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The Origins of Societal Patriarchy and its Moral Consequences

March 2, 2022 - 5:00pm
Event Series: 
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 second of two lectures and is entitled: The Origins of Societal Patriarchy and its Moral Consequences

There are two types of patriarchy: domestic and societal. Domestic patriarchy describes relationships within families, and is not universal: some wives dominate their husbands. By contrast, societal patriarchy is a cultural universal, because institutions such as law and religion universally grant men authority over women. Societal patriarchy is not found in other species. In this lecture Wrangham argues that societal patriarchy has its origins in the late Pleistocene when a community of male elders began using coordinated violence to maintain political control, and that the same essential dynamic is maintained today throughout the world. Ascribing the strongly patriarchal nature of human society to a deep evolutionary process does not mean that societal patriarchy is inevitable, but it does point to psychological biases that help to perpetuate it.

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: Elisabeth Lloyd. Lloyd is Distinguished Professor and Arnold and Maxine Tanis Chair of History and Philosophy of Sciences at the University of Indiana. Her research interests are primarily in the philosophy of biology, general philosophy of science, the role of models in science, and gender issues in science.

Lecture 1, entitled "Human Groupishness," takes place on Tuesday March 1, at 5:00pm.

A discussion seminar that focuses on both lectures takes place on Thursday March 3 at 10:00am.

Contact Email: 
ethics.center@stanford.edu