Human Nature

, Volume 24, Issue 3, pp 219–267 | Cite as

Human Identity and the Evolution of Societies

  • Mark W. Moffett


Human societies are examined as distinct and coherent groups. This trait is most parsimoniously considered a deeply rooted part of our ancestry rather than a recent cultural invention. Our species is the only vertebrate with society memberships of significantly more than 200. We accomplish this by using society-specific labels to identify members, in what I call an anonymous society. I propose that the human brain has evolved to permit not only the close relationships described by the social brain hypothesis, but also, at little mental cost, the anonymous societies within which such alliances are built. The human compulsion to discover or invent labels to “mark” group memberships may originally have been expressed in hominins as vocally learned greetings only slightly different in function from chimpanzee pant hoots (now known to be society-specific). The weight of evidence suggests that at some point, conceivably early in the hominin line, the distinct groups composed of several bands that were typical of our ancestors came to be distinguished by their members on the basis of multiple labels that were socially acquired in this way, the earliest of which would leave no trace in the archaeological record. Often overlooked as research subjects, these sizable fission-fusion communities, in recent egalitarian hunter-gatherers sometimes 2,000 strong, should consistently be accorded the status of societies, in the same sense that this word is used to describe tribes, chiefdoms, and other cultures arising later in our history. The capacity of hunter-gatherer societies to grow sufficiently populous that not all members necessarily recognize one another would make the transition to larger agricultural societies straightforward. Humans differ from chimpanzees in that societal labels are essential to the maintenance of societies and the processes giving birth to new ones. I propose that anonymous societies of all kinds can expand only so far as their labels can remain sufficiently stable.


Coalitions Fission-fusion Hunter-gatherers Language Outgroups Nationalism Social learning Symbols Tribes Xenophobia 



This attempt at a framework for research on the nature and limits of human societies required the advice of experts who proved enthusiastic and generous with their time, from reading drafts of the text to answering my naive questions: John Alcock, Coren Apicella, Eduardo Araral, Jr., Jeanne Arnold, Filippo Aureli, Robert Axelrod, Serge Bahuchet, Mahzarin Banaji, Deirdre Barrett, Fiona Barlow, Roy Baumeister, Isabel Behncke-Izquierdo, Luís Bettencourt, Galen Bodenhausen, Barry Bogin, Sam Bowles, Rob Boyd, Jack Bradbury, Lauren Brent, Marilynn Brewer, David Allen Butz, Elizabeth Cashdan, Emanuele Castano, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Colin Chapman, Emma Cohen, Richard Cosgrove, Iain Couzin, Francesco d’Errico, Frans de Waal, Robert Dixon, Norman Doidge, Michael R. Dove, Carsten De Dreu, Robert Dudley, Rob Dunn, Timothy Earle, Susan Fiske, Kent Flannery, Doug Fry, Takeshi Furuichi, Azar Gat, Mark Granovetter, Matt Grove, Marcus Hamilton, Mark Hauber, Brian Hayden, Larisa Heiphetz, Joe Henrich, Kim Hill, Michael Hogg, Kay Holekamp, Yasuo Ihara, Vincent Janik, Allen Johnson, Robert Kelly, Katherine Kinzler, Simon Kirby, Ian Kuijt, Rob Kurzban, Julia Lehmann, Frank Marlowe, Andrew Marshall, Curtis Marean, José Marques, Ben Marwick, Sally McBrearty, W. C. McGrew, John Mitani, Craig Packer, Stefania Paolini, William Parkinson, Irene Pepperberg, Dale Peterson, Thomas Pettigrew, Adam Powell, Luke Premo, Diana Reiss, Ger Reesink, Peter Richerson, Gareth Roberts, Michael Rosenberg, Mark Rubin, Richard Russell, Fabio Sani, Laurie Santos, Robert Sapolsky, Kenneth Sassaman, Jr., Colleen Schaffner, Carmel Schrire, Robert Seyfarth, Paul Sherman, Peter Slater, Anthony Smith, Magdalena Sorger, Lee Spector, Elizabeth Spelke, Charles Stanish, Mary Stiner, Frank Sulloway, Jared Taglialatela, John Terborgh, Neil Tsutsui, Sean Ulm, Athena Vouloumanos, Fiona Walsh, Polly Wiessner, Gerald Wilkinson, Edward O. Wilson, Richard Wrangham, Patricia Wright, Karen Wynn, and Vincent Yzerbyt. Writerly friends Daniel Bennett, Nick Griffin, Ken Kamler, and Melissa Wells helped polish the prose. I dedicate this article to Ed Wilson, out of respect for his poetic spirit, his decades of building creative ideas across the sciences, and his tireless support of so many careers, mine included.


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian InstitutionWashingtonUSA

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