Paleo-Economics Shaped Our Moralities (Evolved Social-Coordination 'Tech')

“Teamwork is the signature adaptation of” humanity, says David Sloan Wilson. And our ancestors evolved ruthlessly cooperative means of ensuring productive social coordination. 


Paleo-economics shaped our moralities. Like our languages, our moralities are evolved social-coordination “technologies.”

1. By ~ 10,000 generations ago, our survival became a team sport. Driving big game toward teammates yielded more meat than solo hunting. But division of labor requires sustainable division of profits. Nowadays, we call that economics.

2. Christopher Boehm’s modern hunter-gatherer database shows they practice remarkably similar economics. His analysis concludes our ancestors evolved from hierarchy toward more egalitarian resource usage. Teams survive by changing the logic of self-maximizing.

3. Modern hunter-gatherers are ever vigilant against free-riding and elite-exploitation (both as dangerous to team survival as any predator). They rigidly enforce social rules to ensure skilled cooperators fare better than self-maximizers. For example: Another stakeholder distributes meat, not whoever made the kill. Rule-enforcement techniques = ridicule, shaming, shunning, and, ultimately, exile or execution.

4. Enforced rules create powerful environmental selection pressures. The lowest-cost strategy to avoid social penalties becomes preemptive self-control. Such impulse control has always been adaptive, even for powerful humans, because “counter-dominant coalitions” can punish “resented alpha-male” domination (like hogging an unfair share of meat). In extremis, this becomes “inverted eugenics,” eliminating the strong, if they abuse their power (e.g., survival by being ruthlessly cooperative).

5. This self-control payoff shaped our “moral sense,” which internalizes our culture’s behavioral rules and ensures we feel strongly that certain behaviours are right or wrong. Shame and guilt (e.g., evolutionarily useful “fast thinking”), enable “self-policed” social contracts (backed-up by social enforcement).

6. Our prior “apelike ... fear-based social order” transitioned to include “internalizing rules and worrying about ... reputations.” And conscious, reputation-based social selection for cooperation became dominant. E.g., known poor cooperators weren’t selected for the massively expensive raising of new humans. Team players preferentially bred with each other = we bred ourselves for cooperation.

7. However plausible (or otherwise) Boehm’s “Moral Origins” theory seems, key aspects are hard to deny. Humans empirically have culturally configurable social-rule processors (“moral sense”) and varying moral predispositions.

8. Rules beat no rules, by enabling improved social productivity. Our social-rule processors work just like our language-rule processors (both evolved for social coordination). We automatically absorb the (often tacit) rules of our native cultures grammar and behavioral norms. And we detect grammar errors unconsciously just like we often detect behavioral rule violations. 

9. An “impulse to follow rules ... seems ... innate” (emerging untutored). Toddlers know certain rules shouldn’t be broken; they’re “genuinely moral.” Moralities, like languages, likely share underlying common structures that cultures configure differently (perhaps Jonathan Haidt’s six components).

10. Once our social-rule processors arose, their cultural configurations also became subject to evolution’s “productivity selection.” We’re descended from those with the fitter traits, and tools, and rules (i.e., higher productivity moralities).

11. Collective self-preservation now needn’t mean being “devoutly egalitarian.” But delegating our interdependent futures to mindless “market forces,” and their dumb coordination, isn’t always wise.

Highly configurable ethics are in our nature (our economics = our ethics enacted). Any configuration that deemphasizes our inalienable interdependence makes us less fit (less relationally rational).

 

For the next post in this diablog series, click here (Economics Needs 'Inclusive Fitness'). 

Earlier diablogs covered: (1) how evolution keeps score (relative fitness), (2) its built-in team aspects, (3) its self-destructive competitions, (4) its blind logic, how division of labor complicates survival trade-offs (5).

Related Articles

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.

(Photo by Angie Garrett/Wikimedia Commons)
Mind & Brain
  • Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
  • Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
  • Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.

Why cauliflower is perfect for the keto diet

The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.

Purple cauliflower. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
  • The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
  • It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
Keep reading Show less