Ayn Rand vs. the Pygmies
Did human evolution favor individualists or altruists?
"There are two ways of trying to create a good life," Boehm states. "One is by punishing evil, and the other is by actively promoting virtue." Boehm's theory of social selection does both. The term altruism can be defined as extra-familial generosity (as opposed to nepotism among relatives). Boehm thinks the evolution of human altruism can be understood by studying the moral rules of hunter-gatherer societies. He and a research assistant have recently gone through thousands of pages of anthropological field reports on the 150 hunter-gatherer societies around the world that he calls "Late-Pleistocene Appropriate" (LPA), or those societies that continue to live as our ancestors once did. By coding the reports for categories of social behavior such as aid to nonrelatives, group shaming, or the execution of social deviants, Boehm is able to determine how common those behaviors are.
What he has found is in direct opposition to Ayn Rand's selfish ideal. For example, in 100 percent of LPA societies—ranging from the Andaman Islanders of the Indian Ocean archipelago to the Inuit of Northern Alaska—generosity or altruism is always favored toward relatives and nonrelatives alike, with sharing and cooperation being the most cited moral values. Of course, this does not mean that everyone in these societies always follow these values. In 100 percent of LPA societies there was at least one incidence of theft or murder, 80 percent had a case in which someone refused to share, and in 30 percent of societies someone tried to cheat the group (as in the case of Cephu).
What makes these violations of moral rules so instructive is how societies choose to deal with them. Ultimately, it all comes down to gossip. More than tool-making, art, or even language, gossip is a human universal that is a defining feature of our species (though this could change if we ever learn to translate the complex communication system in whales or dolphins). Gossip is intimately connected with the moral rules of a given society, and individuals gain or lose prestige in their group depending on how well they follow these rules. This formation of group opinion is something to be feared, particularly in small rural communities where ostracism or expulsion could mean death. "Public opinion, facilitated by gossiping, always guides the band's decision process," Boehm writes, "and fear of gossip all by itself serves as a preemptive social deterrent because most people are so sensitive about their reputations." A good reputation enhances the prestige of those individuals who engage in altruistic behavior, while marginalizing those with a bad reputation. Since prestige is intimately involved with how desirable a person is to the opposite sex, gossip serves as a positive selection pressure for enhancing traits associated with altruism. That is, being good can get you laid, and this will perpetuate your altruistic genes (or, at least, those genes that allow you to resist cheating other members of your group).
Sometimes gossip is not enough to reduce or eliminate antisocial behavior. In Boehm's analysis of LPA societies, public opinion and spatial distancing were the most common responses to misbehavior (100 percent of the societies coded). But other tactics included permanent expulsion (40 percent), group shaming (60 percent), group-sponsored execution (70 percent), or nonlethal physical punishment (90 percent). In the case of expulsion or execution, the result over time would be that traits promoting antisocial behavior would be reduced in the populations. In other words, the effect of social selection would be that altruists would have higher overall fitness and out-reproduce free riders. The biological basis for morality in our species could therefore result from these positive and negative pressures carried out generation after generation among our Pleistocene ancestors. Who is John Galt? He refused to participate in society and no one has seen him since.
In fairness to the Russian-born Ayn Rand, the collectivist society she was most opposed to was the Soviet regime, which justified its consolidation of power with the veneer of altruism. Rand's mistake was in essentializing the distinction between "individualist freedom" vs. "collectivist tyranny" and then transporting it into our human past.
However, deep in the Ituri Forest was a man Ayn Rand might have felt a bond with. Cephu had a reputation as someone who valued himself above all others long before he decided to maximize his personal profit margin on the community hunt. As Turnbull found when talking to the Mbuti tribesmen, Cephu never joined the rest of the group at breakfast whenever they strategized about where to set their nets. He would simply follow along once the decision had been made. To make matters worse, he was often loud and would frighten the animals away before they got close to the trap. Whenever he did get his share of the community meat, he would always take it to his own campsite rather than eat with everyone else (and could sometimes be heard yelling insults at the main camp once he was there). According to Turnbull, nearly everyone was irritated with Cephu's self-serving behavior and gossiped about it. But most members of the community tolerated him in order to maintain unity. "Rather than cause an open breach," Turnbull wrote, "everyone in the main camp kept his thoughts to himself and was silent." But finally Cephu went one step too far.
"Cephu committed what is probably one of the most heinous crimes in Pygmy eyes, and one that rarely occurs. Yet the case was settled simply and effectively," Turnbull concluded. Among the Mbuti, as with most hunter-gatherer societies, altruism and equality are systems that enhance individual freedom. Following these moral rules helps prevent any one individual from taking advantage of others or even dominating the group as a whole because of unequal privileges. However, just as it is in our society, the negotiation between the individual and the group is always a work in progress. Perhaps that is why, after the Mbuti had feasted on the day's successful hunt, one member of the group slipped away to give the still moaning Cephu some of the cooked meat and mushroom sauce that everyone else had enjoyed. Later that night, Cephu turned up at the main camp, where he sat on the ground and sang songs with the rest of his tribe. Holding up the world isn’t so trying when there are others who can lend a helping hand.
Eric Michael Johnson has a master's degree in evolutionary anthropology focusing on great ape behavioral ecology and is currently a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia studying the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics. He writes the Primate Diaries blog for ScientificAmerican.com. Follow his work on Facebook, Pinterest, and Google+. Follow on Twitter @primatediaries.