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The Evolution of Societal Patriarchy: Human Groupishness

March 1, 2022 - 5:00pm
Event Sponsor: 
McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society and the Office of the President

This year's Tanner Lectures are given by Richard Wrangham, the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. The overall title of these Tanner Lectures is: "The Evolution of Societal Patriarchy."

A unique and puzzling feature of human behavior is that individuals routinely sacrifice their own selfish interests for the sake of a wider good. Conventional theory has failed to explain the evolution of this “groupishness.” Wranghan argues that human groupishness evolved as a result of a novel ability: unlike other species, Homo sapiens could use language to conspire against resented rivals and kill them. Victims of these executions tended to be domineering bullies, nonconformists and other kinds of selfish personalities. Socially approved executions meant that antisocial behavior was selected against, while groupishness became positively favored. This evolutionary process led to the domination of social groups by coalitions of breeding males, a system that continues today in the form of societal patriarchy.

This lecture is the first of two lectures and is entitled: Human Groupishness

For more than 2,000 years scholars have inferred that humans are a domesticated species, partly because humans are less likely than other animals to react aggressively to conflict. New understanding of genetic and developmental mechanisms supports the idea of self-domestication in Homo sapiens. In this lecture Wrangham reviews biological parallels between humans and domesticated mammals, shows the evidence for self-domestication, and uses ethnographic data to infer how and why it happened. Among the many important consequences of self-domestication, moral intuitions evolved to serve the needs of the group, not just the individual.

Richard Wrangham's major interests are chimpanzee and human evolutionary ecology, the evolutionary dynamics of violence and non-violence, and ape conservation. He has been President (2004-2008) of the International Primatological Society, and an Ambassador for UNEP/UNESCO’s Great Ape Survival Project (GRASP). Wrangham was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1987, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the British Academy. His most recent books are Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (Basic Books, June 2009) and The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution (Pantheon, January 2019).

Respondent: Deborah M. Gordon. Gordon, a Professor in the Department of Biology at Stanford, studies how ant colonies work without central control using networks of simple interactions, and how these networks evolve in relation to changing environments.

Lecture 2, entitled "The Origins of Societal Patriarchy and its Moral Consequences," takes place on Thurs March 12 at 5:30pm.

A discussion seminar that focuses on both lectures takes place on Fri March 13 at 10:00am.

Contact Email: 
ethics.center@stanford.edu