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Moral Origins [Hardcover]

Christopher Boehm
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Book Description

17 May 2012
From the age of Darwin to the present day, biologists have been grappling with the origins of our moral sense. Why, if the human instinct to survive and reproduce is "selfish," do people engage in self-sacrifice, and even develop ideas like virtue and shame to justify that altruism? Many theories have been put forth, some emphasizing the role of nepotism, others emphasizing the advantages of reciprocation or group selection effects. But evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm finds existing explanations lacking, and in Moral Origins, he offers an elegant new theory. Tracing the development of altruism and group social control over 6 million years, Boehm argues that our moral sense is a sophisticated defense mechanism that enables individuals to survive and thrive in groups. One of the biggest risks of group living is the possibility of being punished for our misdeeds by those around us. Bullies, thieves, free-riders, and especially psychopaths-those who make it difficult for others to go about their lives-are the most likely to suffer this fate. Getting by requires getting along, and this social type of selection, Boehm shows, singles out altruists for survival. This selection pressure has been unique in shaping human nature, and it bred the first stirrings of conscience in the human species. Ultimately, it led to the fully developed sense of virtue and shame that we know today. A groundbreaking exploration of the evolution of human generosity and cooperation, Moral Origins offers profound insight into humanity's moral past-and how it might shape our moral future.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (17 May 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465020488
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465020485
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 16.3 x 3.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 296,251 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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CHOICE "One rarely finds such a fully Darwinian, scientifically sound, and wisely accessible book for both professionals and lay audiences as Boehm's study of moral origins; it is far superior to any previous attempts to discuss the subject." Kirkus Reviews "Provocative" Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia, and author of The Righteous Mind"Astronomers have the Hubble telescope to look back through time, and social scientists have Chris Boehm. Boehm's monumental accomplishment is to give us the most careful and compelling portrait ever created of how our ancestors lived, from three hundred thousand generations ago to five hundred generations ago. Boehm's work is vital for understanding why we are so tribal, punitive, gossipy, religious, and cooperative today." Frans de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy"Few scientists have thought longer and harder about the origins of morality than Christopher Boehm, who brings to the issue a wealth of experience studying both humans and other animals. His thesis that our species has taken moral evolution into its own hands is new and refreshing. It overcomes conventional wisdom, which places emphasis solely on moral reasoning, as if the revolution in our understanding of emotions in human evolution had never happened." Ernst Fehr, Professor of Economics, University of Zurich"Moral Origins is an exciting study on the evolution of human morality that is appropriate for scientific researchers and also of interest for the general public as well. Christopher Boehm brilliantly ties fundamental aspects of human cooperation such as altruism, free-riding, and bullying to both primitive and advanced societies. This book is a must for all who are interested in how human morality evolved and functions." Jonathan Turner, Distinguished Professor of Sociology, University of California, Riverside"In Moral Origins, Christopher Boehm uses his vast knowledge of the literature on primates and human hunter-gather populations to address the issue of the origins of human morality. It is a must-read for any social scientist, primatologist, or humanist studying human morality. Equally important, it is beautifully written in an easy and graceful style. Certainly the most informed and best work written by an anthropologist on this set of issues, Moral Origins is a book that I would recommend to any thoughtful person." Donald Black, University Professor of the Social Sciences, University of Virginia, and author of Moral Time "Christopher Boehm's Moral Origins is a tour de force of a sort rarely seen in any science. He seeks nothing less than to discover in the darkness of prehistory how and why humans first developed a moral conscience--a self-regulating sense of right and wrong. How did we come, many thousands of years ago, to acquire internalized conceptions of morality and virtue to such a degree that we would not only punish wrongdoers in our midst but even take pleasure in altruism--helping those in need beyond our own families? Boehm's surprising, even amazing answer is that it all started with the enforcement of radical egalitarianism, a refusal of the earliest humans to tolerate anyone who would dare to dominate, cheat, or otherwise take advantage of them. Moral Origins is a remarkable leap of the imagination--full of illuminating and delightful detail--about the deep history of our uniquely ethical species. It is a stimulating experience that a wide range of readers will find difficult to resist." Publishers Weekly, starred review "[An] engrossing work... Boehm does a remarkable job of extending previous work and incorporating a historical approach. He deftly combines studies of earlier hominids with ethological work on primates and ethnographic analyses of contemporary human hunter-gatherer groups to offer a new explanation for moral behavior... His thesis, clearly articulated and well supported by available data, encompasses the egalitarian nature of most hunter-gatherer groups, their need to share large but rarely killed prey, and the human penchant for gossiping about the reputation of others... Boehm himself notes that this may not be the last word, but his ideas are provocative, thoughtful, and worth considering." Wilson Quarterly "Boehm marshals extensive evidence showing how hunter-gatherers use rigidly enforced social rules to suppress free riding today, providing a model for how our ancestors could have cooperated in a natural 'welfare state' that was crucial to their survival. A key new insight Boehm provides is that humans are both able and inclined to 'punish resented alpha-male behavior'... [Moral Origins] contains many important ideas." Nature"Ethologist and anthropologist Christopher Boehm exposes the roots of generosity and peer disapproval. Eschewing evolutionary game theory, he opts instead for natural selection within the social environment." New Scientist"What sets Boehm's approach apart is his effort 'to make the natural history of moral origins more historical'. In so doing he provides a new and coherent map of the evolution of morality... It is a complex story..., but Boehm's experience doing fieldwork with humans and wild chimps makes him a wonderfully knowledgeable guide. And some of his ideas are truly revolutionary." Booklist"How did evolution produce a species that blushes? To explain the uniquely human moral sense, Boehm teases a provocative neo-Darwinian theory out of cutting-edge archaeological, anthropological, and psychological research... Those looking for a daring new application of empirical science will find it here." Michael Shermer, Wall Street Journal "[A] provocative scientific the millennia-long discussion about the nature of morality... Thinkers everywhere will be forced--as they are in many arenas--to consider biology in realms that once seemed strictly matters of the heart and soul." Santa Fe New Mexican / Pasatiempo"In a shift away from conventional wisdom, Boehm employs a historic (rather than genetic) approach and explains moral evolution partly in terms of the importance of impulse control when living in social groups... Moral Origins is clear, logical, and provocative."

About the Author

Christopher Boehm is Director of the Jane Goodall Research Center and Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Boehm's work has been featured in such publications as New Scientist, the New York Times, The Times (London), Natural History, Science News, and in films for National Geographic, Wild Kingdom, and the Discovery Channel. He has lectured widely to groups as diverse as the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, the Chicago Academy of Sciences, the Sante Fe Institute, the Los Angeles and Cincinnati Zoos, and the Naval War College. Boehm is the author of many scientific articles and several previous books, including Hierarchy in the Forest (Harvard). He divides his time between Los Angeles and Santa Fe.

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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
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This book is beautifully written, the theory proposed is elegant, cogently argued and highly plausible and the theoretical landscape of previous models is skillfully canvassed. I have little doubt that this book will be of great interest not only to anthropologists, but also to all scientists in many other disciplines (e.g., psychology, economics, evolutionary biology) that are involved in understanding human and non-human apes social cognition. I particularly liked the author's successful effort in combining vivid descriptions of several real life events of the foragers and quantitative data suggesting the universality of certain traits. Some of the events reported by the authors will stay in the reader's mind for ever. On the negative side, as a developmental psychologist, I have noticed some short-cuts in discussing the assessment of hypotheses concerning innate competences in children. Also, I think it would have been useful not to contrast nepotism (defined as intra-familiar 'false' altruism) with extra-familiar 'real' altruism', in that both of them may be 'false' cases of altruisms at a biological level - since they both may increase rather than decrease the reproductive fitness of the agent), and both can be real cases of altruism at the psychological level (i.e., at the level of intentions and representations computed by the agent's when she is planning and carrying out her altruistic act). Overall, I guess many psychologists that will read this book will get inspired by it and will use it in planning new challenging research projects. Readers that are not personally involved in research activities will find it, I think, a nice opportunity to stimulate their reflections on the links between evolution and moral cognition and will feel compelled to get hold of some the previous works the authors refers to.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Triumph 18 Mar 2014
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Well documented from the academic literature and convincing to read. Though I have some reservations about some of its assertions on the philosophical level, it is a fine analysis of a still controversial topic. Historians of economic thinking and sociology will gain insights based on detailed observations by seasoned field-workers, not ideological speculators.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars He does say Morals became fixed in our genes 15 Oct 2013
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We need to work towards a better understanding of the human revolution in the paleolithic period, and of “human nature” – not as an inherent biological quality, but as the potential that we have to live in a different, communistic, way.
From the articles published, it seems that Christopher Boehm, Chris Knight profess that our morals today are not genetically determined. Most people on the left, including many anthropologists – and myself – would agree with that statement.
But there are problems in understanding the period of overlap – when natural selection continued to transform hominin genes, but humans were also beginning to transform themselves through culture, through changes in behaviour of groups, i.e. were beginning to make themselves human in the first human revolution.
The problems are compounded by the use of terms “natural selection”, “evolution” and “Darwinian evolution”, sometimes to mean the evolution and selection of genes, and sometimes to mean the evolution and selection of human social behaviours, perhaps using an analogy to Darwinian evolution. Sometimes it is unclear which meaning is being used. As the geneticist Steve Jones said: “Evolution is to analogy as statues are to birdshit.”
In the first human revolution humans had to estrange themselves from the rest of nature, estrange themselves from their own biological nature, estrange themselves from each other, women from men by means of division of labour and exchange. In the second human revolution, humanity as part of nature will need to unmake and remake all of these relationships.
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34 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best Book on Human Evolution 14 Jun 2012
By John Wylie - Published on
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In "Hierarchy in the Forest, the evolution of egalitarian behavior" (1999,) Christopher Boehm brought to my attention the most important paradox to be solved in the subject of human evolution: how and why did hunter gatherer humans evolve egalitarian societies within their bands when those of chimpanzees (and Bonobos) are clearly hierarchical. As he points out, alone amongst all the books on how morality evolved that are endlessly focused on the abstractions of game theory and inclusive fitness, Boehm actually gives us an historical narrative about why it might have happened. He makes the case that it evolved due to the cooperative needs to share meat when big game hunting commenced about 250,000 years ago, similar to equitable meat sharing in other meat eaters like wolves and lions. In "Moral Origins," Boehm brings his argument up to date with what feels like his final statement. This is a marvelous book by a scientist who has committed his career to a vital question pertaining to human nature. Particularly admirable is the expression of the proper tone of scientific humility as to the tentative status of his hypothesis and that it gets the conversation going. It is not at all a criticism of this book to briefly state that my own view is that the "roughness" of the egalitarianism in late Pleistocene humans was a deterioration from total egalitarianism in Homo erectus, and that this breakdown was caused by increased sexual competition implicit in the changes that produced our own Homo sapiens species. The sole piece of evidence used to bolster increasing egalitarianism is a paper by Mary Stiner (2009) that demonstrates cut marks on bones were straight 200,000 years ago and "chaotic" 400,000 years ago indicating that they were done by many individuals. To read into straight cut marks the meaning of more equitable meat sharing is wrong in my judgment. Standardization is the hallmark of the onset of culture itself - standardization of the blades as well as how they were used. 400,000 years ago I believe that it wouldn't even have entered the minds of the many individuals who took part in the butchering to take more than their fair share for themselves or their own families.
This is a must-read book for anyone interested in human evolution. For a different view, click the link below, click on the author, John Wylie (twice) and check out the "about page" on the blog on the right side of my personal page.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A model for the evolutionary origin of morality 19 Oct 2012
By A. Menon - Published on
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In Moral Origins, Christopher Boehm tackles the evolutionary origin of our conscience and the factors that might have propelled its integration into the species. Moral behaviour, from an evolutionary perspective, can seem a perplexing developement as altruism is hard to incorporate into an environment in which individuals are competing for resources. The author attempts to describe how such behaviour evolved and why it might not contradict any evolutionary principles and was in fact an attribute that improved genetic suitability.

The book is not particularly well structured but it start off with a discussion that includes some of the social features of chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos. It discusses the similarities and differences in group behaviour, group arbitration and generally the interpersonal dynamics of some of our closest genetic relationships. The author, through accounts as well as personal experience details how our primate relations do not exhibit moral behaviour. This is argued from experience but not in a rigourous scientific fashion, though that is probably impossible to achieve.

The author includes a discussion of hunter gatherer reciprocity and dynamics and ethics in the remaining tribes today. There are narratives and personal accounts. The overlap in ethics and morality is highlighted and so are the solutions fo conflict resolution. The similarities in how tribes deal with alpha male aggressive tendencies as well as subversive anti-social behaviour is detailed in several specific cases. The overlap in human tendencies in various foraging societies is detailed through personal narratives to demonstrate the similarity in how reciprocity and moral reasoning is valued.

The author then uses the cases studied to argue that when hunting became a coordinated affair and cooperation became an advantageous activity, the benefits of reciprocity and altruism grew. Then, with social self-selection humans reinforced the benefits of generosity by choosing mates with such inherent trades, while those which were selfish or cheating by nature were marginalized. This self selection sped up the natural selection process and the combination of self selection and initial genetic variation in an environment which rewarded cooperative behaviour were the seeds and fertilizer for our modern day morality.

Moral Origins is interesting plausible and has much detail on modern day foraging society values and interactions. The basic dynamics described as to why morality evolved sounds very reasonable. I enjoyed reading it but it is can be quite boring and repetitive and not really that deep as the arguments for the dynamic process of initial conditions and feedback are pretty easy to understand. In fact many people doing evolutionary economic modelling have evolved such models- I recall reading in "origin of wealth" models built which encouraged exactly the behaviour described as counterintuitive as being clearly functionally beneficial. Anyway, i am not sure this work is that original and the evidence in support is all anecdotal and the proof that there is no proto-moral system in other species is heuristic. I did learn some interesting facts and get a better grasp of a potential path of how our moral reasoning evolved, so if one has the time, this has parts which are worth reading.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Becoming Moral 2 Jan 2013
By John M. Repp - Published on
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In Christopher Boehm's earlier book Hierarchy in the Forest: the Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior (1999), he describes how hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies created egalitarian societies. The band or tribe members co-operated to prevent "alpha" type males from dominating their group. Having language helped them achieve this political equality, which chimpanzees would like to achieve and occasionally try to achieve but cannot maintain. Boehm is both an anthropologist and a primatologist and has studied egalitarian band, tribe and village customs and chimps in the wild. Without language that allows them to communicate and better co-operate, chimps end up with hierarchical societies. Human's egalitarianism is partly "natural" i.e. DNA driven and also made possible by abilities like language facilitated by DNA. Egalitarianism is the result of actions and a culture i.e. learned behavior. It is a question of the actions by all the adult members of the society to block potential tyrants or bullies from using physically force to dominate their group. It allows most males to have mates and requires hunters to share equally the meat of a large animal kill among all the members of the band. It requires alpha types to be generous, not aggressive, and not able to give orders or even assume "airs" of superiority.
In Moral Origins, Boehm looks at the evolution of conscience and the sense of shame, linked to the nearly universal (psychopaths do not have it) physiological response of blushing. He writes that only when humans achieved egalitarianism could human morality evolve. He dates these developments tentatively. Egalitarianism started evolving 250,000 thousand years ago and human morality was more or less completed by 50 thousand years ago. By that time, the weak, but clearly evident, (for example when young men volunteer for the military to help their nation) human propensity to altruism, which is defined by biologists as extra familial generosity, had evolved. Boehm writes that it evolved by "social selection" not natural selection. In egalitarian bands, the vast majority of the band selected the traits it most wanted of its members. A tyrant would be gossiped about, coldly greeted, directly talked to, kidded, ridiculed, shunned, ostracized or even executed. It is clear the final two actions changed the gene pools. With positive reinforcement, the generous, emotionally tranquil, and not easily angered were seen as better marriage or hunting/gathering partners. These desired traits and individuals were socially selected and affected human gene pools.
This version of the human story explains a difficult problem for peace and justice activists. Posed as a question: if human beings are by nature selfish or self-interested as mainstream social scientists assert, how can we create the kind of society we want? We know the answer intuitively. If the vast majority of people learn to cooperate, they can use nonviolent methods to force an altruistic morality on our alphas. Alphas may have talents that help societies, but they cannot use their status to dominate others. Counter intuitively, it is in the self-interest of the vast majority to create a society with an altruistic culture, for it benefits all. Conversely, the desire for upward mobility in a ranked system and the illusion that a person is just "one break away from making it big time" is one of the biggest barriers to the solidarity needed for such an optimal society. American culture has always nourished that individual desire and that illusion.
If it is true that human morality could not evolve in prehistory until our ancestors achieved egalitarianism, what has happened to human morality since? In strongly hierarchical societies like ancient Rome and the America of plutocracy and empire, most people sense a "breakdown of morality". The upshot of Boehm's thinking is that we, here in the USA, need to recreate an egalitarian society or at the least a true equal opportunity society. Only then, when everyone has the necessities of life and some dignity, can we say we have become moral.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Touchdown 10 May 2013
By jcrafts - Published on
Moral Origins is a great read. Boehm has done it again, he has written a really great book. In Hierarchy in the Forest he set down his basic theories that support egalitarianism, in Moral Origins he expands on these ideas to accurately describe human nature. No easy feat. What is important to me is the way he combines primatology, palaeontology, and broad anthropology survey data as a basis for his theories. I am tempted to spoil it for you but I know that Frans De Waal, David Sloan Wilson, and Jonathan Haidt were involved with this and I think he has solved the puzzle about the origin of morality and human nature. Great book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Morality as contingent evolution 28 April 2013
By Sceptique500 - Published on
A growing number of scholars approaches morality not as a set of timeless values grounded in God's commands, or transcendent philosophical principles, but as an "ethical project begun in response to central human desires and needs, arising from humanity's special type of social existence" (KITCHER The Ethical Project; pg 8). In their view, humanity has been working on an "ethical project" ever since it split from Pan, the common ancestor we share with chimpanzees and bonobos.

It is the great merit of the author to have cast this project in historical terms. Very carefully, he shows how the newly discovered ability of hunting big game in bands around say 400,000 years ago forced hunters-gatherers to become egalitarian, i.e. "being engaged in the same intensive, effective, general suppression of alpha-male behavior." (pg. 320) The adaptation went beyond "fear-based" self-control (as in apes and wolves) and involved mechanisms for internalizing pro-social behavior like empathy and sympathy (it also helps in keeping free-riders in check, the other source of friction in an egalitarian society). There is some genetic basis to this - we blush when we commit something we consider "wrong" - but the process of internalization itself is social. On such pre-adaptation "drastic social selection" - social selection by reputation - operated further. Selection by reputation is the cultural equivalent of sexual selection among peacocks. At the end, humanity stumbled into a process of "auto-domestication".

There is nothing exceptional in such complexity of adaptation. Biology and physiology allow just a few answers, and such complex solutions are accepted/rejected as a package (see J. Scott TURNER The Tinkerer's Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself). What is new (and the author makes it quite clear) is that next to genetic adaptation there is - for the first time on a large scale - cultural adaptation. While genetic evolution is essentially "blind", cultural evolution can become directive and even intentional as it retains and builds on experience (pg. 331). We have no idea where the dividing line is drawn (see e.g. Eva JABLONSKA Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology) or RICHERSON and BOYD Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution).

Cultural adaptation is fast, because it operates in Bayesian fashion: we accumulate experience and transmit it from one generation to the next. The drawback is that much can be lost in transmission and that collective as well as individual intentionalities are forever ambiguous. What the author calls "weakness" - I'd qualify as its "strength": its recursive capacity to analyze and adapt at the individual level has allowed the human race to populate all environments on earth (and beyond) in no time flat (in evolutionary terms).

The author is a social anthropologist walking the narrow and precipitous ridge between the social and the biological sciences. It is a heady and hazardous trek, and he should be commended for undertaking it and returning to tell a very plausible tale. Rather than standing by his facts, however, the author has succumbed to the (plausible albeit regrettable) need to justify himself before the court of card-carrying evolutionists who have infested the discipline. The result is repetition, and sometimes confusion.

Ever since "survival of the fittest" made its appearance with SPENCER, this tautology has bedeviled evolutionary science. DAWKINS has brought it to a paroxysm, when he spoke of "selfish gene" (as if a gene was not packaged in phenotypes evolving in mosaic-fashion (see MAYR What Evolution Is). It inflicts backhandedly directionality and necessity to a complex and contingent process where the environment is the great selector. Rational expectations economics and game theory have been midwives to theories in this area. Scratch "fitness" and "utility" emerges. All such models share the basic flaw that they lack historical depth. The facts speak clearly: if "genetic egoism" was the rule, the world would be populated by just one species cloning itself, and "egoism" even fails to explain sex. Against the bullying "evolutionary egoists" a coalition with scholars of social selection like RUNCIMAN (The Theory of Cultural and Social Selection) or MESOUDI (Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences) as well as social psychology and consciousness might have been more appropriate.

The final chapter on "humanity's moral future" to me is a clear disappointment. Echoing HARDIN, the author calls for "centralized coercive power" (pg 344) and "all-encompassing, institutionalized centralized command and control" (pg. 347). Who should wield this control is not spelled out - one conjectures that this right accrues to the exceptional country. While HARDIN was preaching a worldwide treaty on birth control, educated women decided to go for quality instead on quantity in their children - excess births are no longer the threat of yore. Such is the emergent yet unpredictable power of complex systems. This is what made the "ethical project" possible in the first place. Having come this far, the author's failure of courage is regrettable.

PS: A comment to the perplexed. The Author believes in material circumstances (collective hunting) driving culture. Flannery and Markus (The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire believe in culture driving culture: to justify equality and the taking out of the alpha-bullies without losing the benefits of stability "order" provides, hunters gatherers created a divine alpha-bully, surrounded by benevolent beta-bullies (ancestors) to guide us poor gammas. Mercifully, the author spared us Chagnon Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes -- the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists, who asserts the reproductive supremacy of selfishness (he conveniently brushes out the failed alpha-bullies). Just in case anyone thought the matter could be decided.
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