Boehm’s “Social Selection”


Christopher Boehm’s book Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame (Basic Books, 2012) is yet another sad example of the futility of the widespread hope that Neo-Darwinism, as over extended by evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, can ever be a theory of everything, particularly a theory that explains modern human behavior and values. It is not science. It is an ideology, or perhaps merely a hope, dressing up in a sloppy imitation of science.

Boehm’s thesis is that human moral values, the virtue, altruism, and shame of his subtitle, evolved through a process of what he calls “social selection,” which can be defined as the selecting out of socially uncooperative individuals (whom Boehm equates with psychopaths) and the selecting in of cooperative ones. Lengthy as the book is (at 362 pages of text), with its elaborate arguments and numerous examples, Boehm fails to support his thesis with anything more than supposition and false analogies.

First let’s consider what social selection would have to do in order to affect the evolution of human beings:

1) It would require a concerted effort species-wide over a great swath of time to define, identify, and eliminate socially uncooperative individuals (psychopaths and free riders).

2) In order to affect the gene pool, undesirable individuals would have to be identified very early in life, before they had the chance to reproduce. Killing the parent without killing the child does not eliminate the parent’s genes.

3) The criteria for determining whom to eliminate would not only have to be clear but consistent over many generations. Any change in the standards midstream would ruin the whole scheme. Yet any historian can tell you that standards have changed over time, sometimes quite sharply.

There is no evidence that any of this obtained at any time in human history or prehistory. There is also no evidence that if it did occur it would have had a significant impact on human evolution. Prior to modern medicine and germ theory, infant and child mortality, not to mention plagues and epidemics that affected adults as well, would have had an impact many times that of social selection, effectively diminishing its proportionally infinitesimal effects.

In order to compensate for the serious lack of evidence, Boehm resorts to highly suppositional phrasing and subjunctive grammar. The following examples from pages 80 and 81 are illustrative of far too much of the book:

“prehistoric forager lifestyles could have generated distinctive types of social selection” (Perhaps they could have, but science wants to know if they actually did.)

These types of social selection “could have supported generosity outside the family at the level of genes.” (Again, did they actually do so?)

“were likely to have”
“could have become”
“It’s even possible . . . if”
“may have begun to differ”
“it’s likely that”
“would have been”
“would not have negated”
“they would have”
“were likely to have been”
“what could have happened”
“very likely”

And all these from just two pages! The careless or naïve reader might not notice this suppositional language and therefore mistakenly believe that Boehm is solidly establishing his argument; but the careful reader will find these to be crippling stumbling blocks.

There are also problems of self-contradiction. For example, Boehm seems to be saying that social selection eliminates psychopaths, but then states that psychopaths constitute a significant percentage of modern day populations. He claims that “People very significantly [psychopathic] probably number as high as one or more [vague: how many more?] out of several hundred in our total population,” which may not seem all that many, but perhaps too many if humans began socially selecting these people out thousands of years ago. Other sources put the percentage as low as 2% and as high as 4%, but no doubt problems of definition affect the numbers. Whatever the true number may be, I think Boehm does need at the very least to clarify just how effective social selection really is.

The examples he pulls from contemporary forager societies are also contradictory of his thesis. He cites the example of Cephu, a Mbuti Pygmy who, as recounted by Colin Turnbull, let his greed overcome his responsibility to the rest of his group. His colleagues caught him in the act of helping himself to more game than he was entitled to and subjected him to an intense course of humiliation—but they did not kill him or his progeny, and after he had adequately apologized and humbled himself, he was readmitted to the group. The story of Cephu, meant to illustrate the book’s thesis, actually proves its opposite. Cephu’s behavior was corrected not genetically, but culturally.

Perhaps a comparison would clarify the problems with Boehm’s thesis. There is another form of behavior that one might think would have been socially eliminated fairly early in human evolution, male homosexuality. It is not, after all, conducive to reproductive survival, and has often been punished, quite horribly in many instances, not only with shunning and shaming techniques but with imprisonment, torture, and execution; yet it has persisted through thousands of years, in part because homosexuals can camouflage themselves but also because efforts of social selection to eliminate the behavior have proven to be ineffectual—just as has been, I would argue, social selection to eliminate socially uncooperative individuals. This analogy suggests that social selection is a very weak hook on which to hang the hope that biology and genetics can account for all human behavior in terms of “fitness.”

Finally, we should note that throughout history there have been people we would today label as psychopaths who have been quite successful leaders, often revered not only in their own times but long after their deaths. One thinks of Napoleon Bonaparte, killer of millions yet romanticized and admired by other millions, credited with the Napoleonic Code and sympathized with in his exile. One also thinks of Genghis Khan, the great butcher who, far from being selected out of the gene pool, is now thought to be the ancestor of as many as 16 million people living today. Of course, being a psychopathic great leader is no guarantee of reproductive success; Hitler, fortunately, had no children, and though he did have nieces and nephews, none of them has followed his example. While Boehm believes that psychopaths and free riders were (at least to some extent) weeded out of the gene pool through social selection, it may be that such individuals were selected for because in some ways that we 21st century Americans may not comprehend, they were in fact socially useful. Perhaps they made good warriors, or maybe they built the great empires that encouraged the arts and sciences, or maybe they made their liege lords great fortunes (perhaps Cortez and Pizarro were useful psychopaths, enriching the Spanish treasury while taking all the risks). What we can say is that they have been, and are, legion.

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