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Did Human Evolution Favor Individualists or Altruists?

Black-and-white colobus monkeys scrambled through the branches of Congo’s Ituri Forest in 1957 as a small band of Mbuti hunters wound cautiously through the undergrowth, joined by anthropologist Colin Turnbull. The Mbuti are pygmies, about 4 feet tall, but they are powerful and tough. Any one of them could take down an elephant with only a short-handled spear. Recent genetic evidence suggests that pygmies have lived in this region for about 60,000 years. But this particular hunt reflected a timeless ethical conflict for our species, and one that has special relevance for contemporary American society.

The Mbuti employed long nets of twined liana bark to catch their prey, sometimes stretching the nets for 300 feet. Once the nets were hung, women and children began shouting, yelling, and beating the ground to frighten animals toward the trap. As Turnbull came to understand, Mbuti hunts were collective efforts in which each hunter’s success belonged to everybody else. But one man, a rugged individualist named Cephu, had other ideas. When no one was looking, Cephu slipped away to set up his own net in front of the others. “In this way he caught the first of the animals fleeing from the beaters,” explained Turnbull in his book The Forest People, “but he had not been able to retreat before he was discovered.” Word spread among camp members that Cephu had been trying to steal meat from the tribe, and a consensus quickly developed that he should answer for this crime.

At an impromptu trial, Cephu defended himself with arguments for individual initiative and personal responsibility. “He felt he deserved a better place in the line of nets,” Turnbull wrote. “After all, was he not an important man, a chief, in fact, of his own band?” But if that were the case, replied a respected member of the camp, Cephu should leave and never return. The Mbuti have no chiefs, they are a society of equals in which redistribution governs everyone’s livelihood. The rest of the camp sat in silent agreement.

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Faced with banishment, a punishment nearly equivalent to a death sentence, Cephu relented. “He apologized profusely,” Turnbull wrote, “and said that in any case he would hand over all the meat.” This ended the matter, and members of the group pulled chunks of meat from Cephu’s basket. He clutched his stomach and moaned, begging that he be left with something to eat. The others merely laughed and walked away with their pound of flesh. Like the mythical figure Atlas from Greek antiquity, condemned by vindictive gods to carry the world on his shoulders for all eternity, Cephu was bound to support the tribe whether he chose to or not.

Read more at The Slate.

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4 Comments

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4 Comments

  1. Clarence Williams says:

    Capitalism epitomizes altruism!  Capitalism is a mutually rewarding social compact, in which individual rights are subsumed under the founding (but usually tacit) principles of that compact.  Capitalist members collectively pay for building (or maintaining) a society in which individual efforts might (there is risk) result in individual profit. This essential misrepresentation joins two others in creating an undeserved image of capitalism, that labor is an outsider and fairness has no place in competitive markets.  Labor is an equal member of the compact, who trades in individual toil rather than the aforementioned risk, and part of that society built by capitalists includes enforcement of fair play (and punishment of cheaters).  Without this essential part of the compact, there would be no capitalism.  Moreover, there would be no society for labor to enjoy the (risk free) fruits of individual toil.

  2. Stephanie Soressi says:

    Epic fail on the white-male-centric illustration!

    Don’t you think it reasonable that half of those holding up the earth be female? Or that if you reduce our population to two, that they be people of color, who are by far the majority?  Or black, since all humans came from Africa? 

    Get scientific. Take off your white-washed glasses & get inclusive.

  3. Clarence Williams says:

    Stephanie, did you intend your comment to be a reply to my (Clarence Williams) post of Oct 3, in which I mentioned the positive attributes of capitalism?  If so, please explain how your comments relate to it.  I have impeccable credentials showing that I strongly support gender parity and work hard at eliminating racial discrimination.

  4. Andrew McDowell says:

    This article comes close to invoking the naturalistic fallacy against Ayn Rand. The fact that some observed cultures of very long standing are very suspicious of individualists does not mean that suspicion of individualism is good. To decide on that we must consider the consequences of various different cultures, in the environment in which we find ourselves today.

    For instance, we are interested in these cultures largely because they are thought not to have changed for millenniums. Since we are currently placing an unsustainable load on this planet, adding components to our culture which might freeze it in its current state may not be a good idea. We might wish to tolerate individualists bearing new ideas which might get us out of our current mess.