Imagine early hominid life as a tense balance of power between the alpha (and an ally or two) and the larger set of males who are shut out of power. Then arm everyone with spears. The balance of power is likely to shift when physical strength no longer decides the outcome of every fight. That’s essentially what happened, Boehm suggests, as our ancestors developed better weapons for hunting and butchering beginning around five hundred thousand years ago, when the archaeological record begins to show a flowering of tool and weapon types. Once early humans had developed spears, anyone could kill a bullying alpha male. And if you add the ability to communicate with language, and note that every human society uses language to gossip about moral violations, then it becomes easy to see how early humans developed the ability to unite in order to shame, ostracize, or kill anyone whose behavior threatened or simply annoyed the rest of the group.
Boehm’s claim is that at some point during the last half-million years, well after the advent of language, our ancestors created the first true moral communities. In these communities, people used gossip to identify behavior they didn’t like, particularly the aggressive, dominating behaviors of would-be alpha males. On the rare occasions when gossip wasn’t enough to bring them into line, they
had the ability to use weapons to take them down.
It’s not that human nature suddenly changed and became egalitarian; men still tried to dominate others when they could get away with it. Rather, people armed with weapons and gossip created what Boehm calls “reverse dominance hierarchies” in which the rank and file band together to dominate and restrain would-be alpha males.
The result is a fragile state of political egalitarianism achieved by cooperation among creatures who are innately predisposed to hierarchical arrangements. […] For groups that made this political transition to egalitarianism, there was a quantum leap in the development of moral matrices. People now lived in much denser webs of norms, informal sanctions, and occasionally violent punishments. Those who could navigate this new world skillfully and
maintain good reputations were rewarded by gaining the trust, cooperation, and political support of others. Those who could not respect group norms, or who acted like bullies, were removed from the
gene pool by being shunned, expelled, or killed. Genes and cultural practices (such as the collective killing of deviants) coevolved.
The end result, says Boehm, was a process sometimes called “self-domestication.” Just as animal breeders can create tamer, gentler creatures by selectively breeding for those traits, our ancestors
began to selectively breed themselves (unintentionally) for the ability to construct shared moral matrices and then live cooperatively within them.
Murder often seems virtuous to revolutionaries. It just somehow feels like the right thing to do, and
these feelings seem far removed from Trivers’s reciprocal altruism and tit for tat. This is not fairness. This is Boehm’s political transition and reverse dominance.
Jonathan Haidt – The Righteous Mind