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Open Access Publications from the University of California

World Cultures eJournal

UC Irvine

The Words of Our Ancestors: Kinship, Tradition, and Moral Codes


In this paper we use the cross-cultural record to identify the behavioral rules of conduct, and the system supporting those rules, that are found in traditional societies, such as tribal societies. We then draw on the historical record to identify the behavioral rules of conduct, and the system supporting those rules that were found in the early state. The proposal tested here is that in traditional societies the behavioral rules of conduct and the systems that support them (e.g., processes for identifying guilt, punishing offenders, enacting legislation, preventing conflict) are aimed at promoting enduring, cooperative relationships among individuals who are identified as kin through common ancestry. The assumption underlying this proposal is that once human females increased their investment in offspring, cultural strategies to protect those offspring became more important. A moral system, which is the term we use to refer to the early system of behavioral codes, protected offspring by turning conspecific threats into the protectors, providers, and educators of children. It did this by creating a strong kinship system, the members of which were bound by common ancestry (actual or metaphorical), thus tying individuals into enduring, cooperative relationships by using culture to encourage them to honor ongoing duties to one another. This kinship-based moral system is significantly different from that found in societies in which the majority of interactions are with non-kin, interactions often center on the exchange of good and services, and traditions have largely been broken down. We refer to this second system as a system of law and argue that this distinction between moral and legal systems has implications for attempts to explain the evolutionary basis of human cooperation.

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