Kinship, Cooperation, and The Evolution of Moral Systems

I came across an article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics that was different from the others. Where most were talking about macroeconomics sticky prices, regret theory, and the cost of employment segregation, this one discussed “Kinship, Cooperation and the Evolution of Moral Systems,” by Dr. Benjamin Enke. It attempted to answer, “why are humans often extraordinarily cooperative even beyond close kin,” and how were we able to overcome a significant number of social dilemmas and cooperate to create prosperous economies and empires.

The article states that the common anthropology, psychology, and evolutionary biology literature answer to the problem is by stating that humans have evolved to have moral systems over time, basically psychological and biological rules regulating economic behavior in social dilemmas. These include guilt and shame, negative reciprocity, moral values (justice, loyalty, etc.), judgmental gods, and disgust. It is believed that all these different values, emotions, and beliefs have evolved partly to solve the economic issue of cooperation.

However, Dr. Benjamin Enki posits the question, why is there still variation in such beliefs and values? Why is the moralizing of deities in retreat? Why are there differences in what is perceived as “moral?”

The answer is “kinship tightness.” In societies with close kinship tightness, cooperation is believed to occur within in-groups. Those outside such groups are distrusted, whilst in societies with loose kinship tightness, people enter productive interactions with strangers and place less favor or special empathy with the in-group. These very basic variations between cultures are fundamental as they require a different moral system to regulate behavior. So now another question is, how come there’s variation in kinship tightness? 

It is difficult for societies or groups to operate more productive modes in agriculture and animal husbandry as they face problems that require coordinated and collective action, for example, harvesting under time pressure or building irrigation systems. In view of this, higher kinship tightness became beneficial as it allowed such groups/societies to overcome collective action problems.

However, anthropologists don’t agree on why societies transitioned from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society. Some say it was due to environmental reasons placing emphasis on the ecological changes happening at that time and others believe it was due to the benefits that arise from an agricultural economy.

Another theory of the determinant of kinship tightness is that when groups faced high pathogen threats like malaria, strong localized extended family ties were beneficial “because they reduce the need to travel for cooperation and trade, and therefore minimize the risk of being exposed to infectious mosquitos that can only cover limited travel distances.”  In summary, the variation of kinship tightness which plays a significant role in determining macro- moral beliefs and values both across and within continents appears to be caused by ecological/materialistic conditions that give rise to certain disease environments.

After a lengthy analysis, Dr. Enke concludes that societies with historically tight kinship relations regulate behavior through an emphasis on moral values, revenge-taking, emotions of guilt and shame, and notions of disgust and purity. However, in loose kinship societies, cooperation appears to be enforced primarily through universal moral values and internalized guilt, altruistic punishment, and an apparent rise and fall of moralizing religions.

The relationship between kinship ties, economic development, and the structure of the mediating moral systems were amplified over time.  Another surprising finding is that there’s a negative relationship between the strength of family ties and development today, which is a relatively recent phenomenon. Although not stated directly in the journal, it is suggestive that tight kinship and its associated moral system may have been efficient in the past for agricultural purposes. However, they are disadvantageous under the current economic conditions that arose after the Industrial Revolution, which relied increasingly on interactions with strangers. Hence, they benefit from a different type of morality closer to loose kinship tightness and its associated mortality. Of course, there’s never certainty in the sciences, so I want to clarify that this is only one answer to the problem of human cooperation and its relationship with economic development.