Calling all Cultural Anthropologists: When and How Did Our Ancestors Start Punishing Harmful Behaviors?

So xians like to say that atheists and other non-believers cannot be moral.

In the Teaching Company course titled Origins of the Human Mind (copyright 2010), UC Berkeley Professor Stephen P. Hinshaw says In human evolution, our species couldn't have survived and reproduced without a strong penchant for social behavior.

About thirty years ago, when getting published required professional credibility and not merely an internet connection, I read in a work on cultural anthropology of an early attempt to discourage murder. In a tribe whose identity I long ago forgot, the killer was required to live with a female in her reproductive years until she gave birth and restored the tribe to its former number. I don't remember if additional punishment followed.

Given Homo Semi Sapiens' recent successes (the International Criminal Court and more) and failures (the Stand Your Ground Laws and more), ...

Oh hell, I know there are people here who know far more than I about the origins of morality. Go for it.

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I look forward to learning the answers to this question. When I lived among the Athabascan In a little fishing village, a woman told me we had it all wrong, we punished our children and pampered our dogs. Athabascans pamper their children and punish their dogs. I never observed discipline within families. They told their children stories of the naughty crow or shrew or other animal and how nature punished them. I think nature was such a brutal disciplinarian, all the parents had to do was alert them to dangers or misconduct. They had a strict social structure that was administered through story.  I also didn't observe family violence except when alcohol was involved. Their culture took a terrible hit when other cultures, Russian and European and USA cultures intervened. They moved from Stone Age to Machine Age when the Alaskan Highway was built in preparation for WW II. The construction crew hired and trained natives to repair engines and build roads. Some claimed the cultural adjustment was the fastest in history. I can't verify that, but it is possible. 

I'm no cultural anthropologist, but I'd think that you would have to go back a very long way.  It seems that some urge to punish antisocial behavior is innate in all social species.


Ted, I'm thinking of situations more reasoned than those existing in pond scum (cyanobacteria or blue-green algae) cultures.

I understand that in them, larger or stronger bacteria simply engulfed (ate) nearby smaller or weaker bacteria. For instance, organisms that evolved to become televangelists, Tea Party Republicans or bankers.

Tom, setting cultural anthro aside for the moment, haven't you watched nature films where the parents corrected their offspring's behavior?  I have!

You said " For instance, organisms that evolved to become televangelists, Tea Party Republicans or bankers."  I personally am of the opinion that reasoning people do not have to resort to name-calling or put-downs against people who disagree with us. 

Instead, we should use reason & facts to counter their claims.  Just because I am an Atheist does not mean I have no social mores.

Sharon; very early in forty years of hard ball politics, I learned the survival value of occasionally setting reason aside and doing battle.

An xian once challenged me to name a positive result of evolution.

Rather than take his challenge seriously and let him start a "Why don't you...?" "Yes, but...." game, I told him an offspring of pond scum gave us chocolate.

He did exactly what I wanted; he disengaged.

A Cooperative Species

"First, people cooperate not only for self-interested reasons but also because they are genuinely concerned about the well-being of others, try to uphold social norms, and value behaving ethically for its own sake. People punish those who exploit the cooperative behavior of others for the same reasons. Contributing to the success of a joint project for the benefit of one’s group, even at a personal cost, evokes feelings of satisfaction, pride, even elation. Failing to do so is often a source of shame or guilt. 

"Second, we came to have these “moral sentiments” because our ancestors lived in environments, both natural and socially constructed, in which groups of individuals who were predisposed to cooperate and uphold ethical norms tended to survive and expand relative to other groups, thereby allowing these prosocial motivations to proliferate. 

The first proposition concerns proximate motivations for prosocial behavior, the second addresses the distant evolutionary origins and ongoing perpetuation of these cooperative dispositions."

More ‘altruistic’ punishment in larger societies

If individuals will cooperate with cooperators, and punish non-cooperators even at a cost to themselves, then this strong reciprocity could minimize the cheating that undermines cooperation. Based upon numerous economic experiments, some have proposed that human cooperation is explained by strong reciprocity and norm enforcement. Second-party punishment is when you punish someone who defected on you; third-party punishment is when you punish someone who defected on someone else. Third-party punishment is an effective way to enforce the norms of strong reciprocity and promote cooperation. Here we present new results that expand on a previous report from a large cross-cultural project. This project has already shown that there is considerable cross-cultural variation in punishment and cooperation. Here we test the hypothesis that population size (and complexity) predicts the level of third-party punishment. Our results show that people in larger, more complex societies engage in significantly more third-party punishment than people in small-scale societies."

I find nothing on "When and How Did Our Ancestors Start Punishing Harmful Behaviors?" The search continues. 


I watched a clip recently featuring Penn Jillette. He was speaking of christians claiming god is the author of morality, and saying there is no morality without god. Penn says when you make a statement saying "god is good" you automatically have created a morality outside of god.

That seemed pretty self evident to me.

Penn says when you make a statement saying "god is good" you automatically have created a morality outside of god.

That's an excellent point to make. If God is good, then there must be a standard against which his goodness is being measured that exists outside his sway. That is why some theologians insist that God is the very definition of good, that whatever he  does is good because it comes from him.

Hm-mm, religious jingoism. If god does it then it's good.

Which generalizes to If my leader does it then it's good.


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