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”




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 [53].  

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 [54].  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) [55].  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 [56].  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 [57] 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 [58].  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 [59].  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 [60].  

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 [63].  ‘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 [62].  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 [63].  

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 to believe.  

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 [64].  

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 [65].  

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.  


Original references:  

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 21(4): 263-282.

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 among Congo basin hunter-gatherers.  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. 336(1537): 1168-1178

56.  Wood, B (2013)  The role of food-sharing in Hadza children’s social development.  Presentation.  Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS), Liverpool.

57.  Weissner, P (1982)  Risk, reciprocity and social influences on !Kung San economics.  In E Leacock and R Lee (eds.), Politics and History in band societies.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 61-84.  

58.  Konner, M (2010)  The evolution of childhood, relationships, emotions, mind.  Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.  

59.  Charlton, B (2000)  Psychiatry and the human condition.  London: Radcliffe Medical.  

60.  Brody, H (2002)  The other side of Eden: Hunters, farmers, and the shaping of the world.  London: Macmillan.  

61.  Briggs, J L (1970)  Never in anger: Portrait of an Eskimo family (Vol. 12).  Harvard: Harvard University Press.  

62.  Boehm, C; and C Boehm (2009)  Hierarchy in the forest: The evolution of egalitarian behavior.  Harvard: Harvard University Press.  See also, Boehm C (2012)  Moral origins: The evolution of virtue, altruism and shame.  New York: Basic Books.

63.  Lee, R B (1979)  The !Kung San: Men, women and work in a foraging society.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 244-246.  

64.  Boehm, C; and C Boehm (2009)  Hierarchy in the forest: The evolution of egalitarian behavior.  Harvard: Harvard University Press. pp. 72.  

65.  Heinrich, J; and F J Gil-White (2001)  The evolution of prestige.  Freely conferred deference as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission.  Evolution and Human Behaviour 22(3): 165-196.


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

Joint goal

“We” intentionality a cooperative situation