in economics
but in emotions.
The long road to adulthood in hunter-gatherers is not filled as ours is with a demanding
routine of accumulating knowledge or developing skills, but rather the demands of
‘emotional sculpting’ – learning how to handle difficult feelings.
Many psychologists, including Bruce Charlton of the University of Newcastle, are
convinced that the attention paid to emotional well-being and development, and the
sharing ethic seen among modern day hunter-gatherers implies that we must have been
much happier in the sharing societies of the Paleolithic than in the conditions of
constant pressure we feel ourselves under today . All too often we think of
the Stone Age as a time of ‘primal passions’, men clubbing women on the head, but
if modern hunter-gatherers teach us anything it is that it is us who, in emotional
terms, seem ‘primitive’. To them, we are alarmingly self-centred, and, moreover,
prone to being ‘carried away’ by feelings of helplessness or anger, and unable to
just sit and accommodate such feelings. The anthropologist Hugh Brody describes
many a sobering experience with the indigenous peoples of the far North. When he
was out on a hunting expedition, he realised he might not return and was helpless
to a sense of panic, yet he realised that his companions could deal with the possibility
of death with total calm and acceptance .
Jean Briggs, an anthropologist studying the Inuit, also described an unfortunate
incident that made her realise how much more reactive she was to her emotions when
she was working with them. When she was writing up her notes one day snow fell from
the roof of the igloo onto her typewriter and all over her work. She reacted in
frustration, throwing a nearby knife into a pile of fish in annoyance . ‘Losing
it’ in such a circumstance might not seem too unusual to us. However, the Inuit
were greatly alarmed by this display of anger, seen as dangerous in such a small-scale
interdependent group. They didn't speak to her for many weeks until they were sure
that she could control her anger.
If such peoples are representative of our ancestors in our own species we would be
wrong to think of stone-age people as ruled by their emotions; rather the reverse,
for the Inuit it was Jean who was reacting like a child who had yet to learn to accommodate
her feelings and show self-restraint.
Why would we see [serious] violence occurring in societies apparently unlikely to
get carried away with anger, frustration, envy or hatred? In our imaginations evidence
for violent confrontations supports our idea that stone-age people are driven by
their feelings, quick to attack, to grab food from others for their own survival,
to beat off competitors in order to survive. Yet modern hunter-gatherers seem, if
anything, the opposite – they are less reactive to their feelings.
One explanation is a phenomenon termed ‘moralistic aggression’ or ‘lethal levelling’.
Moralistic aggression describes how we feel, for example, when we stand up against
a bully who is hurting someone else. Christopher Boehm from the University of Southern
California has studied moralistic aggression mechanisms in nomadic hunter-gatherers
in depth . He found that though remarkably tolerant in many ways, hunter-gatherers
are surprisingly intolerant of ‘upstarts’. He explains that peaceful harmony seems
to be won through an uneasy dynamic between tendencies towards competition, and those
towards collaboration, not only to survive but also to defend principles of equality
against those who would exploit, dominate or free-ride. Someone thinking that they
are better than others, or that they can control or dominate them, threatens the
survival of highly interdependent groups, so group reactions can be swift, not only
in response to dominating behaviour, but even to dominating attitudes.
We might think it is natural for people to compare themselves favourably or unfavourably
with others, but in a foraging society this is a dangerous attitude to take. Young
men who start to become proud and egocentric usually find themselves ridiculed or
ignored. If they continue, ultimate sanctions exist, with the group eventually throwing
out or assassinating upstarts. Unsurprisingly, the wise take great care to display
their humility and don't reveal any material signs of wealth or status or show off
their accomplishments, thus taking great pains to be humble.
Richard Lee comments:
Say that a man has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart
‘I have killed a big one in the bush!’ He must first sit down in silence until I
or someone else comes up to his fire, and asks ‘What did you see today?’ He replies
quietly ‘Ah... I’m no good for hunting. I saw nothing at all... maybe just a tiny
one.’ Then I smile to myself because I know he has killed something big .
Even so, members of the band may take great pains to put down the hunter. Lee adds
that they might typically say jokingly:
You mean to say that you have dragged us all this way out here to make us cart home
your pile of bones? Oh, if I had known it was this thin I wouldn’t have come. People,
to think I gave up a nice day in the shade for this. At home we may be hungry but
at least we have nice cool water to drink.
This is familiar banter in many a group of lads. At the same time I can't help but
wonder if the all-too-familiar tendency among most of us to find it excruciatingly
hard to show off our achievements to the world, to elevate our skills in interviews
or be ‘assertive’ might not be rather more natural and normal than we might be led
Christopher Boehm notes:
The widespread reports of leaders acting in an unassuming way, and of leaders being
so generous that they themselves ‘had nothing’ do not necessarily mean that bands
are choosing as their leaders unaggressive individuals who just naturally tend to
give away all of their resources. In this type of small society, in which the ethos
is shared so uniformly, politically sensitive leaders know exactly how to comport
themselves if they wish to lead without creating tension. Appropriate ways to assuage
the apprehensions of watchful peers are never to give orders, to be generous to a
fault, and to remain emotionally tranquil, particularly with respect to anger as
a predictable component of dominance. Basically, one needs to avoid any signs of
assertive self-aggrandisement .
Today, those school teachers who act in the same way, are often the ones who are
most influential and listened to and can be contrasted with others who tend to dominate
and control .
The ‘levelling’ of upstarts is found right across different forager societies, from
the treatment of shamans who exploit their power and position (such as in one case
by insisting that the spirits would only improve the weather if he himself would
sleep with two attractive young women) to people who take food and never give any
to those in need. In some cases powerful upstarts may initially gain much power
before the group has the courage to overthrow them. Boehm describes how a single
shaman among the Greenland Inuit was feared to the extent that followers felt helpless
to overthrow him and accepted intimidation for a long time until finally finding
the courage to deal with him.
53. Gurven, M; Wesley, A-A; Hill, K; and M Hurtado (2000) ‘It’s a wonderful life’:
signalling generosity among the Ache of Paraguay. Evolution and Human Behaviour
54. Weissner, P (2002) Taking the risk out of risky transactions: A forager’s dilemma.
In A Salter (ed.) Risky transactions: risk, trust and reciprocity. New York: Berghahn
Books, pp. 21-46.
55. Hewlett, B S; Fouts, H N; Boyette, A H; and B Hewlett (2011) Social learning
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Individual roles and perspectives that may, in principle, be filled by anyone with
the right skills