Smithsonian has an interview with the author of evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm, author of a book called Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism and Shame. Boehm apparently researched the anthropological studies that have been published about all contemporary hunter/gatherer societies.
He then only applied factors from those indeginous societies that could be assumed to still live like our distant ancestors, to derive a hypothesis about how evolution somehow designed (my term) our species into moral beings—an interesting question to say the least, given that it apparently had not been done before in the hundreds of millions of years of intelligent life has existed on the planet. From, “How Humans Became Moral Beings:”
According to your theory, how did the human conscience evolve?
People started hunting large ungulates, or hoofed mammals. They were very dedicated to hunting, and it was an important part of their subsistence. But my theory is that you cannot have alpha males if you are going to have a hunting team that shares the meat fairly evenhandedly, so that the entire team stays nourished. In order to get meat divided within a band of people who are by nature pretty hierarchical, you have to basically stomp on hierarchy and get it out of the way. I think that is the process.
My hypothesis is that when they started large game hunting, they had to start really punishing alpha males and holding them down. That set up a selection pressure in the sense that, if you couldn’t control your alpha tendencies, you were going to get killed or run out of the group, which was about the same as getting killed. Therefore, self-control became an important feature for individuals who were reproductively successful. And self-control translates into conscience.
Maybe so, maybe not. It’s all supposition and conjecture.
But for the purposes of human exceptionalism, it doesn’t matter. That we are moral beings is what counts, not how we got that way (which is probably not subject to absolute scientific proof in any event). No other known species in the known history of the universe can make that claim. How exceptional.