Moral Origins by Christopher Boehm
The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame

No critic rating

Waiting for minimum critic reviews

See 4 Critic Reviews



From the age of Darwin to the present day, biologists have been grappling with the origins of our moral sense. Why, if the human instinct to survive and reproduce is “selfish,” do people engage in self-sacrifice, and even develop ideas like virtue and shame to justify that altruism? Many theories have been put forth, some emphasizing the role of nepotism, others emphasizing the advantages of reciprocation or group selection effects. But evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm finds existing explanations lacking, and in Moral Origins, he offers an elegant new theory.

Tracing the development of altruism and group social control over 6 million years, Boehm argues that our moral sense is a sophisticated defense mechanism that enables individuals to survive and thrive in groups. One of the biggest risks of group living is the possibility of being punished for our misdeeds by those around us. Bullies, thieves, free-riders, and especially psychopaths—those who make it difficult for others to go about their lives—are the most likely to suffer this fate. Getting by requires getting along, and this social type of selection, Boehm shows, singles out altruists for survival. This selection pressure has been unique in shaping human nature, and it bred the first stirrings of conscience in the human species. Ultimately, it led to the fully developed sense of virtue and shame that we know today.

A groundbreaking exploration of the evolution of human generosity and cooperation, Moral Origins offers profound insight into humanity’s moral past—and how it might shape our moral future.


About Christopher Boehm

See more books from this Author
Christopher Boehm is Director of the Jane Goodall Research Center and Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Boehm's work has been featured in such publications as New Scientist, the New York Times, The Times (London), Natural History, Science News, and in films for National Geographic, Wild Kingdom, and the Discovery Channel. He has lectured widely to groups as diverse as the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, the Chicago Academy of Sciences, the Sante Fe Institute, the Los Angeles and Cincinnati Zoos, and the Naval War College. Boehm is the author of many scientific articles and several previous books, including Hierarchy in the Forest (Harvard). He divides his time between Los Angeles and Santa Fe.
Published May 1, 2012 by Basic Books. 434 pages
Genres: Health, Fitness & Dieting, Science & Math, Law & Philosophy, Political & Social Sciences, Professional & Technical. Non-fiction

Unrated Critic Reviews for Moral Origins

Kirkus Reviews

See more reviews from this publication

Boehm cites recent work establishing the existence of empathy, undoubtedly a precursor to morality, in primates, but he contends that altruism and shame are distinctly human qualities.

Mar 01 2012 | Read Full Review of Moral Origins: The Evolution ...

Publishers Weekly

See more reviews from this publication

Boehm argues that social selection, or “intense social control” in prehistoric humans worked so well because “intense social control” meant “that individuals who were better at inhibiting their own antisocial tendencies, either through fear of punishment or through absorbing and identif...

Feb 20 2012 | Read Full Review of Moral Origins: The Evolution ...

City Book Review

Although a bit dry, this book gives the reader a definite feel for how our morality works differently than the social hierarchy of other creatures.

Aug 10 2012 | Read Full Review of Moral Origins: The Evolution ...

National Review Online

My hypothesis is that when they started large game hunting, they had to start really punishing alpha males and holding them down.

May 07 2012 | Read Full Review of Moral Origins: The Evolution ...

Reader Rating for Moral Origins

An aggregated and normalized score based on 20 user ratings from iDreamBooks & iTunes

Rate this book!

Add Review