Human Nature

, Volume 10, Issue 3, pp 253–289 | Cite as

Complex societies

The evolutionary origins of a crude superorganism
  • Peter J. Richerson
  • Robert Boyd


The complexity of human societies of the past few thousand years rivals that of social insect societies. We hypothesize that two sets of social “instincts” underpin and constrain the evolution of complex societies. One set is ancient and shared with other social primate species, and one is derived and unique to our lineage. The latter evolved by the late Pleistocene, and led to the evolution of institutions of intermediate complexity in acephalous societies. The institutions of complex societies often conflict with our social instincts. The complex societies of the past few thousand years can function only because cultural evolution has created effective “work-arounds” to manage such instincts. We describe a series of work-arounds and use the data on the relative effectiveness of WWII armies to test the work-around hypothesis.

Key words

Complex societies Conflict Cooperation Gene-culture coevolution 


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Copyright information

© Walter de Gruyter, Inc 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Environmental Science and ManagementUniversity of CaliforniaDavis
  2. 2.University of CaliforniaLos Angeles

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