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The Soul of Science

Michael Shermer

The Purpose Pyramid

With provisional purpose we define our goals, but there is an inherent structure to the human condition that helps delimit our search. By combining psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs and ethicist Peter Singer's expanding circle of sentiments, one can depict the 1.5 million years over which such drives and sentiments evolved among humans and our social-primate ancestors. At the bottom of the pyramid, the individual's needs for survival and reproduction—food, drink, safety and sex—are met through the family, extended family and community. Moving up the pyramid, psychosocial needs—security, bonding, socialization, affiliation, acceptance and affection—have evolved to aid and reinforce cooperation and altruism, traits that benefit individuals and the group. About 35,000 years ago, social groups grew larger and cultural selection began to take precedence over natural selection. The natural progression of this upwards trend is to perceive societies as part of the human species and the human species as part of the biosphere.

The width of the pyramid at each level reflects the degree to which purposeful sentiment is under evolutionary control. The height of each level indicates the degree to which purposeful sentiment extends beyond us. Thus, the pyramid shows that these two variables are inversely related—the more a sentiment helps a complete stranger, the less it owes to specific evolutionary mechanisms.

Selfish genes drive kin altruism, and social relations fuel reciprocal altruism, but to achieve species- and bio-altruism, we need to learn higher-order prosocial behavior. Achieving the upper levels of the pyramid requires social and political action. We evolved in a manner in which our concern for the environment was highly restricted, and global ecology and deep time were inconceivable until recent millennia—too short a time for evolution to expand the fundamental range of our purposeful concerns.

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