May 31, 2010

The Strain Toward Transcendence: Axial Age Values

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Values and the pfc tagged , , , , at 3:04 pm by Jeremy

In the span of just a few short centuries, between roughly 750-350 BCE, human society in Europe and Asia was transformed by an array of original thinkers and new systems of thought never seen before in history.  The list is astonishing: Lao Tzu[1] and Confucius in China; the Buddha and the Upanishads in India; Zoroaster and the Old Testament in the Middle East; and Plato, Sophocles and so many other great minds in Ancient Greece.

Confucius: just one of the foundational philosophers of the Axial Age.

The German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, was the first to remark on this phenomenon in his book, The Origin and Goal of History, published in 1949.  He called it the Axial Age, because as he saw it, this period was like a great axis, when  “we meet with the most deep cut dividing line in history.  Man, as we know him today, came into being.”[2] Since then, the Axial Age has been a favorite subject of books and symposiums, with scholars trying to figure out exactly what was happening during those times, and why.

A general consensus has evolved that the new systematic ideologies that arose, speculating on mankind’s place in the cosmos and offering new sets of values for how we should interact with each other, were a result of the greater size and complexity of society.  Cities were getting bigger; empires covered vast tracts of land, incorporating multiple diverse cultures.  Author Robert Wright offers a good summary of some of these changes:

Certainly [the first millennium BCE] is a millennium of great material change.  Coins are invented, and appear in China, India, and the Middle East.  Commercial roads grow, crossing political bounds.  In the course of this millennium, markets… supplant state-controlled economies.  Cities get accordingly big and vibrant and, in many cases, more ethnically diverse… [M]ore and more people found themselves in an environment radically unlike the environment natural selection had ‘designed’ people for.[3]

But in fact, as I’ve described in a previous post on agricultural values, people had already evolved new sets of values for thousands of years that separated them from the hunter-gatherer values we’d been selected for by evolution.  So to be precise, the Axial Age, in my view, represents a second step away from that original value-constellation.

Why did Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia get bypassed by the Axial Age?

But there’s a big issue that’s not explained by the simple theory of society getting bigger and more complex.  The Axial Age revolution didn’t happen in all the great civilizations of Eurasia.  In fact, it completely bypassed the two civilizations that were among the greatest of them all: Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, as has been noticed by classical scholar Benjamin Schwartz among others.[4] Why was that?

My own theory is that Mesopotamia and Egypt were simply too stable and monolithic.  Things generally worked there.  Sure, there were all kinds of crises and invasions, famines and catastrophes.  But through all their dynastic turbulence, the fact remains that both the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilization and culture continued in a fairly stable form for thousands of years.  Meanwhile, in each of the areas where Axial Age values did erupt, societies were enduring centuries of social and political instability and political fragmentation.

In China, Lao Tzu and Confucius emerged during an era known as the Warring States Period, when regional warlords were continually jostling for power with each other.  This only ended with the unification of China under the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE.

Not too much is known about the political structure in Northeast India at the time that produced the Upanishads and the Buddha, but the celebrated German Indologist Hermann Kulke describes it as a time when Aryan settlers from the northwest were bringing their ancient Brahmanical traditions into contact with the indigenous populations.  As he describes it:

Nowhere in the whole of Northern India the contrast and even opposition between Brahmanical and monarchical institutions on the one side and indigenous and heterodox cults and pre-monarchical institutions on the other side seem to have been more striking than in the eastern countries.[5]

And once again, politically, the area was fragmented into a collection of “strong chieftaincies and small kingdoms.”

Exile to Babylon: one of the many catastrophes that led to the rise of Axial Age values.

The picture of instability and fragmentation is the same when you consider the Hebrew experience of constant invasions, destruction of their temple, and exile to Babylon.  And finally, while the Greeks were fortunate to avoid the catastrophes of the Hebrews, their culture was highly fragmented politically, with their city-states constantly at war with one another, uniting only temporarily to face the Persian threat from the east.

It took the existential angst of seeing communities continually beset by war and uncertainty, along with a lack of a central, unifying socio-cultural force, to generate the intellectual ferment that could give rise to the great breakthroughs of thought characterizing the Axial Age.  So what were these breakthroughs?  And did they share any common features, or where they all unique?

Probably the most important feature shared by all these Axial Age breakthroughs in thought was what Benjamin Schwartz has  called a “strain toward transcendence.”  Here’s how he describes it:

If there is nevertheless some common underlying impulse in all these “axial” movements, it might be called the strain toward transcendence… a kind of standing back and looking beyond – a kind of critical, reflective questioning of the actual and a new vision of what lies beyond.[6]

Following Schwartz, we can think of Axial Age philosophers observing the catastrophes occurring in their societies as a result of people following the primary values of the agricultural age, which I refer to as the Age of Anxiety.  These values extolled wealth and social hierarchies, glorified destruction of enemy nations, and emphasized propitiation of local, ancestral gods as a means to success.  Perhaps each of the foundational philosophers asked themselves how to transcend these destructive values, how to find a system of thought that could provide greater meaning and fulfillment to their communities.

If this was their aim, they seem to have succeeded, for in each Axial Age breakthrough we see a universalization of cosmological explanations and a broadening of the moral community to extend beyond the borders of a particular nation or empire.  As the philosopher of comparative religions, Huston Smith, has noted, each Axial Age breakthrough system established a form of the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would want them to do to you.  In his view, “these counsels of concern for the well-being of others were one of the glories of religion during its Axial period.”[7]

While each Axial Age breakthrough had this transcendent characteristic in common, their other notable element was how unique each new systematic philosophy was.  For the first time in history, different cultures established their own intellectual foundations for a worldview and began to evolve their thought traditions accordingly.  In China, India and the Eastern Mediterranean, three very different traditions evolved, each of which would affect the future course of their region’s history.

In China, the Taoist and Confucian traditions agreed on the underlying nature of the Tao as an intrinsic, dynamic force that harmonized heaven and earth.  They disagreed on how to interpret this force, whether to emphasize individual fulfillment or social harmony as a way to live one’s life, but they didn’t question the underlying cosmology.

The Buddha: his philosophy was in opposition to the prevailing Upanishadic doctrines.

In India, the Upanishads began to develop a systematic interpretation of the cosmos, linking the individual’s soul, or atman, with the universal being, or Brahman, and describing a spiritual path whereby a person could unlearn the habits of the mundane world and realize this universal linkage between himself and the universe.  The Buddha’s philosophy was, in some senses, in radical opposition to the Upanishadic doctrines, emphasizing a middle way between the alternatives of holy asceticism and worldly suffering.  However, even this radical departure continued to accept some underlying cosmological foundations of the Upanishads, specifically the belief in the soul’s reincarnation and the ultimate goal of release from the continual cycle of rebirths.[8]

In the Eastern Mediterranean, the two major Axial breakthroughs of Hebrew monotheism and Greek rationalism at first seem very different.  They do, however, share a structural element that underlies both the Christian and Islamic cosmologies, forming the foundation of the monotheistic worldview that has since dominated vast regions of the world.  This structural element can be summarized as the world’s first truly dualistic worldview, a universe comprised of two utterly different dimensions: an eternal dimension that is sacred, immaterial and unchanging; and a worldly dimension that is profane, material and mortal.  This same dualism is applied to both the external world and to the internal world of human nature, splitting the human being into two: a body and a soul.

This extreme dualism[9] is so pervasive in our modern world that many of us just take it for granted without even questioning its origins.  But in fact, it’s unique in the history of human thought, and following the conquests by Christian and Islamic powers over so much of the world,  it’s had a powerful effect on billions of lives and the direction of our entire world.  The next post will examine the sources and implications of this relatively new and powerful layer of human values.


[1] In fact, most scholars nowadays believe that Lao Tzu was not a real person, but that the Tao Te Ching was a compilation from multiple authors.

[2] Cited by Watson, P. (2005). Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud, New York: HarperCollins.

[3] Wright, R. (2009). The Evolution of God, New York: Hachette Book Group, 238-9.

[4] Schwartz, B. I. (1975). “The Age of Transcendence.” Dædalus, 104(2), 1-7.

[5] Kulke, H. (1986). “The Historical Background of India’s Axial Age”, in S. N. Eisenstadt, (ed.), The Origins & Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[6] Schwartz, op. cit.

[7] Smith, H. (1982/2003). Beyond the Postmodern Mind: The Place of Meaning in a Global Civilization, Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.

[8] Whether the Buddha himself accepted the doctrine of reincarnation, or whether his followers infused the Buddha’s original ideas with some of the trappings of the contemporary cosmological speculations, remains a controversial topic.  See Batchelor S. (2010). Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau.

[9] I call it “extreme dualism” to differentiate it from a fuzzier kind of “dualism” intrinsic to human thought, whereby a certain “essence” or “spirit” is seen to exist separately from the material body.  However, in earlier forms of “dualism,” the spirit is still thought to have a material existence, frequently associated with the breath, the wind, or something with a much finer essence than the body.

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May 25, 2010

The Age of Anxiety: An Exploration of Agricultural Values

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Values and the pfc tagged , , , , at 9:34 pm by Jeremy

Consider this as a movie plot: man finds a way to get ahead; accumulates tons of wealth and power; gets increasingly anxious about losing it all; starts acting weird to try to keep real and imagined threats at bay.  Sounds familiar?  It’s a classic story which has created some of the greatest movies of our time, such as Citizen Kane and The Godfather, Part II.   It’s also the story of mankind, as the first generations of agriculturalists, whose ancestors had forever been hunter-gatherers, found themselves taking up new habits and getting themselves embroiled in a new set of values that had never before been part of the human experience.

Citizen Kane: power – and agriculture – can do funny things to your mind.

The shift to agriculture is viewed by many anthropologists as “the most profound revolution in human history,”[1] one which established “the ultimate economic foundation for the past 10,000 years of population growth amongst the human population, indeed for the phenomenon of civilization as we know it.”[2] It began with the simple, but powerful, realization that if you did certain things to crops and animals, they produced more.  If you collected seeds from this year’s harvest of wheat and planted them, then more wheat would grow next year in the same place.  If you captured that baby goat and fed it your scraps, then it would produce milk for your family and could eventually be killed for meat.

These new techniques led to something that had never occurred before in human history: surplus.   And over many generations and thousands of years, this simple change in home economics led to the development of vast civilizations that stretched around the world, a process described here by archaeologist Graeme Barker:

The ability to produce food and other products from domesticated plants and animals surplus to immediate subsistence requirements also opened up new pathways to economic and social complexity: farming could mean new resources for barter, payment of tax or tribute, for sale in a market; it could mean food for non-food producers such as specialist craft-workers, priests, warriors, lords, and kings.  Thus farming was the precondition for the development of the first great urban civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus valley, China, the Americas, and Africa, and has been for all later states up to the present day.[3]

The thing about a surplus is that it changes how you live your life.  If you were smart or lucky enough to collect a whole lot more wheat than your family really needs, this is something you have to deal with.  First, you need to protect it, so no-one takes it away from you.  Then, you can use it, trading it for something valuable someone else has.  And if that other guy wants your wheat but doesn’t have anything to trade, well, how about trading his labor instead?  “The way is open,” writes archaeologist Colin Renfrew, “to the appropriation of property and to differentiation in terms of property: the roots of inequality.”[4] And if you’ve spent your life accumulating more than those around you, then it’s natural to want to pass it on to your kids.  As a result, “social reproduction takes on new forms.  The children will wish to secure ‘their’ land and ‘their’ cattle from appropriation by outsiders, and rules will have to be established to determine which children have the right to which land.”[5]

Before too long, a new value constellation has arisen that no hunter-gatherer community would ever have conceived of: property, wealth, hierarchy, gender inequality and power.  “Nothing in the development of human society,” Renfrew believes, “appears more significant than this ascription of meaning and value to material goods and to commodities.”[6]

Was agriculture responsible for the emergence of monogamous marriage?

In the view of some scholars, this agricultural value constellation was the cause of some things that we generally view as part of human nature: the urge to compete, even the institution of monogamous marriage.  “The propensity to compete,” in the view of Egyptologist Barry Kemp, “and thereby to disturb the equilibrium appears to be inherent within those societies which settle and create an agricultural base.”[7] And in a recently published article, anthropologists Fortunato & Archetti argue that “monogamous marriage emerged in Eurasia following the adoption of intensive agriculture, as ownership of land became critical to productive and reproductive success.”[8]

As ownership and hierarchies became more established, the boundaries of group identity expanded.  An individual hunter-gatherer identified with his extended family, or clan.  But as agriculture’s surplus permitted increasing social stratification and complexity, the organizational group also began to grow, first to the size of a tribe, then to a chiefdom, and as the millennia unfolded, some of the great early civilizations, such as Egypt, Mesopotamia and China, began to form.

Unfortunately, group identities weren’t the only thing to increase in scale.  As we all know, the more you have, the more you have to lose.  And as the boundaries of agricultural communities expanded along with their populations, the desire for power, wealth and security played itself out over the millennia in the form of ever-increasing scales of warfare.  Here’s how anthropologist Brian Ferguson describes what happened:

War emerged when humans shifted from a nomadic existence to a settled one and was commonly tied to agriculture.  With a vested interest in their lands, food stores and especially rich fishing sites, people could no longer walk away from trouble.[9]

That seems to be the reason why, around the 5th millennium BCE in Europe, (what’s referred to as the late Mesolithic era), “warfare had become a common reality,” according to archaeologist Barry Cunliffe.  He tells us how “forty-four per cent of the burials found in Denmark displayed evidence of traumatic injuries on their skulls.”[10] And if you read the heroic literature from the civilizations that arose thousands of years later, you can see that the slaughter of your enemies had become something to be immensely proud of, as in the words of the Assyrian king Shamshi-Adad around 800 BC:

Thirteen thousand of their warriors I cut down with the sword.  Their blood like the waters of a stream I caused to run through the squares of their city.  The corpses of their soldiers I piled in heaps… The city I destroyed, I devastated, I burnt with fire, and I… laid claim to the whole of the country under the ancient title of “King of Sumer and Akkad.”[11]

Assyrian king Shamshi Adad: proud of his devastation.

This was, of course, no isolated example.  Homer’s Odysseus was proud to describe how, in his sack of Ismarus, where he “destroyed the menfolk, we divided the women and the vast plunder that we took from the town so that no one, as far as I could help it, should go short of his proper share.”[12]

Nice guys, both of them.  But of course, things didn’t always go as well as they did for Shamshi-Adad and Odysseus.  And that’s why, perhaps the greatest new human experience that agriculture and its surplus brought to the human race was anxiety.

I’m not talking about a simple moment of anxiety, such as “will I be hungry today?” or “will I get laid tonight?”  I mean a profound, cosmic anxiety shared by agricultural civilizations across the world, described by historian Calvin Martin as “the anxiety over cosmic disorder that seems to lie at the core of all the agrarian religions.”[13] The more complex, grand and ordered early civilizations became, the more concerned they were about the forces of chaos that might destroy them.

In another post I’ve described how, for hunter-gatherers, Nature appeared as a giving, nurturing parent.  Not anymore.  Once you’re committed to agriculture, you become utterly dependent on the whims of the seasons.  If the rains don’t come; if the freeze lasts too long; if the floods are too intense… then all collapses around you.  And so, in a strange and inexorable evolution, Nature becomes more distant, more irascible, more unpredictable.  It’s no longer regarded as the parent, but is increasingly associated with the more distant ancestors.  Everywhere around the world, from China to Mesopotamia, Egypt to Mesoamerica, worship of the ancestors becomes predominant.[14]

With agriculture, ancestor worship became predominant across the world.

The increasingly hierarchical structures and market economies that characterized agricultural societies also infused the worship of those ancestors, who were believed to only give their wealth “in return for favours rendered.”[15] Archaeologist Jacques Cauvin describes how “the theme of the ‘supplicant’ introduces an entirely new relationship between god and man… a new distinction at the heart of the human imagination between an ‘above’ and a ‘below’, between an order of a divine force, personified and dominant, and that of an everyday humanity.”[16] The gods were just as likely to be threatening as they were to be benign, so you’d better treat them with the same respect you’d show to the king.

Just as the gods were becoming more separate from the humans who worshiped them, so nature was also becoming more distant.  Barker describes the modern view of the cognitive shift that occurred from the hunter-gatherer to the agricultural idea of nature:

Prehistoric foragers probably saw themselves as part of the cosmos, along with the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered.  …[O]nce people became farmers, their cognitive world had to shift profoundly from a sense of belonging to and being part of the wild to ‘acculturating’ it as it became something to control and appropriate rather than be part of.[17]

But no matter how distant the gods and the natural world became, they were always seen as sharing the same cosmos that the people inhabited.  There were no sharp distinctions between humans, ancestors and gods.  Instead, the borderlines between all these categories were blurred in what one scholar has called an “ontological continuum … a natural, organic connection between man, gods, and nature, all of which are formed from the same substance and governed by the same causal framework.”[18] This continuum between humans and the gods existed in all early civilizations and agricultural communities around the world.  Whether for the Aztecs, the Yoruba, the Egyptians or the Chinese, it was “possible for humans to become deities, as well as for deities to be woven into human history.”[19]

While we might think this cosmic continuum offered a sense of comfort that’s missing from our denatured modern world, it also brought with it a momentous weight of responsibility.  Anthropologist Anthony Aveni, for example, describes how the Maya “believed they were active participants and intermediaries in a great cosmic drama.”  They had to participate in rituals to help the gods “carry their burdens along their arduous course,” because “without their life’s work the universe could not function properly.”[20] And strangely, as the gods became ever more distant and threatening, so the actions that needed to be taken to propitiate them became ever more extreme.  In the case of the Aztecs, that sense of active participation led to their infamous blood sacrifices.  “Only by supplying the sun with life’s vital fluid,” Aveni tells us, “could they hold it on its course in the present age.”[21]

Aztec human sacrifice: needed to keep the cosmos going.

Blood sacrifice to keep the gods propitiated?  Not even Citizen Kane went that far… But the parallels are, I believe, instructive.  We have agriculture to thank for so many of the comforts that we take for granted, but also for many of the values that – for good and bad – structure our lives.  It’s interesting to see how some of those values have become embedded deep into our collective psyche, while others have been layered over and have virtually vanished from view.

Let’s take a final look at that value constellation:

  • Ownership, property, wealth, social hierarchy are all new good things in agricultural society.
  • Demolishing your enemies and stealing their women and possessions are virtuous acts.
  • Propitiating the ancestral gods, and treating them with abundant fear and respect, are essential behavior if you hope for a long, happy life.
  • Even more important is participating with the rest of the community in the ritual requirements necessary to keep the cosmos ordered and chaos at bay.

These values developed over thousands of years, and it’s striking how, even though the outward manifestations were so different from one civilization to the next, the underlying values were shared by each of the civilizations.  But then, beginning around 1,000 BCE, some of these civilizations entered what’s become known as the Axial Age, a period when new value systems appeared in China, India, Greece and the Middle East , systems that were as different from each other as they were from anything that had gone before.  And that Axial Age is what we’ll be exploring in the next post.


[1] Barker, G. (2009). The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why did Foragers become Farmers?, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 414.

[2] Bellwood, P. (2005). First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 14.

[3] Barker, op. cit. 1-2.

[4] Renfrew, C. (2007). Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, New York: Modern Library: Random House, 122.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, p. 135.

[7] Kemp, B. J. (1991). Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization, New York: Routledge, 35.

[8] Fortunato, L., and Archetti, M. (2010). “Evolution of monogamous marriage by maximization of inclusive fitness.” Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 23, 149-156.

[9] Quoted in Horgan, J. (2009). “The end of war.” New Scientist(4 July ), 39-41.

[10] Cunliffe, B. (2008). Europe Between the Oceans, 9000 BC – AD 1000, New Haven: Yale University Press.

[11] Cited by Dilworth, C. (2010). Too Smart for Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind, New York: Cambridge University Press, 282.

[12] Cited by Dilworth, op. cit. 307.

[13] Quoted by Barker, op. cit., 410.

[14] Barker, ibid.

[15] Barker, op. cit., 414.

[16] Cauvin, J. (1994/2000). The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture, T. Watkins, translator, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 69-70.

[17] Barker, op. cit., 38.

[18] Uffenheimer, B. (1986). “Myth and Reality in Ancient Israel”, in S. N. Eisenstadt, (ed.), The Origins & Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[19] Trigger, B. G. (2003). Understanding Early Civilizations, New York: Cambridge University Press, 421.

[20] Aveni, A. (2002). Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks, and Cultures, Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 223.

[21] Ibid., 241.

May 19, 2010

Giving and taking: an exploration of hunter-gatherer values

Posted in Hunter-gatherers, Values and the pfc tagged , at 4:30 pm by Jeremy

Christopher Columbus couldn’t believe his luck.  He’d finally landed in the New World on the island of Hispaniola and was ready to do battle to get what he could for himself and the King of Spain.

Columbus in Hispaniola: he couldn't believe his luck

But instead, there was no battle to be fought.  Anything he or his crew wanted, the natives would just give to them with a smile.  Here’s how he described it in his journal:

[T]hey are so artless and free with all they possess, that no one would believe it without having seen it.  Of anything they have, if you ask them for it, they never say no; rather they invite the person to share it, and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts; and whether the thing be of value or of small price, at once they are content with whatever little thing of whatever kind may be given to them.[1]

And it wasn’t just like this in the New World.  Three hundred years later, on the other side of the world, Captain James Cook arrived in what would become New South Wales in Australia, and was equally flabbergasted by the natives’ lack of attachment to possessions, writing:

They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff etc… In short they seem’d to set no value upon any thing we gave them… this in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no superfluities.[2]

The myth of the Noble Savage was inspired by real experience of hunter-gatherers.

No wonder the romantic myth of the Noble Savage grew up in Europe in the age of colonialism.  In both cases, the indigenous people discovered by Columbus and Cook (and soon to be devastated by violence and disease) were hunter-gatherers, people who still lived their lives using an approach that had served humans well for hundreds of thousands of years, or about 99% of our history.  In fact, as evolutionary psychologists explain, our minds evolved in the hunter-gatherer environment, as “generation after generation… natural selection slowly sculpted the human brain, favoring circuitry that was good at solving the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.”  The result being that “our modern skulls house a stone age mind.”[3]

But wait a minute… If we all have hunter-gatherer minds, how come none of us are “artless and free” with what we possess, and as for living in “Tranquillity”… well, if only!  My “layered values” hypothesis argues that, in fact, our modern values are formed through several layers of “value constellations” that have evolved culturally over thousands of years.  In this hypothesis, the hunter-gatherer values form the core of everything that follows.  So those values may be very different from the way we live our lives today, but they’re fundamental to understanding how we choose right from wrong even in our modern world.

Warfare has been a constant throughout human history.

And sad to say, it wasn’t all artless tranquility.  Far from it.  As hunter-gatherers, we humans were continually fighting each other, in the form of one clan against the other.  In an influential book published in 1996, Lawrence Keeley systematically showed how warfare has been a human constant since well before the beginning of recorded history.[4] But controversy still rages over whether we should view that prehistoric aggression as warfare or merely skirmishes, feuds between two closely-knit groups fighting over a woman or a breach of honor.  Regardless of how we characterize it, though, most people nowadays agree that your chances of meeting a violent death were far higher as a hunter-gatherer than any time since, even during the ghastly world wars of the 20th century.

Which leads back to that question that’s been asked over and over about human nature: are we fundamentally warlike or peace-loving?  This is a theme that has frequently been hijacked by political agendas: liberals may claim that fundamentally we’re all a brotherhood of man, while conservatives may argue that we need strong values imposed on us to prevent us from falling back to a state of nature.  But what are we really?

In a series of recent papers, Santa Fe Institute economist Samuel Bowles offers a convincing answer to this question, arguing that our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved as “parochial altruists.”[5] The “parochial” refers to the fact that they identified only with their particular group. Within that group, they would share generously, to the point of sacrificing their own lives to defend their community.  But when it came to fighting against another community, there would be no holds barred.  Bowles’ argument is that in a battle between two groups, a group of “parochial altruists” ready to sacrifice their own lives for their compatriots is more likely to prevail than a selfish group where every man is just looking out for himself or his direct family.

In fact, in modeling these scenarios, Bowles has shown a “markedly higher reproductive success of predominantly parochial altruist groups when interacting with groups with fewer parochial altruists,” resulting in the possibility of very rapid evolution of these traits, “occurring in less than 200 generations, or about 5,000 years.”[6]

Hunter-gatherers have no hesitation demanding your generosity.

Interestingly, even within the group, the kind of altruism that evolved was different from the good-natured charity that we idealize in our modern era.  Rather, there was generally an assertive egalitarianism, an intense social pressure towards sharing that would have made modern philanthropists mighty uncomfortable.  Anthropologist Nicholas Peterson describes what he calls “demand sharing,” where in a typical hunter-gatherer group, someone might come up to you and announce what they want from you, expecting you to give it to them without hesitation.

A related phenomenon to this is the scorn that might be heaped on someone who gives a big gift to the community.  We would normally expect a sizable gift to be met with gratitude, but anthropologist Elizabeth Cashdan explains this response as part of the intense social pressure towards egalitarianism:

Bushman groups… are … typified by strong and continual socialization against hoarding (i.e., toward economic equality) and against displays of arrogance and authority (i.e., toward social and political equality)… [Richard] Lee has eloquently described how his attempts to provide a large ox for a Christmas feast were met with scorn by the !Kung recipients, the scorn succeeding as a mechanism that prevents any tendency on the part of a good hunter or provider to become arrogant and think of himself as a “big man.” The proper behavior of a !Kung hunter who has made a big kill is to speak of it in passing and in a deprecating manner; if an individual does not minimize or speak lightly of his own accomplishments, his friends and relatives will not hesitate to do it for him.[7]

Once again, our economic theorists have explanations for this type of behavior.  For decades, it’s been known that the “reciprocal altruism” or tit-for-tat strategy – otherwise known as “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” – is a powerful force in evolution, not just for humans but for other species interacting with each other.  But recently, using lab experiments and game-theory models, Fehr & Fischbacher have shown that people have a natural tendency for something that goes beyond reciprocal altruism, which they refer to “altruistic punishment,” or “a propensity to impose sanctions on others for norm violations.”  In other words, people are generally willing to “bear the cost of rewarding or punishing” someone who breaks the rules “even if they gain no individual economic benefit whatsoever from their acts.”[8]

Fehr and Fischbacher have modeled this trait and shown that groups with members committed to altruistic punishment are more likely to be successful over the long-term than groups without a punishment mechanism.  And interestingly, groups that go further and punish the non-punishers (those laissez-faire types who don’t do anything wrong but let others do what they want) are the most successful of all.

With all this intense social pressure on you, is it any wonder that you’d want to give anything you had to the group, rather than risk some kind of social punishment?  Anthropologist Woodburn describes what this means in real life to a member of the Hadza hunter-gatherer group:

The unremitting demands Hadza make on one another are highly conspicuous and often go beyond asking for things for which the owner has no immediate need. A man who obtains a ball of tobacco, a shirt or a cloth by trading with or begging from non-Hadza is unlikely to keep it for long unless he is very determined and willing to make himself unpopular. He will be asked for it endlessly.[9]

A Hadza man: won't keep his own tobacco for very long.

As a result of this, Woodburn believes that “greater equality of wealth, of power and of prestige has been achieved in certain hunting and gathering societies than in any other human societies.”  Woodburn explains that these kind of “assertively egalitarian” groups have economies based on “immediate return,” rather than delayed return.  That is, in these societies, people go out hunting or gathering, and eat whatever they obtain that same day or the over the next few days.  They don’t process or store their food.  The tools and weapons they use are fairly simple, portable and easy to replace.  These were the “easy come, easy go” kind of people that Columbus and Cook came across hundreds of years ago.

And they generally extended that “easy come, easy go” attitude to the natural world around them.  There was, after all, no need to store things if Nature did the storing for you.  Depending on the season, it might be the best time for berries or grubs, pigs or deer, root vegetables or nuts.  But there was always something around.  And for this reason, hunter-gatherers tend to view the natural world as what anthropologist Bird-David calls a “giving environment.”  Here’s how she describes the worldview of the hunter-gatherers of South India, called the Nayaka:

Nayaka look on the forest as they do on a mother or father.  For them, it is not something ‘out there’ that responds mechanically or passively but like a parent, it provides food unconditionally to its children.  Nayaka refer, for example, to the spirits that inhabit hills, rivers, and rocks in the forest and to the spirits of their immediate forefathers alike as dod appa (‘big father’) and dod awa (‘big mother’)…  They believe that dod appa and dod awa look after them and provide for their needs.  If Nayaka misbehave, as parents do these spirits inflict upon them aches and pains, removing them when they express regret and promise to mend their ways; they never punish by withholding food.[10]

The Nayaka look on Nature as their mother-and-father.

So maybe Captain James Cook wasn’t so far off when he observed that the indigenous people “live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition,” and “think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life.”  But the clichés that have developed since then – whether it’s the “noble savage” or the “warlike savage” –  tend to reflect the modern moral values being applied to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle rather than telling us about the people themselves.  Liberal thinkers who view hunter-gatherers as ideals of egalitarianism, and conservative thinkers who view them as warlike brutes, are really just creating anachronisms, since the values they’re using to judge early hunter-gatherers hadn’t even come into existence at that time.

Here’s what we really can say, in general terms, about the hunter-gatherer value constellation:

  • They tend to be fiercely generous, altruistic and egalitarian within their group;
  • They may sometimes be fiercely aggressive towards other groups;
  • They place minimal value (or even negative value) on possessions; and
  • They view the natural world as a giving environment, intimately connected to them.

So, when we look at this set of values, similar in some ways to our own but also so different in other ways, it’s reasonable to ask ourselves how did we ever get from there to here?  What happened to the human race?  The answer, in one word… agriculture.  And in my next post, we’ll explore the layer of values that the rise of agriculture placed over these core hunter-gatherer values.[11]


[1] Quoted by Stannard, D. E. (1992). American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World, New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] Quoted by Bellwood, P. (2005). First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

[3] Cosmides, L., and Tooby, J. (2006). “Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer.” Center for Evolutionary Psychology, UCSB. City: Santa Barbara.

[4] Keeley, L. ((1996).  War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, New York: Oxford University Press.

[5] Bowles, S. (2008). “Conflict: Altruism’s midwife.” Nature, 456, 326-327; Bowles, S. (2009). “Did Warfare Among Ancestral Hunter-Gatherers Affect the Evolution of Human Social Behaviors?” Science, 324, 1293-1298.

[6] Choi, J.K., and Bowles, S. (2007). “The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War.” Science, 318, 636-640.

[7] Cashdan, E. A. (1980). “Egalitarianism among Hunters and Gatherers.” American Anthropologist, 82(1), 116-120.

[8] Fehr, E., and Fischbacher, U. (2003). “The nature of human altruism.” Nature, 425, 785-791.

[9] Woodburn, J. (1982). “Egalitarian Societies.” Man, 17(3), 431-451.

[10] Bird-David, N. (1990). “The Giving Environment: Another Perspective on the Economic System of Gatherer-Hunters.” Current Anthropology, 31(2), 189-196.

[11] Although agriculture is the major driver of the next value constellation, there is a strong line of argument that sees “sedentism” – hunting and gathering within an increasingly settled and fixed location – as an intermediary stage between true hunter-gatherer and agricultural lifestyles.

May 7, 2010

From Kinship to Capitalism: The Layered Values Hypothesis

Posted in Values and the pfc tagged , at 4:26 pm by Jeremy

Reason and emotions – how do they relate to each other?  That’s easy, right?  We’ve had over two thousand years of people telling us that our reason controls our emotions. Or at least it tries to.  And when the emotions get out of hand… well, that’s when we do things we later regret.  Right?  No, wrong.

In the past couple of decades, there’s been something of a revolution in the approach to this area of moral psychology.  In a paper that’s now become a classic, called “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment,” psychologist Jonathan Haidt turned the reason/emotion relationship upside down. [1]

When “we see an action or hear a story…we have an instant feeling of approval or disapproval,” Haidt tells us.[2] This is what’s known as our affect-laden, or moral intuition.  Think for a moment about taking a pin and sticking it into the hand of the next person you see.  Ouch!  You instantly feel that that’s a bad thing to do, without having to reach for a set of values.  And reaching for those values, which is known as “moral reasoning,” is now believed to be something we do to rationalize whatever our instant moral intuition told us was right or wrong.  Here’s how Haidt contrasts the two:

Moral intuition refers to fast, automatic, and (usually) affect-laden processes in which an evaluative feeling of good-bad or like-dislike (about the actions or character of a person) appears in consciousness without any awareness of having gone through steps of search, weighing evidence, or inferring a conclusion.  Moral reasoning, in contrast, is a controlled and “cooler” (less affective) process; it is conscious mental activity that consists of transforming information about people and their actions in order to reach a moral judgment or decision….[3]

Moral reasoning is more like an attorney arguing a case.

Moral reasoning, Haidt believes, is less like a judge and more like an attorney: arguing a case after the action’s already been taken.  It’s usually “a post-hoc process in which we search for evidence to support our initial intuitive reaction.”[4] So, for the last two thousand five hundred years of moral philosophy, under this approach, the tail’s been wagging the dog: in reality it’s the emotions (not reason) that does the wagging.

In the same year of Haidt’s revolutionary paper – 2001 – another psychologist, Joshua Greene, reported an experiment which backed up Haidt’s theory and has now become the archetypal example to support this new view.  It’s based on two different moral dilemmas, the “trolley dilemma” and the “footbridge dilemma,” which are described here by Greene:

… the trolley dilemma: A runaway trolley is headed for five people who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. The only way to save them is to hit a switch that will turn the trolley onto an alternate set of tracks where it will kill one person instead of five. Ought you to turn the trolley in order to save five people at the expense of one? Most people say yes.

Now consider a similar problem, the footbridge dilemma. As before, a trolley threatens to kill five people. You are standing next to a large stranger on a footbridge that spans the tracks, in between the oncoming trolley and the five people. In this scenario, the only way to save the five people is to push this stranger off the bridge, onto the tracks below. He will die if you do this, but his body will stop the trolley from reaching the others. Ought you to save the five others by pushing this stranger to his death? Most people say no… [5]

In both situations, you would be causing the death of one person in order to save five people.  So why would you feel OK about doing that in the trolley dilemma, but refuse to push the poor guy to his death in the footbridge dilemma?  The answer, Greene suggests, is that the footbridge situation engages your emotions in a way that the trolley situation does not.  It’s more “emotionally salient” to grab hold of someone, feel their living body, and push them off a bridge to their death, than it is to simply flick a switch.  That emotional salience is what triggers your instantaneous moral intuition, whereas flicking a switch is just a numbers game.  One death versus five.  One is better.  Flick the switch.  Now your moral reasoning is running the show, because there’s nothing emotionally salient to kick your moral intuition into gear.

Adolf Eichmann: can "moral intuition" theory explain the banality of evil?

Interestingly, this experiment sheds light on a phenomenon pointed out by philosopher Hannah Arendt several decades ago which she called the “banality of evil.”  She came up with this famous phrase in a report on the 1961 trial of the Nazi mass murderer Adolf Eichmann, sometimes referred to as the “architect of the Holocaust.”  What was striking to people in the televised trial held in Israel was how mild-mannered and bureaucratic this monster appeared.  In terms of Haidt’s and Greene’s thesis, the notion of the “banality of evil” can be partially explained by the separation of Eichmann’s moral reasoning (framed by the hateful ideology of Nazism) from his moral intuition which remained unengaged.  If Eichmann had been forced to murder Jews personally, rather than signing orders for their genocide, his moral intuition might have made it much more difficult for him to have carried it out.

In the past two decades, so many experiments and fMRI investigations of the brain have supported Haidt’s and Greene’s findings that their approach has now become the new orthodoxy in moral psychology.[6] So, it was with more than a little interest that I read a recent Opinion article in Nature magazine by another well-regarded psychologist, Paul Bloom, arguing against the Haidt/Greene viewpoint.  “I predict,” he wrote, “that this theory of morality will be proved wrong in its wholesale rejection of reason. Emotional responses alone cannot explain one of the most interesting aspects of human nature: that morals evolve.”[7]

Bloom’s basic argument – that morals evolve – is a powerful one.  He points out that currently we have very “different beliefs about the rights of women, racial minorities and homosexuals” than people did at the end of the 19th century, and even our “intuitions” about the “morality of practices such as slavery, child labour and the abuse of animals for public entertainment” had changed substantially.  How do you explain that under the “moral intuition” theory?  Bloom suggests that “the role of deliberate persuasion” is what’s missing from Haidt’s theory.  He gives examples of the classic book Uncle Tom’s Cabin in helping to end slavery in the United States, and Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation, which served as a powerful catalyst for the animal rights movement.  So in Bloom’s view, moral reasoning does more than offer a post-hoc rationalization.  It can actually change minds.  Not just a few minds, but over generations, millions of minds.

Roman slaves: Uncle Tom's Cabin would not have helped free them

Roman slaves: Uncle Tom's Cabin would not have helped free them

While I agree with Bloom’s point that morals evolve, I think he’s focused on the wrong dynamic in emphasizing “deliberate persuasion.”  What Bloom’s missing is the crucial importance of cultural norms.  Yes, individual writings can definitely have an impact on those norms, but most people pick up their norms from those around them as they grow up.  Imagine Animal Liberation published in 18th century, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin published in Roman times: they would have been too distant from the contemporaneous cultural norms to have had any impact.

In fact, I think that it’s possible to incorporate the dynamic of evolving morality into the Haidt/Greene approach by conceptualizing what I would call a “layered values” hypothesis.  In this view, as an individual grows up (mostly as a child but to some degree into adolescence and beyond) significant cultural norms become associated so strongly with emotional valence (good/bad reactions) that they become embedded into the individual’s moral intuition.  I call it “layered values” because some of an individual’s core values are intrinsic to being human, whereas other culturally derived values are then layered over this core.

To be fair to Haidt, he already included this idea in his original 2001 paper.  “Moral intuitions,” he wrote, are “both innate and enculturated.”  He describes how “moral intuitions are developed and shaped as children behave, imitate, and otherwise take part in the practices and custom complexes of their culture,” and he views an individual’s “moral development” as “primarily a matter of the maturation and cultural shaping of endogenous intuitions.”[8]

And in a recent paper, neuroscientists Chadd Funk and Michael Gazzaniga have focused on the way that external, cultural values embed themselves into our moral intuition, emphasizing the role of what they see as an “interpreter” in the left hemisphere of the brain, which acts as a “critical bridge” between our subjective experience and the “ideological infrastructure of society.”  Here’s how they describe the process:

Once captured as cultural norms or laws, these ideas feedback through development and learning mechanisms to fine-tune the workings of the underlying neural circuitry… Thus, hard-wired patterns of neural connectivity that establish innate functional modules, like those that foster basic social evaluation in infants, are dynamically sculpted by cultural experience.[9]

Muslim women wearing the veil: why does this make some people angry?

Whether we view it as sculpting or layering, it’s the same idea.  A core set of human values being shaped by cultural factors.  What’s missing, however, in these descriptions is a further analysis of the different types of cultural factors that shape each individual’s moral intuition.  What makes one person shudder at gay marriage, while another person seethes with anger at Islamic women wearing a veil?  Or to go back to Bloom’s example, why is everyone against slavery now when it was considered a normal part of society in so many cultures in the past?  While every individual and every culture have their own idiosyncrasies, I think it’s possible to isolate different sets of what we might think of as “value constellations” that evolved together at different stages of human social evolution, which explain a great deal of these differences in cultural norms.  These value constellations emerged from the major societal and technological characteristics of that stage of social evolution, and once they became embedded in each individual’s moral intuition, they were passed on from generation to generation by the process that Funk & Gazzaniga described above.

Elsewhere in this blog, I’ve broadly categorized what I see as four distinct stages  of societal development with clearly differentiated value constellations: hunter-gatherers, agriculture, monotheism and the scientific age.  The table below summarizes these stages in terms of predominant timeframes, major technological innovations and characteristic values. [Click on the table for a bigger view.]

Click here for a pdf version of the table below.

You can read further descriptions of each stage by clicking here, but right now I’m primarily interested in the value constellations that each stage produces.  I think that, by understanding these different layers of value, it’s possible to gain more insight into the conflicts that we frequently find ourselves engaged in.  I’m referring to conflicts that arise within ourselves, between us and other people, between one social group and another, and even between different countries.  Here is a brief summary of some of the values characteristic of each stage:

Hunter-gatherer: Kinship bonds, fairness, reciprocal generosity, altruism (within the group), aggression (to other groups).

Agriculture: Ownership, social hierarchies, gender inequality, ancestral worship, regional identification.

Monotheism: Immortal soul separate from the body; worship of God as universal law-giver; identification with religious co-affiliates.

Scientific age: Multiple universally applicable values derived from abstract conceptualizations: liberty, reason, democracy, progress, fascism, communism, capitalism.

I’m proposing that, just as an individual is layered with values that embed themselves in her psyche as she grows up, so our modern culture is the result of layers of cultural norms that have themselves evolved through different stages of societal development.  As each different stage of development became predominant, the new sets of values were layered over the old, sometimes seamlessly, sometimes causing great conflict.

For an example of seamless layering, it’s easy to see how the agriculture-derived notion of ownership fits well into the scientifically-derived theory of capitalism.  On the other hand, clear conflicts arise between agriculturally-derived ancestral worship and monotheistic belief, or between agriculturally-derived values of gender inequality and modern scientific-age values of liberty and democracy.  Interestingly, following on from the latter example, you can see a powerful linkage between modern liberal democratic values and some of the hunter-gatherer values of fairness and within-group altruism, which partly explains why some modern thinkers occasionally romanticize hunter-gatherer cultures of  the past.

Over the next few blog posts, I’ll explore each of these layers of value constellations, and look at how they accumulated, layer by layer, to form our modern set of values and conflicts.  And, as we get to the modern day and the rapidly-changing world that we find ourselves in, we can look at the implications and possibilities for new layers of values in the 21st century and beyond.


[1] In fact, in a 2007 Science paper, “The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology,” Haidt credits the “‘affective revolution’ of the 1980s—the increase in research on emotion that followed the “cognitive revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s,” for his 2001 insights.

[2] Greene, J., and Haidt, J. (2002). “How (and where) does moral judgment work?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6(12: December 2002), 517-523.

[3] Haidt, J. (2007). “The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology.” Science, 316(18 May 2007), 998-1002.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Greene, J. D., Sommerville, R. B., Nystrom, L. E., Darley, J. M., and Cohen, J. D. (2001). “An fMRI Investigation of Emotional Engagement in Moral Judgment.” Science, 293(14 September 2001), 2105-2108.

[6] Funk, C. M., and Gazzaniga, M. S. (2009). “The functional brain architecture of human morality.” Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 19(6), 678-681.

[7] Bloom, P. (2010). “How do morals change?” Nature, 464, 490.

[8] Haidt, J. (2001). “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: a Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.” Psychological Review, 108(4), 814-834.

[9] Funk, C. M., and Gazzaniga, M. S. (2009) op. cit.

April 22, 2010

Even bugs have values! – The biological foundation of human ethics.

Posted in Values and the pfc tagged , , , at 3:44 pm by Jeremy

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”

Bob Dylan stated it clearer than most: the irresolvable conflicts that can arise when different value systems clash.  In one of the most memorable scenes of the Old Testament, God wants to test Abraham’s faith, so he tells him to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  Abraham is faced with a clash of values: his paternal bond to the son he loves versus his commitment to an invisible, all-powerful authority.  And even to this day, that conflict resounds.  As Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg notes in a 2008 article in the New York Review of Books, “even someone who believes in God can feel that Abraham in the Old Testament was wrong to obey God in agreeing to sacrifice Isaac.”[1]

Abraham sacrificing Isaac: a fundamental clash of values.

Where do these different values systems come from?  Why do they conflict with each other?  And how do they affect the way we live our lives every day?  In a series of blog posts, I’m going to explore these questions.  We’ll see the crucial role that the prefrontal cortex (pfc) plays in constructing our values.  And if you follow me to the end, perhaps we can arrive together at some ideas about how we might evolve our value system to respond to major 21st century issues such as our ever-accelerating effects on the global environment.

Oftentimes, when people talk about values, they begin with some great externality such as God.  Alternatively, more recently, many evolutionary psychologists note the fact that homo sapiens has spent 99% of its career in bands of hunter-gatherers, and focus accordingly on the core values that evolved in that environment.  I agree in general with the approach of the evolutionary psychologists, but I think if you really want to understand values, you have to go back even further.  Values begin in the body.  Values were embodied before we evolved the capacity to talk about them.  And, in fact, I’d go back even further than that.  Back to the very earliest, primeval times on the earth.  Back to the days, over a billion years ago, when the only living things around were single-celled organisms.

What, you might ask, does a bacterium wallowing around in a primordial ooze have to do with values?  Stuart Kauffman explains it well:

Consider then a bacterium swimming up the glucose gradient.  The biological function that is being fulfilled is obtaining food… Here, the bacterium detects a local glucose gradient, which is a sign of more glucose in some direction.  By altering its behavior and swimming up the gradient, the bacterium is interpreting the sign… Thus meaning has entered the universe: the local glucose gradient is a sign that means glucose is – probably – nearby.  Because natural selection has assembled the propagating organization of structures and processes that lead to swimming up the glucose gradient for good selective reasons, glucose has value to the bacterium.[2]

A pseudomonas bacterium: even it has values.

OK, I hear you say, but that’s cheating.  Maybe the glucose has value to the bacterium, but that’s not the same as our values… we’ve advanced well beyond that.  Yes, we certainly have.  For one thing, we have brains with complex neurological structures that no bacterium can ever imagine.  But our brains evolved in order to help the other parts of our body do their jobs more efficiently.  Our bodies are, after all, composed of about ten trillion cells, and each of these cells, just like that bacterium, needs nutrition in order to live its life to the full and keep us healthy.  So it’s not surprising that neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, one of today’s leading theoreticians on human consciousness, sees an inextricable link between amoebas and us:

A simple organism made up of one single cell, say, an amoeba, is not just alive but bent on staying alive.  Being a brainless and mindless creature, an amoeba does not know of its own organism’s intention in the sense that we know of our equivalent intentions.  But the form of an intention is there, nonetheless, expressed by the manner in which the little creature manages to keep the chemical profile of its internal milieu in balance while around it, in the environment external to it, all hell may be breaking loose…

What I am driving at is that the urge to stay alive is not a modern development.  It is not a property of humans alone.  In some fashion or other, from simple to complex, most living organisms exhibit it.  What does vary is the degree to which organisms know about that urge.  Few do.  But the urge is still there whether organisms know of it or not.  Thanks to consciousness, humans are keenly aware of it…[3]

Between the two extremes of self-aware humans and amoebas lie the millions of species of multi-celled organisms that inhabit our world.  For many of these species – the animals – a nervous system evolved to create a bi-directional feedback system connecting the brain with the other billions of cells that make up the animal’s body. In a 2009 paper, physiologist Michel Cabanac traces the evolution of the nervous system from an elemental reflex-oriented mechanism to a more sophisticated one where a basic form of consciousness appears.[4] Cabanac sees a major transition occurring between the class of animals that nowadays includes amphibians such as frogs and toads and the class that led to other animals such as birds, turtles, snakes and mammals.  For amphibians, a basic feeling will elicit a hard-wired, instinctual response.  A frog feels hunger and sees a rapid movement in front – its tongue shoots out to catch a fly.   But for more evolutionarily sophisticated animals, responses go beyond these basic steps.  A far more complex series of primary emotions, such as anger or fear, can drive the animal’s response.

A frog: Cabanac contrasts its hard-wired instinct to creatures with basic emotions.

With the evolution of humans, something unique happens to those primary emotions.  The symbolizing power of the human prefrontal cortex enables us to experience a range of emotions that go way beyond simple things such as anger or fear.  Our complex social awareness leads us into areas such as pride, shame, and all kinds of intangible emotions far too nuanced to even have a name attached to them.[5] And finally, we humans have awareness of these emotions.  So, whereas another animal can feel anger, only a human has the ability to look at herself and say “I feel angry.”  See the diagram below for a visualization of these differences (click on it for a bigger version).

Now, we’re getting close to the point where we can begin to understand how our values arise out of those embodied emotions that evolved over hundreds of millions of years.  In an interesting 2007 paper, psychologist Darcia Narvaez has traced what she calls the “neurobiological roots of our multiple moralities.”[6] She takes as her evolutionary framework the model devised by renowned neuroscientist P.D. Maclean called the “triune brain theory,” which views the human brain as comprising three layers: an evolutionarily ancient “reptilian” brain enveloped by an “early mammal” brain, which is in turn overlaid by the more recent neocortex (which incorporates the pfc.)

In Narvaez’s view, each of these three layers drives different sets of ethical values, leading to our current human condition where “three distinctive moral systems, rooted in the basic emotional systems, propel human moral action on an individual and group level.”  In summary, here’s the gist of her three systems:

  • The “Reptilian brain” produces a Security Ethic incorporating physical survival, fear, anger, basic sexuality.
  • The “Early Mammalian brain” produces an Engagement Ethic incorporating feelings of intimacy, care-giving, loneliness and sorrow.
  • The Neocortex produces an Ethic of Imagination incorporating logic, reason, consideration of alternative actions and “perspective taking.”

So now we’ve reached the starting point.  We don’t necessarily have to accept the exact categorizations that Narvaez offers, but the general framework is what’s most important.  We can now begin to see how God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac might come from Narvaez’s Ethic of Imagination whereas Abraham’s reluctance – “you must be puttin’ me on” – arose from his paternal instinct that was part of his Engagement Ethic.

In the next posts, I’m going to dig deeper into some of the findings of evolutionary psychology, which examines how these different systems converged in the minds of our paleolithic ancestors to create a set of hunter-gatherer values.  And as we move along humanity’s cognitive career, we’ll see how the different stages of social development led to the flowering of different sets of values, all of which interweave through our current system of thought.  Yes, we have come a long way from that primordial ooze.


[1] Weinberg, S. (2008). “Without God.” New York Review of Books, LV(14: September 25, 2008), 73-76.

[2] Kauffman, S. (2008). Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, New York: Basic Books, 86-7.

[3] Damasio, A. (1999). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, New York: Harcourt Inc, 136-7.

[4] Cabanac, M., Cabanac, A. J., and Parent, A. (2009). “The emergence of consciousness in phylogeny.” Behavioural Brain Research(198: 2009), 267-272.

[5] Many ethologists, such as Sue Savage-Rumbaugh who has extensively studied great apes such as chimpanzees and bonobos, also claim most of these complex emotions for advanced primates.

[6] Narvaez, D. (2007). “Triune ethics: The neurobiological roots of our multiple moralities.” New Ideas in Psychology, 26(1), 95-119.