Is Economic Justice In Our Nature?

Something like social contracts likely run deep in our nature. As does the “economic justice” they need. The largest database we have on hunter-gatherer cultures suggests our ancestors had rigidly egalitarian tendencies 10,000 generations ago. 


It's plausible that something like social contracts run deep in our nature. Along with the “economic justice” they need. 

1. Christopher Boehm (Moral Origins) studied 50 hunter-gatherer cultures to conclude that ~250,000 years ago, our ancestors shifted from an “apelike ‘might is right’” hierarchy to more egalitarian social structures.

2. Survival had become a team sport. Chasing big game toward teammates was more productive than solo hunting. However those team-productivity gains needed workable “profit-sharing.”

3. Even with well-fed teammates, hunting needs luck (e.g., 4 percent success rate). Then, as now, the logic of social insurance solved such problems by sharing profits and risks. Cooperators thrived. As did teams with the best adapted and enforced profit-sharing rules.

4. Boehm says all surviving hunter-gatherers enforce law-like rules that minimize egoism, nepotism, and cronyism. They use rebukes, ridicule, shame, shunning, exile, and execution. E.g., meat is never distributed by the successful hunter, but by neutral stakeholders. And close male kin of the condemned perform executions (which avoids inter-family feuding).

5. “Counter-dominant coalitions” punish dominant alpha-male abuses — like hogging an unfair share of meat. Ultimately, repeatedly offending alpha males were eliminated (a sort of inverted eugenics). Resisting tyranny and injustice are universal traits in today’s hunter-gatherers. They likely run 10,000 generations deep in our prehistory.

6. Such punishment created powerful social-selection pressures. And self-control became the lowest-cost strategy for avoiding penalties. Our shame and guilt systems likely evolved as ways to internalize (~as second nature) our culture’s social rules (~social contracts).

7. We intuitively recognize what is considered punishable (feeling guilty = intracranial karma = self-punishment triggered by our system 1). Cultures configure shame and guilt system triggers differently. But rules balancing short-term selfish gain with longer-term or team interests are more evolutionarily (and logically) productive. Imagining evolved urges as hard to resist ignores that self-control (especially regarding social rules) has long been needed for our survival.

8. Our ancestors bred themselves for teamwork. They used intelligently directed artificial selection (“auto-domestication”) of good cooperators as mates. Bad cooperators were selected less often for the hugely costly and highly collaborative business of raising the most helpless of all offspring.

Justice was once considered “Zeus’ greatest gift.” Greatest or not, the arc of our evolution has long bent toward justice (of the fittest for team-survival variety). Don’t believe Boehm? His position expresses the logic of vehicular viability and needism. Those always apply: Damage not what you depend on.

 

Addendum: For a fuller description of Boehm's Moral Origins see this Wilson Quarterly review

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Think you’re bad at math? You may suffer from ‘math trauma’

Even some teachers suffer from anxiety about math.

Image credit: Getty Images
Mind & Brain

I teach people how to teach math, and I've been working in this field for 30 years. Across those decades, I've met many people who suffer from varying degrees of math trauma – a form of debilitating mental shutdown when it comes to doing mathematics.

Keep reading Show less

A world map of Virgin Mary apparitions

She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.

Strange Maps
  • For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
  • These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
  • Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.
Keep reading Show less

How KGB founder Iron Felix justified terror and mass executions

The legacy of Felix Dzerzhinsky, who led Soviet secret police in the "Red Terror," still confounds Russia.

Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Felix Dzerzhinsky led the Cheka, Soviet Union's first secret police.
  • The Cheka was infamous for executing thousands during the Red Terror of 1918.
  • The Cheka later became the KGB, the spy organization where Russia's President Putin served for years.
Keep reading Show less