“Nothing about culture makes sense except in the light of evolution. […] Nothing about evolution makes sense except in the light of culture” (Pries 2021, 333, my transl.). Following this statement, humanity’s main challenges to actual and future global crises are socio-cultural and not solely technical, according to Ludger Pries. This is where a methodological combination of sociology and evolutionary research can help; and such a combination is attempted by Pries in his recent book ‘Understanding Cooperation - Challenges for Sociology and Evolutionary Research in the Anthropocene’.

This study is convincing because of its enormous wealth of sources and the existence of a well-founded holistic overall plan for combining sociology and evolutionary research. Since the individual chapters and subchapters contain such a wealth of theories, authors, models, and data from several different sciences, I will concentrate in the following on paraphrasing representative key points of the overall project instead of recapitulating each of the seven chapters individually in terms of content and critique.

In a nutshell, Pries, book can be seen as the latest of several attempts to reconcile sociology and evolutionary biology, which often stood in mutual tension and intellectual conflict. The main argument is that human capacities and ways of living together have evolved through what Pries calls “understanding cooperation” (“verstehende Kooperation”). It is generally accepted that evolution is not only a Darwinian ‘struggle for existence’. In light of the last five decades of evolutionary research, evolution should be understood as largely cooperative up to symbiotic. Pries thought is that humans communicate in complex ways and “cooperate understandingly”. He tries to fit this fact into an evolutionary theoretical framework in order to embed an anthropological picture of humanity as ‘understanding’ actors in natural and social events. For such an endeavor sociologists would have to “open up more comprehensively to the topic of evolution and enter into strenuous interdisciplinary cooperation” (276, my transl.).

This approach balances between several poles or scientific camps/schools of thought, for example, the basic assumption of modern sociology that ‘the social’ can only be explained by the social itself, or a (more or less explicit) scientific reductionism of culture in sociobiology. On the other hand, a biologistic theory of cultural evolution, which does not understand cultural processes as biologically determined, but rather follows generalized Darwinian principles is too minimalistic.

Pries puts forward the idea that intellectual positions on this topic are manifold and often in mutual tension, some are ideological and difficult to reconcile: A ‘sociology that understands meaning’ in the sense of Max Weber can provide a remedy. In his social systems theory, Niklas Luhmann had already given the medium of ‘meaning’ (which he interpreted somewhat differently) a great deal of importance within communication, i.e. the leading medium of social systems. Luhmann also speaks of ‘evolution’ here. However, Luhmann lacks a deep engagement with most modern aspects of evolutionary research, and he sometimes lapses into a peculiar sociologism with his social theory.

Also illuminating is Pries’ analysis of the man-made Anthropocene. It is a new epoch in the history of Earth, which must be understood in evolutionary-sociological terms. It includes the progressive cultural overtaxing of humans, to somehow “control” the processes that their species and civilization have themselves initiated. Here, particular reference is made to modern genetic engineering, environmental destruction or pandemics. The argumentation is post- or transhumanist and yet convincingly finds its way via generalized evolutionary thinking.

Pries transforms the classical biological distinction between ontogenetic and phylogenetic development in the context of his project into a tripartite division of (1) natural phylogenesis, (2) cultural phylogenesis and (3) ontogenetic development of humans. (2) is the core of the argumentation and Pries’ ‘extended cultural theory of evolution’. It is only understandable through meaningful communication, which manifests itself through a complex social interplay of expectations (also: double contingency of “alter” and “ego”). Contingency in biological evolution is given by random mutation or genetic drift. In cultural evolution it is given by human creativity and innovation, which are also neither completely random, but hardly predictable within a framework of scientific predictability. In natural phylogenesis, epigenetics (i.e., genetic “learning”) plays a major role, which is also discussed in order to motivate the idea that a much more complex picture of evolution is necessary than, for example, the synthetic theory of evolution did provide. Analogously, Pries, understanding of cultural phylogenesis is likewise expanded through understanding cooperation. This happens to the effect that cultural evolution does not only consist in the transmission and copying of traditional cultural elements or variants, which are subject to variation and cultural selection. Basically, Pries generalizes the scientific findings of evolutionary research of the last two decades, and explanatory transfers them to the theory of cultural evolution. The result is a much more fine-grained picture of human beings in their evolutionary dynamics.

Pries describes in detail the emergence of understanding cooperation on the basis of human development and social learning. Examples are language or social power structures. At the same time, it explains how sociology can offer helpful conceptual tools and theories in this field.

Finally, Pries uses the VESPER (interconnectedness, experiences, socialization, preferences, expectations, resources) model to explain why modern humanity is increasingly moving towards an “overwhelmed society” (319) - and why it is becoming more difficult to construct a meaningful model of the world based on VESPER. Using the examples of genetic scissors or digitalization, it becomes clear that these developments not only affect the individual, but the global society as a whole. The ‘old’ explanations such as capitalism, socialism, religions, progress, individualism or nationalism are no longer sufficient to reduce the complexity surrounding modern humanity in such a way that the individual can construct a coherent world view.

The book concludes with reflections on the possible future prospects of socio-cultural designs of the forms of our coexistence and the constantly changing relationship between nature and society. This is illustrated by many examples, such as super-national forms of institutions (“Europe”), but also financial crises or the already mentioned (over-)digitalization. It also deals with the worrying divergence between too fast technical growth and comparatively slower cultural growth in the last six decades. “Institutional innovations” (396) are crucial here. These must be developed in the interplay of sociology and evolutionary research.

Parts of the work certainly yields the synoptic-visionary character of a new image of “human nature”. The subject matter is highly relevant in view of global threats confronting humanity in the “Anthrotechnocene” (46), a term Pries counters with “understanding cooperation” as his alternative. The text passages are profound and excellently researched. The literature is up-to-date and highly interdisciplinary, using both Anglo-Saxon and German sources. Reading the book is in any case stimulating, knowledge-expanding and thought-provoking. However, within such an interdisciplinary project there is a certain danger lurking of getting lost in the manifold details. The overall project then becomes epistemically overshadowed. Conversely, there is a second danger of arguing too generally. The structure and arrangement of the subchapters could be improved in some places. It is not always clear from the bibliography and the headings which topics are dealt with in which subchapter and why. An example is Chap. 3.1, the “Sociology of the Evolution of Scientific Knowledge”: This chapter deals with Kant’s epistemology, followed by Kuhn’s idea of scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts. Then it moves on to social constructivist theories on the concept of knowledge, proceeds to the difference between knowledge within the natural sciences and the humanities, Marx’s historical materialism and Karl Mannheim’s concept of “everyday life worlds”, his distinction between “communicative” and “conjunctive knowledge”, then Max Weber and a few more things. In this vast presentation of different items, the reader sometimes loses orientation, and questions arise as to why Mannheim or Kant are actually discussed on this page, only to be followed by other thinkers half a page later. Luckily, at the end of a subchapter, we sometimes (but not always) find an argumentative link that briefly recapitulates the subchapter and then motivates the next one.

Of course, this is all done under the aspect of presenting a broad and general “evolutionary-sociological perspective”. This perspective is developed independently of individual disciplines or epochs, but across disciplines. It is helpful that the first chapter once again presents the entire course of argumentation in short form. Nevertheless, a clearer subdivision (perhaps simply more and shorter subchapters with more meaningful subsection headings) would have been very helpful, precisely because so many different authors/theories are mentioned in each subchapter. Now and then, the book contains some redundancies, for example, the (well-known) demand that evolution in general should not be understood merely as competition. However, with a little time and intellectual effort of the reader these points of criticism can be compensated for, and then used profitably. I think the possible readership is a broad one. The book is a good read for both students and experts of sociology, philosophy or the life sciences, alike. It contributes to current debates about cultural evolution in an interesting and fruitful way by introducing a vast set of sociological sources (which have not been taken into account by cultural evolutionary theory so far) in rational combination with recent findings of human evolutionary research.