Cooperative stability and the evolution of norms
Foraging hunting bands are (and presumably were) somewhat fluid entities, although typically embedded in larger social groupings. Hunting bands split, they come together, people move between them.
While low-level normative behaviour has been observed in other species, Homo sapiens engage in levels of normative behaviour way in excess of any other species.
Such normative behaviour clearly originally evolved during our very long foraging history. Clear evidence of long distance exchange (over distances of up to 166km) has been found about the time Homo sapiens has clearly emerged as a species. Strongly suggestive evidence of exchange (over distances around 60km) may predate our emergence as a species. And exchange is a normative behaviour. The key element in exchange in being not “mine!” but “yours!”. Any chest-thumping ape can do “mine!”, it takes a normative species to systematically accept “yours!”.
Our long-term history can be understood as the spiralling up of cooperative, and thus normative, behaviour.
So, this distinctively human level of normative behaviour had to originally develop in a situation where it is likely there was some fluidity in groups. Indeed, normative behaviour can actually increase local group fluidity. First, to have norms that are more than just descriptive (I do it because everyone else does), requires sanctioning behaviour. And sanctioning behaviour can be a cause of local group fluidity.
Second, norms economise on information and cognitive effort, facilitating cooperation. Thus having a common normative framework permits easier movement between local groups.
So, it is not clear that group stability was the basis or benefit of the spiralling-up emergence of normative behaviour.
Cooperative stability, is, however, another matter. Philosopher Cristina Bicchieri has developed a well-structured analytical framework for understanding norms and their dynamics. The framework is set out formally in her The Grammar of Society. It is set out more accessibly in her Norms in the Wild, which builds on the experience of herself and others in seeking to change social norms.
Social norms are built on social expectations — empirical expectations (what you expect others to do) and normative expectations (what you expect others to believe you should do). They operate on the basis of schemas (sets of belief) and scripts (patterns of action). They usually involve some system of sanctions.
Stable expectations and scripts make other people’s actions much more predictable, so make cooperation much easier to attain and sustain. Norms therefore generate (or at least anchor) cooperative stability. And cooperative stability can, depending on circumstance, promote group stability. But cooperative stability is what would have been originally selected for, even in situations of relative local group fluidity and even if such cooperative stability increased local group fluidity.
Thus, norms economise hugely on the cognitive and information effort required for cooperation. They are, in a sense, entrenched social bargains. (Or, at least, patterns that greatly reduce or structure the ambit of bargaining required for social cooperation.) They could even has some domestication-like effects, as they reduce the need for a certain level of paranoia and physical aggression within the group. Hence Homo sapien brains may be a little smaller than Neanderthal brains.
But what about moral norms? Moral norms are more absolute that social norms. As Prof. Bicchieri says, they have an element of unconditionality that social norms do not.
As we developed more sedentary living patterns, and then farming and pastoralism (a period during which our adaptive evolution seems to have sped up, presumably due to the dramatic changes in selective pressures), group stability would have acquired more survival and subsistence value. The absolute or unconditional nature of moral norms could have been selected for, as they promoted group stability. But were selected for by building on the existing capacity for social norms. Which themselves probably developed out of descriptive norms (a norm people prefer to conform to on the expectation that others do).
Thus, the claim is that normative behaviour in general developed out of its ability to foster cooperative stability. The argument by David C. Lahtia and Bret S. Weinstein that moral norms developed as group stability gained a higher survival and subsistence premium would be congruent with this, but as something that occurred relatively late in our evolutionary history. With what was being selected for being the ability to thrive in larger and more stable groups, even if those groups were not themselves stable enough as populations to provide specific evolutionary pressures.
The key element of moral norms is their unconditional nature. Unlike social norms, they are not dependent on structures of expectation and sanctions. As groups get larger, free-riding problems are likely to get more intense. The more extensive the commitment to moral, that is unconditional, norms are, the more stable cooperation is likely to be in a group. A stability of cooperation that has more capacity to persist in the face of dominance hierarchies and difficulties of circumstances.
This is also connected with notions of the sacred. Sacredness is a signal of group membership, with the more effort put in, the greater the signal. Including that signal to oneself we call commitment. Tying sacredness to the unconditionality of moral norms increases both the group signalling effect and the cooperative stability effect. This is presumably why the Axial Age religions from Buddhism to Islam have an element of moral sophistication lacking in pre-Axial Age religions. They represent a socially evolutionary response to the increase in the scale of society and of connection and exchange networks.
A test for this general hypothesis would be to check the relative importance of social norms and moral norms in different human populations. The more forager-based and fluid the social groups, the more dominant social norms can be expected to be. The more sedentary, stable and larger the social groups, the more significant moral norms can be expected to be.
With religions and faith systems, as structures of the sacred, reflecting this pattern in their development through time and across societies.
To put it another way, the larger the social group, the greater the number of anonymous interactions. The greater the number of anonymous interactions, the more moral norms are likely to evolve as a stabilising feature of social interaction as the more the information-economising implications of their unconditionality will be selected for.
Prestige and dominance
There is also a likely connection to prestige and dominance. Prestige, bottom-up status, is a key social currency of human cooperation. Foraging societies generally display very strong anti-dominance patterns of behaviour, as dominance behaviour (top-down status) undermines local group cooperation. So, suppressing dominance behaviour would actually increase the capacity for, and the stability of, cooperative behaviour.
As more sedentary patterns of living, then farming and pastoralism, arose, dominance behaviour re-emerged. Including some very extreme patterns of dominance behaviour, such as human sacrifice as part of funeral rites. The more absolute nature of moral norms would more readily sustain dominance behaviour, especially extreme dominance, behaviour, than social norms.
As consciousness is an instrument of cognitive focus rather than a locus of reasoning, moral norms can be an effective way of hiding our motives from ourselves. (There is evidence that women in particular are more likely to express their aggression and competitiveness in the form of moral concern, typically doing so in a way that obscures said aggression and competitiveness from themselves.) Moreover, the trumping nature of moral norm makes them much more effective modes in which to express and pursue our self-interest. An effectiveness that increases the more that self-interest converges with the interest of others.
Morality can, however, also provide some protections against dominance behaviour. The so-called golden rule of generalised reciprocity (treat others as you would be treated), forms of which develop as more obviously moralistic religions and faith systems emerge, is reasonably construed to be a social mechanism for dominance-mitigation and cooperation-enhancing (especially exchange-enhancing).
If this is correct, then undermining of any notion of a shared moral identity will be associated with intensified dominance behaviour.
These musings are part of the intellectual scaffolding for a book to be published by Connor Court looking at the social dynamics of marriage. As they are somewhat a work in progress, they may be subject to ongoing fiddling.