Evolution of morality:

Small groups

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




Cooperative foraging

Shared intentionality; coordination

Cooperative communication  

Sharing and fairness

Self-monitoring and social selection

Interdependence, altruism and The Golden Rule


Division of labour


Lack of inter-group conflict until recently




Human life is a cooperative enterprise.  This is true of even the simplest human societies.  


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”



Cooperative foraging

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.  



Shared intentionality

“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).  

Human cooperation

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 own.  

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.  

Common ground

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”



Cooperative communication

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 to myself.  

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.  

Changing perspectives

The need to communicate helpfully led to a further need to see things from another’s perspective.  

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 you.

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 thinking”.  

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.  



Sharing and fairness

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.  



Self-monitoring and social selection





Interdependence and altruism

See also stakeholder model

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”



Individual roles and perspectives that may, in principle, be filled by anyone with the right skills

Joint goal

“We” intentionality a cooperative situation