From Utilitarianism to an Evolutionary Morality: We Were Moral Before We Were Civilized

From Utilitarianism to an Evolutionary Morality: We Were Moral Before We Were Civilized

The link to this essay: arrived in my email inbox, so I read it. The author1 contends that utilitarianism, a philosophical moral system, originated as “an equalizing force in utterly unequal 18th century England,”2 utilizing the moral argument that a just society will promote the greatest good or happiness for the greatest number of individuals. There is a variety of utilitarianisms but the author confines his argument to this rubric and proceeds to develop his thesis that a utilitarian moral argument can generate immoral conclusions and acts. That implies that either utilitarianism is defective as a moral system, or that there is a superior moral principle, perhaps even a hierarchy of moral principles, upon which a moral judgment may be made upon another moral system – a meta-morality.

Specifically: some politicians have advanced the utilitarian moral argument that the number of individuals harmed by the current shutdown of the economy is vastly greater than the number of individuals to be harmed by the virus upon opening the economy. Therefore, the economy should be opened immediately to prevent further pain to the greater number, and we should accept the consequent cost of the viral infections and deaths imposed upon the smaller number. This utilitarian moral argument sacrifices the health and lives of an unknown number of individuals for the reduction of the economic pain and suffering of a greater number, effectively using their lives as means to a socio-econo-political end.

Something is to be subtracted from a small population to their pain, and some other thing is to be transferred to a larger population to their good. The first, pain, is not the latter, good. They are immeasurable and incommensurate, but if the sum of the pain is lesser than the sum of the good, the conclusion is foregone. How then is suffering to be measured? How is the number of those persons to be counted when it is unknown and in the future? How is the measure of individual suffering (a variable ranging from simple illness to death) to be multiplied by the number of individuals to generate the total amount of pain? What are the units of this product: pain-person or person-pain?3

Conversely, how is good to be measured? How is the number of persons to be counted? How is the measure of individual goods to be multiplied by the number of individuals to generate the total amount of good? What are its units: good-person or person-good?

The bare statement of the utilitarian morality, the ‘best for the most,’ sounds so very reasonable and politicians have taken it up as the solution to our economic woes. But their good intentions are thwarted: good and pain are immeasurable and the number of individuals is uncountable. To multiply immeasurables by uncountables yields nonsense rather than an estimate of total good and pain. Person-good and person-pain are incommensurate, how are they to be weighed against each other? Is there a constant of proportionality relating them so that we can compare their relative values? This has become a utilitarian calculus of pain and good. Is morality a type of accounting, an exercise in bookkeeping? Or is it something else?

Burke then posits that the political utilitarian moral decision to reopen the economy is immoral and he quotes: “how we answer will be a real test of our humanity and sense of justice,” to buttress his counter argument that saving lives of a few at a cost to the more is a superior moral argument. This implies a hierarchy of moral arguments, decisions and actions. In the words of Burke: “One of the biggest problems with utilitarianism is the ease with which it treats individual lives as mere means for social ends.” He has placed ‘humanity’ – lives – and ‘justice’ above utility in a moral hierarchy. Note the lack of numericity, of quantity, only the use of the plural in lives. His moral argument is ‘damn the costs! Save lives!’4 This care and damn the cost morality may appear to be superior to simple utilitarianism but it too suffers from defects. Would Burke advocate locking down the economy of the nation for the benefit of exactly one life?

A good friend and workshop mate had a special needs son who, toward the end of his life, was very ill.  Tim would spend months in the hospital under round the clock care.  The hospital Ethics Committee representative approached my friend and his wife and said that the hospital could no longer provide such intensive care, and recommended hospice.  He exploded “you are asking me to kill my son!”  A week later they agreed to move him to palliative care and I visited the family a few days later, on a Sunday afternoon.  Wednesday Tim died.

For 37 years they were able to make all decisions for Tim on the basis of care – damn the costs, save his life – because the costs of his care been transferred to the state and federal governments and paid for out of tax funds. Had Tim’s costs been on their dime, they would have had to calculate the costs to themselves and their two other children. They would have had to make a different decision, one based upon cost and the probable outcome of various modes of care. Care costs. Who pays?

What was the basis of Tim’s care? Love of a son. Months later and my friend still cries. Moral systems, moral decisions, and moral emotions are intricately intertwined.

Burke may pride himself for knowing that utilitarianism “… treats individual lives as mere means for social ends,” and propounding a more moral, humane, and just philosophy. But only under specific economic conditions can care and cost be separated, and we live in these conditions where care has been divorced from cost. While a moral society might ‘damn the costs,’ an economic society may not be able to afford a moral society.

There are two moralities in conflict.  The State of California and Social Security spent millions of dollars to keep Tim alive for 37 years. An economic morality would question this expenditure.  The care morality says that economics be damned, we gave him the best life we could.  As treatments get better, more extensive, etc., the costs may increase exponentially.  Is there a tipping point where we will be forced to ration health care prioritizing economics over care?

Is it possible that in our time of virus, our economy may be so crippled that it cannot generate and deliver resources sufficient to treat the victims? Some sort of triage would become necessary. Shall I save an 85-year-old woman with diabetes, or a 35-year-old with a family and a job with a significant future? This is a doctor’s nightmare. For so long these decisions have been avoidable as the costs of care have been socialized and thus Tim can be hospitalized, dying for months and years despite the best interventionist care. A morality that is built on “damn the costs, save lives” may be untenable under different economic and social conditions. Care costs. What is the value of a life?

We recoil instinctively from asking that question, and the emotion behind that recoil is the basis for Burke’s “how we answer will be a real test of our humanity and sense of justice.” We instinctively value human life, except when we don’t. At another time we may glory in the death of our enemies, although it may be easier to find that glory the farther from the actual site of the killing one looks.5 We recoil instinctively from asking “what is the value of a single life” and on the other hand we instinctively expend large numbers of lives in social conflict, specifically, war.  Why?  This conundrum bedevils us.

Burke casts the ‘value of life’ morality against a utilitarian morality, setting it up as a meta-morality in judgment on utilitarianism. The ultimate value of life is implicit in Burke’s quote, and has become an absolute value in some political discourses, particularly abortion and other birth control methods. Value of life arguments have been advanced for more equitable distribution of goods and services via higher wages, in particular minimum wage laws. On the other hand, during the 1930’s heavy construction projects, the rule of thumb was one life lost per $1 million cost: a utilitarian valuation. The finished project delivered good to many at the cost of the lives of a few. A value of life morality would have prohibited the construction of those jobs. A flood control dam not built because of the cost of some deaths of construction workers could result in far more lives lost in a massive flood. How do we decide under a value of life morality when both sides of the question are an assumed statistical accounting?6

Morality is not for philosophers pontificating about abstruse values. Morality is in the ambit of evolutionary anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists and physiologists digging in our ancient past to understand how our endocrinological-nervous7 systems were wired during millions of years of evolution. And then moving forward in time to understand how these systems have been affected as our population increased and we no longer live under those formative conditions.8 These systems are still in place affecting our moral decisions and our philosopher’s ponderings. I propose to develop an evolutionary morality, and to set it against the ‘civilized’ values argued in Burke’s essay.

An Evolutionary Morality

I set myself to understand evolutionary sociology many years ago when a fellow teacher in the electrical apprenticeship program propounded Marshall Sahlins’ affluent savage hypothesis.9 That shook me intellectually for I was taught that goodness and care, were inherent in, and the product of, civilization, as were warmth and food.10 I ‘knew’ that savages were hungry, cold and miserable, or hot and miserable, parasite ridden, short-lived, and broken hearted from maternal and neonate mortality. Civilization relieved us of all that suffering, or at least as much as it can.

“A student asked Margaret Mead what was the first sign of civilization, expecting it to be a tool like a knife. After some thought she said it was ‘a healed broken femur.’ A person with that injury cannot not survive without help, so it meant that someone had cared for her . Evidence of compassion was the first sign of true civilization.”

But much of that story may be apocryphal. The only quote I have found that may clearly be attributed to Dr. Mead is “a healed broken femur.” The remainder of the story including “evidence of compassion was the first sign of true civilization” appear to be a gloss by a secondary commentator. There are several versions, all with the same conclusion: that care implied civilization because care required civilization. That, of course, could not be more wrong. Care evolved early and not only in animals. The evidence for care in trees is substantial.11

All the stories include the detail that she thought for awhile before propounding the example. Did she have the conclusion that care implied civilization and that on this basis civilization was morally better than ‘savagery,’ before the question was asked, and the mental time was necessary for her to search her mind for an example that would conclusively prove her point?

Her example implied a tight connection between care and cost, and that, even in the face of the highest desire for care, cost would determine the final choice. The cost of caring for a broken femur, in her estimation, would have been more than a foraging hunter gatherer group could afford, and the victim would be cared for as long as possible and abandoned if or when necessary. Only civilization could devote sufficient resources to heal a broken femur.

It would take only one well-dated fossil to disprove this assumption. Surely a broken femur could have been cared for in riverine, estuarine, or coastal sedentism, or in village level agriculture, so civilization is not the only locus of care for a broken femur. Is six weeks care so utterly impossible for a foraging hunter gatherer group in a favorable ecology? I would not be surprised to see that fossil.

It then occurred to me that Tim, whom I introduced above, is the better avatar for civilization. The care for a broken femur is only 6 weeks. Tim’s care was 37 years. He was utterly dependent for everything. His care was far greater than a broken femur at the best and far more medically intensive at the worse. Only civilization has the resources for this level of care.

I have set myself the task of understanding human morality not within the context of civilization, but within our evolutionary history, psychology, and sociology. What the philosophers take to be wisdom is founded upon the endocrinology, psychology and sociology resultant from the evolution of Homo sapiens. The place to begin is with its wisdom, its instinctual wisdom, the wisdom of the ages.

With the development of the concept of evolutionary morality, I can now reconceptualize ‘that which under utilitarianism is transferred from one population to another,’ replacing person-good and person-pain with fitness: fitness is transferred between populations. This is an abstract portmanteau concept into which I may pack all the parameters necessary to encapsulate ‘transfer of fitness’. Fitness properly belongs to evolutionary discourse and its usage implies that morality is a sub-subject of human evolution, both physical and social: evolutionary morality. I shall endeavor to find our morality ab initio among the grass and trees of that north-east African savannah.

Burke finds his meta-morality in the inherent value of human life, in not using another as a means to an end, and upon this value condemns the politicians who would open the economy. ‘Value of life’ has become an absolute in his argument. The first sentence of his concluding paragraph is: “The idea of harming an innocent person … abhors most of us.” Abhorrence is an emotion. Are we to find our ultimate moral foundation in emotions? If so, then we must understand the evolution of those emotions, their functionality, their range of control. Negative emotions such as fear and disgust, lie at the basis of much of our fundamental morality. Once again, I am thrust back into evolutionary morality. Philosophizing without evolutionizing is at best misguided.

Utilitarianism sounds so good: the best for the most at the least cost to the few, and delivers so little. For while it pretends to measure good and pain, it is mensurately empty, an emptiness which may be filled with a philosopher’s cogitations, a politician’s promises, or demagogue’s rantings. Innate value of life morality sounds so good but while it presents as an absolute value not needing mensuration, it is impossible to achieve that absolute because of its costs, such as for the care of Tim. My flood control dam job cited above illustrates that ‘value of life’ may itself be subject to a utilitarian calculus of costs.

Utilitarianism sounds so good: It promises to solve vexing problems of moral decisions by a measuring system. Why? Because we are wired for it. It is our evolutionary morality. Why does ‘innate value of life’ sound so good, even better than utilitarianism? It promises to be an ultimate value to which all others are compared. Why? Because we are wired for it. It is our evolutionary morality. Why do we have so much trouble mediating between our evolutionary moralities? Because we no longer live in our evolutionary demographics and ecology. What worked then may not be what works now. Civilization has not unwired or rewired our ancient morality – just added incompatible layers of complexity on top of it.12

We were moral before we were civilized.

How were we moral?



I used the trope ‘we are wired for it’ – for our evolutionary morality. I could have used ‘we are plumbed’ for it, but that is not quite right either. ‘Wired for it’ gives priority to ‘neuro’ as if we calculated morality in wired – connected – wetware. “Plumbed for it’ attempts to give priority to ‘chemical’ but doesn’t quite get it right. Let’s try this: In our millions of years of evolutionary history, life was chemical before, long before, it was neural. We were emotional long before we were intellectual. We were moral long before we were philosophical. We cared long before we were civilized.

It only took me two or three days to develop the neologisms de jour: We were chemo-moral long before we were culturo-moral. That we later developed culturo-moral systems is indicative of a fundamental problem of scaling. Chemo-moral systems are short-range, low number, visual, and are thus tribal behavioral controls. As our population increased above the Magic or Dunbar’s Number, we had to develop long range behavioral controls, remote controls, principally fear and guilt derived from the development of conscience. Normative elites of higher social class and living remote lives in big houses rather than the small-scale social group, controlled our lives to their benefit.

Philosophical and political science cultural moralities are attempts to intellectualize our moral emotions. The key to this conclusion lies in Burke’s quote: “The idea of harming an innocent person … abhors most of us.” As soon as I keyed that sentence into the essay I knew, I knew, where abhorrence came from. It wasn’t from philosophical analysis. It wasn’t from a deep understanding of political science, of the dynamics of civilization. It was from evolution. It was from millions of years of evolution developing the demographics and dynamics of our social species in a specific range of ecologies and lifeways.  Millions of years of evolution developed our intricate neuro-hormonal behavior control systems.

I am finally there, at evolutionary morality: fundamentally chemo-moral, based upon care and cost taken together under specific conditions.


The conceptual hinge point in Burke’s essay is to be found in this sentence: “One of the biggest problems with utilitarianism is the ease with which it treats individual lives as means for social ends.” This is the point at which he applies the meta-morality of life value, “thou shalt not use another human individual as a means to an end,” upon the moral system of utilitarianism. The remainder of his article may be read as a meta-morality applied to the ur-morality of utilitarianism, judging it to be insufficient and immoral. He posits a moral superiority: my morality, life value, is more moral than your morality, politically motivated utilitarianism.

In a previous essay, I opined that a body of ‘knowledge’ that has schools of thought can only pretend to truth for any one of them. Moral philosophy is replete with opinions, oops, I mean carefully thought out and argued systems of ethics and moralities in complete ignorance of our evolutionary morality behind them. Upon this, we are asked to make high value, high consequence, moral decisions. Do we, on economic and political grounds reopen our economy ahead of the recommendations of epidemiologist’s?

Our moral problem in the time of Covid 19 is that we know too much and with knowledge comes the possibility of choice. We know what causes epidemics, how they spread, and how to limit illness and death. A century ago, in the time of the Spanish Flu, we did not know. We suffered, endured and life went on. There was no choice. We know now. We have a choice of how to react and each choice has an ugly side effect. We have to choose our suffering without knowing the full nature or extent of it. Utilitarian open the economy for the benefit of the many or close down the economy for the benefit of the few? Triage, choosing suffering.

We chose to wrestle Covid 19 into the ground, a choice of our life over death, at an economic cost, preferring the ‘value of life’ morality rather than a putative utilitarian morality. That is to be expected, particularly as it is impossible to calculate ahead of time the costs – medical, life, or economic – of an unchecked epidemic. We knew what to do and we did it.

What we did not do was to prepare for the economic effects of our epidemiological knowledge. We also failed to prepare for its medical effects. A globalized, just-in-time, highly innovative, hyper-consumption economy has little room for long term preparation and storage that subtracts from the economy. I made the case in the previous essay that the political and economic elites have little to no tolerance for granting entitlements to those who do not participate actively in the economy. Would they have had any more tolerance of the socio-econo-medical preparations for a possible epidemic. Would they have tolerated the necessary remodeling of the economy of hyper-consumerism? Would a pre-epidemic economy be even conceivable? Talk about a planned economy! Absolutely unacceptable. Wouldn’t happen. So, we weren’t prepared. We couldn’t be prepared even though we sorta knew, or should have known, that an epidemic was coming. Bill Gates told us so in a TED talk.

We suffer. We chose the medical response first, handing power to those who had never had it before, who were certainly unprepared to use it, and utterly unprepared for the effects of both the virus and of their decisions. They, and we, will learn.

In the essay titled “Stimulating the Economy in the Time of Covid 19: Overdrawn on the Future Account?” I suggested that borrowing money from the future to sustain the economy now might, just might, be a borrow too far. We will learn.

Will the politico-economic elites consider a significant modification of the winner take all, Chicago School of Economic, Randian, Austrian, libertarian and conservative economics? I have no idea. We will learn.

In the essay previous to this, I posited that we might learn from our experience that we can live fully satisfying, probably even more satisfying lives, by a reduced standard of living. That will impact the economy, particularly in the demand for labor. Will this become another experiment, a patch on an improvisation? We will learn.

From the beginning, cities have been pustules of pestilence, epicenters of epidemics, overcrowded with humans and animals, swamped in urine, feces and decomposing food; in short, demographic sinkholes. Cities are little hard knots of concentrated viruses and bacteria doing their survival thing at the cost of our deaths. They are the best active agents of demographic equilibrium that evolution has been able to devise.

Evolution supplies one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Pestilence, doing what it can with what it has at hand. Climate supplies another of the Horsemen, Famine. We supply the third Horseman, War. Their sum is insufficient. The fourth Horseman is Death and despite His best, we have a Dearth of Death. We have overcome all of our other predators leaving only ourselves in War, and viruses and bacteria in Pestilence to prey upon us. That will be remediated in due time and Climate will become a predator stalking us relentlessly in Famine. We will learn.

I have suggested that the work of Joseph Tainter should be more widely known. Over the course of my essays I have repeatedly made the case that civilizations, living in cities, are only meta-stable, that they are experiments in the management of overpopulation and resource depletion. They rise and fall on the success and failure of their experiments. In the course of research on rise and fall, I stumbled upon Tainter. His thesis is that civilization is the sum of improvisations upon the difficulties or failures of the previous. I find this persuasive. Economies are improvisations and experiments. Consumerism is an improvisation, a patch, upon the economy experiment. Borrowing or inventing vast sums of money to maintain the consumer economy is another experiment. There is no socio-economic experiment insurance. Failures are not covered. We cannot declare civilizational bankruptcy and re-order our affairs. Nobody really knows what will happen. We can only hope. And learn.


This morning, as I was doing the final editing of this essay, I spoke with my doctor on the phone. We talked briefly about the burdens being placed on the shoulders of doctors. He said that should they be required to make triage decisions, they would be “mere mortals asked to do godly things.” Doctors would be asked to be Lachesis – she who cuts to length of the cord of life, and Atropos – she who chooses the manner of death – conjoined into one and garbed in scrubs. The gods of fate would have been replaced by doctors at the behest of politicians and public.

I have learned while writing this essay. What I have learned may be expressed in three neologisms: carinance,13 chemo-moral, and culturo-moral. Carinance: the glue that holds individuals in a social group together. Chemo-moral: the intricate hormonal, neuro-chemical, neuro-transmitter systems that comprise that glue and form our evolved morality. Culturo-moral: the meta-stories that we form upon our chemo-moral behavior. It too has evolved: at one time stories of heroes and gods doing good and evil told around campfires and at a much later time essays much like that of Daniel Burke arguing for a specific response to a pandemic. Our evolved morality, a chemo-morality, is fundamentally an emotional calculus of good and evil, evolved before and operating beneath our meta-moral stories, our culturo-morality, our moral philosophy.

This is the underpinning of Burkes usage of the word “abhors” upon which he builds his case that ‘value of life’ is a superior morality to utilitarian calculus of good and pain in this time of virus. We are ‘chemo’ed’ to grieve the loss of life and to prevent it where possible. My friend still cries at the loss of his son’s life. A friend lost his first child to crib death. A professor lost his son at 10 years old. Two fellow workers lost their wives in childbirth. Their losses are incalculable.

Evolutionary morality makes a slightly different case: an individual life may not in all cases be the supreme value. The fitness, life and survival of the social group is of supreme value and an individual life may be subordinated to it. I have read many first-person stories by military personnel. Particularly in the Special Forces, the bonds of care in the platoon or squad become tight even though it is an ad hoc and temporary association. They would cheerfully sacrifice their own life for their mates. They would drop onto a hand grenade to save their friends, and they do. Those lives, the lives of their intimate small-scale social group are sacred, mine is expendable. The decision happens in milli-seconds. It is instinctive. It cannot be learned.

Our evolutionary morality is at one and the same time an individual life value resting on carinance, and a social group utilitarian cost calculus upon group survival. There are no absolutes, no meta-moralities, no vast moral systems expressed in carefully contrived technical words and arguments. There is only the way that our chemo-neural moral systems operate. My friend’s son, Tim, provides a cogent example.

Let me remove Tim from our 20th century and place him in a putative 100,000 BCE small-scale foraging hunter gatherer society on the savannah of north-east Africa. Maternity, and even paternity, is so powerful that the parents may be determined that a defective child is to be cared for, as was Tim’s parents. At his birth, his parents bonded immediately: our son, his value, our life’s value, despite his obvious deformities. That is the way we are chemo-ed.   But the family would have no say in the life of a deformed or otherwise defective infant.  The head-man or -woman would make that decision.  Someone else, lacking this level of maternal and paternal bonding and care, would calculate the probable cost/benefit of a deformed and mentally deficient neonate, and in an act of utilitarian eminent domain, take the child and leave it to die, infanticide by exposure: a utilitarian, econo-moral, decision.  It is not made by the parents, but by someone else who had the best interests of the group to consider, because the survival of the group supersedes the life of a deformed infant who could not contribute to the group survival in adulthood. The social group does godly things.

It is a tough calculus, tough to perform and tough on the parents. It is an unfamiliar calculus to us. We, in a much later time, deplore infanticide, thinking it to be barbaric and condemning its practice. We do this only because we can afford the cost of a defective neonate, not because we have superior moral values. The values are the same. The cost context is different. Nevertheless, we pride ourselves on our superiority, as being civilized, or Christianized, or moralized. We are privileged to not have to make godly decisions to the point we refuse to make godly decisions. They are tough, but may be necessary in other times and places.

Many years ago, I enjoyed art films. One was placed in a desperately poor village in northern Japan. If there was to be too little food for the village to survive the winter, it was the duty of the oldest son to take an infirm parent into the mountains after the first snow and abandon his parent to the easy death of hypothermia. It is a story of love, of carinance, of value of life, of costs, and of the ultimate of decisions, the deliberate utilitarian choice of death of a beloved parent.14

In our humanity, we quite naturally recoil from the agony of making life decisions. Tim’s parents were unable to terminate Tim’s high level of care until they began to understand that the best of care could no longer extend his life and was no longer care but agony for their son. Tim’s father still cries over the decision and the death.

The innate value of life is, then, not an absolute value, but relative. It may be a meta-value to be applied against a utilitarian decision, but the inverse, utilitarianism limiting the application of life-value, may also be a meta-value.

Our fundamental, ur-moral, values are the individual life in the context of the continued life, success, fitness of the social group. Tough decisions, but we can make them. Sometimes we have to make them. Maybe not just quite yet. Tomorrow may be different.

An Evolutionary Morality:

We were moral from the beginning, long before we became civilized, before there were villages, towns, cities and empires, before there were hordes of self-professed experts expounding their moralities, before there were priests telling us that we were condemned to eternal perdition should we dare disbelieve them, before there were gods knowing our innermost secrets and held them against our moral accounts, before there were kings and politicians with their laws and punishments, before there were psychologists and psychiatrists descrying mental illness and devising treatments to make us mentally whole, before there were sociologists with deviant behaviors and social workers to incorporate us into the society, before there were advice columnists and talk show hosts telling us how to behave: we were moral.

A Cultural Immorality

In the time of civilization we became immoral. Immorality: a cultural innovation.


I awakened this morning thinking of Margaret Mead’s compassion as the first sign of civilization which is most surely wrong.  Compassion and empathy are far older and to be found in other species.  She wrote this under the ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ model which has an interesting intellectual history and I am not yet qualified to write it.  That model has been largely abandoned at this time.

Instead, the first signs of civilization might well be epidemic and deficiency diseases,  stunted growth, and forced labor, that is,  slavery, at the bottom.  At the top are to be found kingship, monumentalism,  overweening egos and conspicuous consumption.

Mead was an anthropologist and some of her major work was done on islands.  Islands are a sociological problem, for at her time (and later) they were inevitably at their carrying capacity and demographically compressed.  She was unaware of this and assumed that she was studying pristine human nature.  She was not.

Demographic compression on mainland tends to produce civilization with its malignancies where there are sufficient resources and space to expand.  Islands without space in which to expand, must develop other means of controlling population.

Mead and other’s pollyannic measure of civilization is increasingly under criticism.  The latest is Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress, by Christopher Ryan, a trenchant criticism of progress in civilization.


While reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow, I learned of a burial known as Romito 2, a male who would have required continuing care during his approximately 20 years of life.  That fossil, Romito 2, was excavated from Romito Cave in Southern Italy and dated to about 11,000 B.P. (Before Present.)  At this time, I only know that the burial occurred in the cave.  Where Romito 2 lived and died is not yet known.  His social group may have occupied the cave irregularly.  My guess is that the mountain ecology may not have been sufficiently resourceful for full-time occupancy, so he may have died or been carried there.

That Romito 2 lived into early adulthood appears to refute Margaret Mead’s contention that foraging hunter gatherers would have been incapable of the level of care which she contended would only have been possible under the ‘blessings’ of civilization.  While researching Romito 2, I learned that there are other pre-civilization fossil skeletons of humans which exhibit care for deformities or injuries.  A broken femur may not have presented a significant challenge to foraging hunter gatherers under some, and probably not all, ecological conditions.

The diagnosis of Romito 2 is not in question – the remains have been carefully examined and analyzed in detail – but a bit of web search turned up a most important problem: a variety of meta-stories have been erected upon Romito 2 and the other ancient fossils.  Erik Trinkaus finds evidence of inbreeding due to low population levels, and stress and injuries due to ordinary wear and tear.  Vincenzo Formicola finds ritual human sacrifice.  Graeber and Wengrow15 suggest that deformed individuals were unusual in life and accorded an unusual burial.   Romito 2 was buried under an outline cave painting of an aurochs together with an older female, probably his mother.

Romito 2 would probably have had normal intelligence and it is possible that he overcame his deformity and gained social capital by becoming a shaman, telling stories.  Unencumbered by the time and effort required by daily survival, he had time to observe the members of the social group and their environment.  From this he may have had insights that may be missed by other members more concerned with the mundane day by day.  Romito 2 a shaman may be a better story than Romito 2 a ritualistic human sacrifice.

Care costs, and foraging hunter gatherers, under some circumstances, may well have been able to afford to care for some, but not all, disabled members of the social group.  There is sufficient evidence for this conclusion.


  1. Daniel Burke, CNN Religion Editor 

  2. This is a truncated history as utilitarianism has an earlier history. Utilitarianism in the mid-18th century became a principle, a tool for social reform, and a political statement. It was essentially a variety of Utopian fiction intended to exculpate the opposition of these intellectuals to the economic and social class structures in England of that time. Never mind that I over-stated and under-explained that idea. It gets an essay of its own in due time. 

  3. A binary unit like the unit for the mechanical parameter, moment, lb-ft. 

  4. Quite interestingly, I morphed the original quote from Admiral Farragut’s command uttered in the time of war, “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,”, knowing that lives, including his, might be lost. 

  5. Most of the electricians who taught me the trade were World War II veterans, and the closer they were to the actual killing, the less they talked about it. Manny fought through the Battle of the Bulge. He only said that he killed Germans hand to hand. He never spoke of it again. 

  6. The lives of construction workers and lower social class lives are fungible. There are too many of us anyway. 

  7. Intricate hormonal systems are surely much more ancient than highly intelligent nervous systems, so I listed them in that order. 

  8. This is where scaling effects and problems become apparent. 

  9. for an overview and for the original article  


  11. But perhaps not yet conclusive. Cf. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. 

  12. I have arrived at my first statement of our scaling problem, but it has been present in earlier essays. 

  13. First used here:  

  14. I wish I knew the title; it was something about the first snow of winter. 

  15. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity