Complex societies: The evolutionary origins of a crude superorganism

Peter J. Richerson, Robert Boyd

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

174 Scopus citations


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 workarounds and use the data on the relative effectiveness of WWII armies to test the work-around hypothesis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)253-289
Number of pages37
JournalHuman Nature
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1999
Externally publishedYes


  • Complex societies
  • Conflict
  • Cooperation
  • Gene-culture coevolution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science


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