Stanford University: Tanner Lectures at Stanford take on ‘human groupishness’ in the evolution of societal patriarchy

Human moral intuitions have evolved to serve the needs of the wider good, not just the good of individuals, Richard Wrangham told a crowd during a lecture on “human groupishness” at Denning House on Tuesday.


Richard W. Wrangham, the Ruth B. Moore Research Professor of Biological Anthropology in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, delivers a lecture titled “The Evolution of Societal Patriarchy” as part of the Tanner Lectures in Human Values at Stanford. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Wrangham, the Ruth B. Moore Research Professor of Biological Anthropology in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, discussed this unique feature of human behavior as part of the March 2022 Tanner Lectures titled “The Evolution of Societal Patriarchy.”

The Tanner Lectures examine scholarship and scientific learning around human behavior and values, and are held annually at nine universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. The McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society collaborates with the Office of the President to host the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Stanford.

In introducing Wrangham, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne noted that recent global events serve as an urgent reminder of why we gather to share insights into humanity, ethics and motivations.

“The unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and the attack it represents on democracy, is beyond shocking, and recent reports of attacks on residential neighborhoods even more so,” he said. “At the same time, throughout these last few days, it has been remarkable to witness the courage, bravery and resilience of the Ukrainian people. I don’t believe it is an exaggeration to say that they have been an inspiration to the entire world.”

Wider good
Wrangham has conducted extensive research on primate ecology, nutrition and social behavior. He previously served as president of the International Primatological Society and as ambassador for UNEP/UNESCO’s Great Ape Survival Project. In 1987, Wrangham was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and he is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the British Academy.


President Marc Tessier-Lavigne (second from right) listens to Richard Wrangham of Harvard as he delivers the first of his two Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Stanford. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Individuals routinely sacrifice their own selfish interests for the sake of the wider good, Wrangham said, but there has not yet been an accepted theory that explains the evolution of this “groupishness,” a set of psychological tendencies to behave toward group members that at first glance may appear to transcend self-interest.

For thousands of years, scholars have inferred that humans are a domesticated species, partly because humans are less likely to react aggressively to conflict. Wrangham reviewed the biological parallels between humans and domesticated mammals, and showed evidence for self-domestication as well as data that infers how it occurred.

Wrangham argues that “human groupishness” evolved as a result of humans’ novel ability to use language to conspire against and kill resented rivals, particularly those who are domineering. Thus 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, Wrangham said.

After Wrangham’s lecture, Deborah Gordon, Stanford professor of biology, gave the response and joined Wrangham for audience questions. Gordon studies how ant colonies work without central control using networks of simple interactions, and how these networks evolve in relation to changing environments.

Gordon said she thought Wrangham’s account raises interesting questions about what shapes our ideas about morality and how sanctions for bad behavior developed, but that she didn’t think it was necessary to invoke a biological evolutionary process.

Tanner Lectures
The second lecture, titled “The Origins of Societal Patriarchy and Its Moral Consequences,” will be delivered by Wrangham at 5 p.m. Wednesday March 2, at Denning House, as well as via webinar. Elisabeth Lloyd, chair of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine at Indiana University, will give the response.

A discussion seminar elaborating on the themes from this week’s lectures is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday, March 3, at Denning House and via webinar. Stanford faculty members Richard Klein, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor and professor of anthropology and of biology in the School of Humanities and Sciences, and Ian Morris, the Jean and Rebecca Willard Endowed Professor in Classics in the School of Humanities and Sciences, will join Wrangham for the seminar.

In May, Stanford will host the rescheduled Tanner Lectures titled “Snatching Something from Death – Value, Justice and Humankind’s Common Heritage,” featuring Cécile Fabre, senior research fellow in politics at All Souls College, Oxford, and professor of political philosophy at the University of Oxford. Fabre will discuss the notion of humankind’s common heritage and its value.

Obert Clark Tanner, a scholar, industrialist and philanthropist, established the Tanner Lecture series more than 40 years ago to contribute to a better understanding of human behavior and values. Tanner studied philosophy and earned his master’s degree at Stanford in the 1930s before being appointed to the university’s faculty from 1939 to 1944 and serving as acting chaplain.

In creating the lectureships, Tanner said, “I hope these lectures will contribute to the intellectual and moral life of mankind. I see them simply as a search for a better understanding of human behavior and human values. This understanding may be pursued for its own intrinsic worth, but it may also eventually have practical consequences for the quality of personal and social life.”

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