Christopher Boehm

Weatherhead Resident Scholar

1999–2000

The Evolution of Moral Communities

"The brand of anthropology I practice is unusual," states Christopher Boehm, Weatherhead Fellowship resident scholar, "insofar as I am a cultural anthropologist interested in politics, morality, and evolution who later in my career spent sixteen months in the field studying conflict resolution among wild chimpanzees." His research and writing centers on morality, combining humanistic concerns with an interest in natural selection.

"In a discipline that is experiencing severe rifts between 'humanists, and 'scientists,' I feel that the best way to heal this schism is to produce provocative work that bridges the gap," says Boehm. During his fellowship year, Boehm is working on a book titled The Evolution of Moral Communities which will combine humanistic and evolutionary approaches to explain a major problem of interest to philosophers, theologians, anthropologists, and biologists: the basis of human altruism.

Boehm's argument is that the human sociobiologists have missed the main evolutionary process that differentiates human from most other animals, a form of group selection. "Bands regularly promote altruism, and I shall demonstrate that this is explainable in terms of currently neglected mechanisms of natural selection. This will require a departure from standard evolutionary-biology theory of the past three decades, which simply sets aside selection taking place between groups as being irrelevant," asserts Boehm.

"I believe the book will provide new answers about how hunter-gatherers moralize, about the place of morality in natural history, and about a human nature that probably is more altruistic than presently acknowledged."

Boehm's most recent book, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior was published in 1999 by Harvard University Press and examines the human sense of autonomy and freedom in an evolutionary context. With David Sloan Wilson, Boehm is conducting an ongoing research project, supported by the Templeton Foundation, that focuses on explaining conflict resolution and forgiveness behavior in an evolutionary context.

Affiliation at time of award:
Director of the Jane Goodall Research Center and Professor of Anthropology, University of Southern California


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