Friday, February 5, 2016

The First Moral System


Some writers on ethics who come to the subject by way of the biological sciences, have made what I think is the reasonable claim, that both the subject and the object of ethics is the settling of conflicts of interest.  In animals that live in groups, and humans are one of these kinds, conflicts of interest are always decided by dominance, by a pecking order.  But, unlike all other animals, humans also have a distinctly different way of handling conflicts, exemplified by turn taking and the collective adherence to rules.  How did we come to develop these rules? Did they evolve from animal behaviour?

Back in 1893, Thomas Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”  for ably defending Darwin’s theory of evolution,  gave a  lecture titled, "Evolution and Ethics." This lecture  shocked the educated Victorian audience because it was a direct attack on  the very Darwinian idea that human morality evolved from animal behaviour.

In the prologue to the lecture, Huxley used an interesting  analogy for human morality: that of  the gardener who does not allow a struggle for existence to determine which plants will survive, but purposefully nurtures those plants that are useful, and weeds out those that are not.  

Huxley’s gardener points to one of the peculiarities of humans - we appear to be domesticated animals, not wild animals - but, if this is so, how did we become domesticated?  This is a key question.   I argue that by answering this question we also answer the two fundamental questions:  What is morality? And, how did it come about?

In spite of the centrality of  Darwinian theory to biology, the idea that morality evolved from animal behaviour is, to this day, controversial.   It is still the subject of a spirited debate, currently between evolutionary biologists, psychologists and moral philosophers.  And we have  not heard the end of it, not  by a long shot.

Here’s my biological philosophy of life:  Nature does not work by overall design.  Living organisms just have to fit in on their own, as best they can.  They build systems together with other organisms by fitting in.  They adapt to changes in the climate as well as changes in their neighbourhood.

Let’s talk about our neighbourhood.  Humans come from a family of mammals called the primates. Primates lived in trees, partly because on the ground there were more predators.  But often-times the primates would need to come down to the ground to get water or to cross  a gap to another tree. On the ground, they were especially vulnerable to predators.  There were an awful lot of big predators out there millions of years ago.  Just as today’s house cats prey on mice, our primate ancestors would have been tasty titbits for those big sabre-tooth tigers.  

Mice live in groups, but those groups do not band together to fend off cats.  But primates, such as apes and baboons, do band together to fend off predators.  Living in groups was essential for survival in a world of predators, but it implied that group members would often be in close proximity.  It’s obvious that close physical proximity can intensify intra-group conflict.  And intra-group conflict leads to violence and harm which puts the group in jeopardy if this violence cannot be controlled.  

To fix this problem, Nature devised the Dominance Hierarchy System.  Did I say before, that Nature is not a designer?  She’s more like a tinkerer. Got a conflict?  Then settle it this way: "Bigger and stronger always has more say. Just accept it and don’t fight it, unless you believe  that you can better your rivals.”  That’s what Nature says.    Dominance hierarchies are Nature’s way of settling conflicts, wherever and whenever animals live in groups.  

All human societies have dominance hierarchies.  Much of the time males dominate females, but it is not the same kind of dominance that rules in ape societies.  Dominance in human society is generally rule-governed,  although the rules are often left unstated; Human dominance hierarchies are much more subtle and understated than in other animals, except when it comes to the nouveau riche, dictators, and movie stars;  Except in gangs and warfare we tend to avoid violence, whereas in ape society dominance is always along the lines of “might makes right”.  In human society we call this type of dominance -”bullying”.  People often get away with bullying in private, but  we actively and collectively discourage it in public.

Now let’s say you are a primate and you make the obviously, completely irrational decision to mostly stay on the ground and try walking on your hind legs, instead of swinging in the trees.  That means that you’re going to need to be in a group very badly, because the more you’re on the ground, the more vulnerable you are to big predators.  And, the fact is, that groups of hominins could gang up on the big cats by making a big racket and throwing stones at them.  And what’s more, they could help themselves to the predator kills. “Look at all that fresh meat that sabre-tooth cat left behind!”

No doubt, this is why nowadays the cat is the most popular pet in the world, and millions of people give meat to cats, as if, in penance for stealing it from their ancestors long ago.   This is karma.

The problem would have been, that the work of scaring off the big cats was probably not   a good idea for pregnant females or females with infants - but they were the ones that needed the nourishment from the meat.  What to do?  Nature came up with a solution, but that solution was going to have big repercussions that Nature did not intend.  

About three million years ago hominins started using sharpened rocks to cut the meat off the carcases of predator kills, presumably so that they could take some of the meat for themselves and trade the rest  for sex with fertile females.  The problem was that this mix of stone knives, angry young men, and the alpha male and his harem was inevitably going to cause major dysfunction. But who knew? Nature certainly didn’t.  

Did I mention “alpha male”?  What exactly is the alpha male?  He’s just the most dominant male in a group.  In apes his role is quite significant and unavoidable.  He basically terrorizes and intimidates the rest of the group, and tries to monopolize all the sex.  

Sexual dimorphism, the difference in size between males and females of the same species, occurs often in nature.  Sometimes the male is smaller than the female, as in some kind of birds and fish, sometimes the male is bigger than  the female - this is the case with the great apes.  The Gorilla is a good example.  An adult male gorilla is much larger than a female gorilla.  

In humans, sexual dimorphism is intermediate between chimpanzees who are promiscuous, and gorillas, where the alpha male keeps a female harem and drives out other adult males.  The hominins preceding homo erectus had greater sexual dimorphism, more like that of gorillas.  According to the Canadian Anthropologist Bernard Chapais, this supports the theory that early hominins had alpha male dominated harems.

Once hominins, such as homo habilis, invented stone weapons this would have made the alpha male dominance hierarchy unstable, because it gave the non-dominant males a means of usurping the alpha. And boy were those males ready.  

The result of this instability meant that the social functions of alpha male dominance were no longer working.  Conflict and killing over females must have increased dramatically, putting group survival in jeopardy.  The need for social order became paramount, and yet killing the alpha male did not lead to a stable or satisfactory solution, because he was replaced by another alpha who became equally vulnerable to attack.

Here’s the problem:   Nature gave us the dominance hierarchy to solve our conflicts of interest, but three million years ago we figured out how to mess with the hierarchy with lots of disposable knives.  We had, in effect, taken out the part of the natural system that regulates conflicts, which meant that conflicts were going to get a lot worse...

“No problem”, Nature said, “just wait a couple of million years and I’ll be sure to come up with a great solution.”  Right.   “Thanks Nature.”    In the meantime, our ancestors were about to go extinct, along with all the other hominins that did go extinct.  “So long, it was a slice.”  ….or…..."OK, knives are great, but we need a plan B here, people."

Chimpanzees and gorillas are built for defence and conflict.  They have bigger sharper teeth, and vastly more powerful arms and shoulders than humans.  That this is so, suggests that alpha male competition has been suppressed or minimized in humans for millions of years.  Remember Huxley’s gardener?  She got rid of the aggressive weeds and encouraged the growth of the domesticates.

In Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, an explanation of how a new species comes about always involves a gradual series of changes that leads up to the new species.  But social evolution and “artificial selection” do not have to be as gradual, because, sometimes, major changes can be made simply by having people agree on making a  change.  Political elections are an example of this, as are contracts.



When philosophers speak of a social contract, they almost always assume that our living under social rules and norms is preferable to a state of nature, where there is a ceaseless struggle for survival, where, according to Hobbes, life is nasty, brutish, and short.  It seems plausible that if people had had the chance to make a collective agreement in the state of nature, they would have gone ahead and agreed  to adhere to any reasonable set of rules.

But the question is:  what were the rules that humans picked originally?  I believe that there is enough evidence to give us some idea of what the first rules probably were, at least, partly evidence, and partly educated inference.  

In the majority of modern philosophical treatments, the problem of how any group of humans actually came to such an agreement is set aside by making the whole process hypothetical.    In the most famous example from the last century, John Rawls, in his book,   A Theory of Justice, used the idea of the social contract as a move to  simplify the justification of the modern welfare state.  There is, therefore, little contact with the idea of how morality originated.   In contrast, I believe that the question of origins is central to the nature of morality, indeed, of human nature.

 First, I propose that a moral system is like a game. A game cannot be played until there are people who agree to play it.  The participants in a game are willing to limit their behaviour, in line with the rules of the game, in order to play together.

Second, I take my cue from a different kind of game theory, for the idea that often-times the winning strategy has to do with what occurs in the initial setup of the game.  Allow me to explain.

In the state of nature, behaviour is limited by environmental challenges, and challenges from social situations, competition, and conflict.  But why would we agree to artificial limits - limits that we would  impose on ourselves?  I think we would if we saw that our system was an improvement over nature’s.  And how could we see this if we didn’t have it yet?  How would anyone agree to the rules of a game if no-one had played the game before?  The answer might be that there had been”rules” of behaviour before, and previous “games”, but previously nature had defined and dictated the “rules”.  The difference with humans, is that at some specific point in time, the very first humans radically changed that situation when they created a set of rules and all agreed to follow them in order to  solve a crisis.


When new technologies appear they often lead to wide-ranging social changes. Examples are: the invention of bronze weapons, iron weapons, the invention of money, invention of the printing press, the internet, etc...  The unanticipated social changes from these new technologies can, in effect, leap ahead of existing moral and political systems.  Eventually this leads to a crisis that has to be solved by a  reorganization of those systems.  

I believe that this recurrent pattern, of technological change leading to  social change, started at the very beginning of human development, with the development of a moral system to replace the natural hierarchical dominance system of the precursors of humans.

The first moral system could  not have been something  complex or based on many principles. Instead it would have been the minimal required to replace what was lost with the elimination of the alpha. This minimal system had to replace the  three essential functions of the alpha male dominance  hierarchy:  keeping social order by regulating violent behaviour,  regulating sexual behaviour, and regulating the distribution of resources.  It also had to stop the alpha male from making a comeback.  Nature can be very persistent.  And what better human social institution to do the job right, than monogamy. 

Monogamy, the social recognition and organization of  the  male and female pair bond, exists in all human societies, and is prevalent in most, but,  to a lesser degree,  polygamy and promiscuity also exist in most societies.    In terms of being monogamous, humans are outliers compared to most other apes and primates, who are mostly not monogamous, and far more promiscuous.  The few apes, such as orang-utans and gibbons, who are monogamous are also solitary and do not live in large groups.  Humans are the only primates that both live in large multi-family  groups and live in monogamous families. 

Why Monogamy?  Why not free love like the Bonobos, or Polygamy, like the Mormons?  Why did monogamy come first?  Because it’s dead simple. Our precursors were already starting to pair-bond;  Nomadic hunter-gatherers can’t keep a surplus, so there is little extra to support a polygamous lifestyle;   Everything else would have meant more bloodshed and instability.  Monogamy could hold down the violence, and keep social stability but it would take more collective effort.
Let’s look at what monogamy replaced:  The biggest, loudest, strongest, and meanest SOB in the valley- the alpha male - had his dibs on everything and the rest fought for the  scraps.  But, most of the time the presence of the alpha kept the peace.  Everyone submitted most of the time, but sometimes he was challenged by a younger coalition. Then, the violence and stress levels could get out of hand, until the challenger won or he and his buddies backed down.  

With monogamy the entire community committed to supporting each other in nuclear families.  It was a game-changer, because the status of being “together”  would have been recognized and supported by the community and challengers would have been collectively dealt with.  Mind you, we don’t necessarily see that in today’s society - third parties don’t stop affairs from happening or get the  community to band together so as to punish adulterers.  But moral judgements, gossip, and shunning can effectively do the same thing.

Monogamy in humans sticks out.  It is not at all obvious that it is a natural default form of organization for humans.  There has been more than one book written with the phrase - “The Myth of Monogamy”  in its title.  Monogamy appears to require a system of rules and a collective effort to maintain the rules and punish rule-breakers.  A collective effort initially requires a collective agreement.  I would argue that such an agreement could  have originally happened, and probably did happen before humans had acquired language.

Evidence that this is possible comes from one of our closest relatives - the bonobo.  Bonobos are apes that look  similar to chimpanzees, our other close relative, but their behaviour is radically different. Unlike chimpanzees, in bonobo society there is no alpha male.  Males are dominated by the collective efforts of bonobo females.  Even though an adult male bonobo is physically capable of dominating any female, it never happens, because female bonobos gang up on aggressive males.

While bonobos replaced alpha male dominance with female collective action, this form of collective agreement did not lead to a moral system, because bonobo female dominance did not overcome  “might makes right” and did not lead to monogamy.   Bonobos do not have a language, but coincidentally or not,  they come closer than any other animal in their ability to use human-type languages.  

Back in the Ice Ages, hominin groups with an alpha male would not have been as successful in  building together larger groups to defend against other hostile groups of hominins.  If a group could permanently  eliminate the alpha male position it would have paved the way towards greater cooperation between all the members, towards larger group size, and towards greater cooperation between groups,  garnering major survival advantages.  

An alpha male hierarchical system is not  easy to replace, because it is a self-organized,biological system.  If you eliminate one alpha, another will generally  pop up in his place.  The analogue with today’s society is with bullying.  If we simply ignore bullying it gets worse and spreads.  It takes public attention and collective action to control it.   

For the first humans, like the bonobos, the only way to replace the alpha male hierarchy was to do it deliberately and collectively.   There must already have been a common and widespread desire to pair-bond before the institution of monogamy, and then as the role of alpha male became more unstable, the necessity of controlling violence and the simplicity of pairing up males and females led to the solution of monogamy and the social means of maintaining the system: group sanctions against cheaters.  This was in fact, the first moral system.  Unlike contemporary moral systems it had to have been dead simple in order for the first humans to have adopted it.  

It could have involved an implicit compromise:    No-one is allowed to be alpha over all any more but every male can be an alpha in a more restricted domain when he starts his own nuclear family.  Once he is paired-up  he is not under threat of being killed or having his wife stolen by a younger stronger male, because the entire community will come together to prevent this.

As American Anthropologist Christopher Boehm has shown, many contemporary nomadic hunter gatherer peoples have a much lower toleration for alpha male type behaviour in public then we do in modern societies.  In nomadic hunter-gatherer societies people can be shunned for showing anger in public settings.  People who are a law-unto-themselves are sometimes banished or executed by consensus.  In our society, people like this can become CEO’s of major corporations, and, in fact,  Ayn Rand’s popular novels are largely celebrations of the alpha male as entrepreneur.  


Here, in the idea of limiting alpha male behaviour, the analogy to games comes to the fore.  In all games including sports, players agree beforehand to play by the rules, and rule violators, if they are caught, are taken out of the game.  If this were not true, and rule breakers were not punished or excluded, no-one would agree to play.  This is basically the same situation that people find themselves in, when they inhabit a moral system.  

In board games such as chess, checkers, and go, each and every player starts with the same assets and follows the same rules. Chess and Go even have "handicap rules", rules that make a game between players of unequal strength more playable. This is the opposite of apes under an alpha.  In ape society it is “might makes right”; “rules” correspond to dominance rank, so they favour the most dominant;  the same thing applies to assets.

I call monogamy the first moral system because it replaced the alpha male’s “might makes right” with universal rules, punishment for violations,  egalitarianism, and fair distribution.  This all-in-one capacity is what makes it a moral system.  Monogamy didn’t just order sexual behaviour.  It put constraints on the levels of violence in a society and it determined the way that food and resources would be distributed.  

Remember that the first humans would have lived in smallish groups of from thirty to one hundred individuals, in which everyone knew each other by sight.  In modern society, which is so much bigger and more complex, monogamy can no longer perform these functions by itself, so we add a host of human institutions to do the job:  language, religion, agriculture, monetary systems, legal systems, government… and the list goes on.  

That morality sticks to us so pervasively is demonstrated by the fact that we are constantly judging ourselves and others,  we are continually motivated by our moral concerns, and that every single human  society has a moral system. This must mean that morality  is  doing a necessary job. Human societies cannot survive long without a moral system.  But we evolved from the hominins, of which none others but humans now exist.  Before moral systems, nature had another way of doing this job.   It had to do it via the  brutality of the alpha male.  He was nature’s way of regulating violence, sex,  and food distribution in anthropoid groups.  He beat up or intimidated everyone else,  he had priority, sometimes absolute, over females, he appropriated the choicest foods for himself and his favourites.  And this was rule by example.  He was the role model.   I gather that human beings are still capable of acting this way, but I, personally, know of no one who exemplifies or admires these qualities and am quite happy to keep it that way.

Just as the alpha kept order by using his tough status to get his way, in a moral system the group collectively monitors behaviour and punishes violations of rules.  By establishing and maintaining a monogamous system, the first humans, in effect, set up a system that selectively eliminated those more likely to be alpha males, for not being willing to play by the rules.

The second function of the alpha, that of regulation of sexual behaviour, was democratized by the institution of monogamy.  This recognized and legitimized the human pair bond, leading to a whole new set of relationships with  in-laws, and to bigger groups in general.   It also allowed men to be more assured of the paternity of their kids and more connected to them.  As the Primatologist Frans de Waal points out in his book,  Our Inner Ape, this took the pressure off males, once they entered monogamous relationships, and allowed them to thrive and compete in areas other than sex such as hunting, sports, tool-making, carving, and parenting.

The third of the vital roles played by the alpha, distribution of resources, was transformed. With the establishment of the nuclear family, the division of labour between male and female became possible through  the sharing of food and domicile.   Before this, the alpha and his favourites got the spoils, and distributed them in exchange for sexual favours.  

Instead of  meat being hoarded amongst the alpha and his associates, it was fairly distributed amongst families, something that still goes on in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies today.  One key concept here, is that sharing meat more equitably would have helped group survival.  


The road to allowing women to compete in male-dominated activities was  a rocky one due to the original compromise, (eg.  every man to be an alpha in his own home but nowhere else) which has obviously changed over time.  But only in the last hundred years, with the advent of feminism, has our society considered the equality of men and women.  Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the ethical  movement towards sexual equality will stick, if  today’s religious extremists have their way.

Did evolution lead to morality?  To paraphrase Thomas Huxley in his  lecture “Evolution and Ethics”:  nature does not teach virtue, it only teaches  vice.  It’s “nature red in tooth and claw” - not a well-tended English garden.   If ethics was just a part of natural evolution, then why does society have rules to constrain the fittest and rules to aid those who are less fit?  It seems that there is a break between nature and human morality, and it has to do with human groups deliberately limiting intra-group violence,   “extramarital” sexual behaviour, and greed.  

The intuition of many is that one of the things, and perhaps the most important thing that makes us distinct from animals, is that we have a moral system.  Without the collective move to monogamy two million years ago,  human society could not have arisen.  


  1. Interesting and very readable. Thanks Charles.

  2. Good one. I'll read it again when I'm more present. You have a strong focus on monogamy

  3. more on the alpha male. Doc. on Chimp colony in Arnheim zoo.