A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution

A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution

A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution

A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution


Why do humans, uniquely among animals, cooperate in large numbers to advance projects for the common good? Contrary to the conventional wisdom in biology and economics, this generous and civic-minded behavior is widespread and cannot be explained simply by far-sighted self-interest or a desire to help close genealogical kin.

In A Cooperative Species, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis--pioneers in the new experimental and evolutionary science of human behavior--show that the central issue is not why selfish people act generously, but instead how genetic and cultural evolution has produced a species in which substantial numbers make sacrifices to uphold ethical norms and to help even total strangers.

The authors describe how, for thousands of generations, cooperation with fellow group members has been essential to survival. Groups that created institutions to protect the civic-minded from exploitation by the selfish flourished and prevailed in conflicts with less cooperative groups. Key to this process was the evolution of social emotions such as shame and guilt, and our capacity to internalize social norms so that acting ethically became a personal goal rather than simply a prudent way to avoid punishment.

Using experimental, archaeological, genetic, and ethnographic data to calibrate models of the coevolution of genes and culture as well as prehistoric warfare and other forms of group competition, A Cooperative Species provides a compelling and novel account of how humans came to be moral and cooperative.


I wish you would let an old man, who has had his share of fighting, remind you
that battles, like hypotheses, are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.

T. H. Huxley, Letter to F. Ray Lankester (December 6, 1888)

Is self-interest a natural disposition of our species, other than generosity toward members of one’s immediate family? For well over a century the sociobiology of human behavior, and especially this question, has been a minefield of heated debate and fiery rhetoric. Huxley was an avid participant, as the moniker “Darwin’s bulldog” suggests.

We have attempted to follow Huxley’s advice rather than his example (the quote is from Gould (2002), p. 120). We have been aided by a remarkable group of scholars, many of whom have offered sustained criticism of our work, in print and in person, as it progressed, and to all of whom we are most grateful: Christopher Boehm, Robert Boyd, Colin Camerer, Armin Falk, Ernst Fehr, Marcus Feldman, Urs Fischbacher, Simon Gächter, Peter Hammerstein, Joe Henrich, Kim Hill, Hillard Kaplan, Richard McElreath, Ugo Pagano, Peter Richerson, Eric Alden Smith, and Polly Wiessner, among others. Robert Boyd, Tanya Elliot, Alejandro Fajardo, Marcus Feldman, Laura Fortunado, Simon Gächter, Laurent Keller, Laurent Lehmann, Robert Rowthorn, and Jeremy Van Cleve read the entire manuscript and their suggestions improved it immeasurably.

For their contributions to the development of our ideas, and critiques of earlier versions of the material to follow, we would also like to thank Margaret Alexander, Kenneth Arrow, Carl Bergstrom, Bruce Bertram, Ken Binmore, Stephen Burks, Jeffrey Carpenter, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Jung-Kyoo Choi, Timothy Clutton-Brock, George Cowan, Molly Daniell, Emma Einhorn, Steven Frank, Drew Fudenberg, Stefany Moreno Gamez, Daniel Gintis, Alan Grafen, Avner Greif, Henry Harpending, Kristin Hawkes, Kristin Howard, Keith Huntley, Sung-Ha Hwang, Kenneth Kennedy, Patricia Lambert, Kevin Langergraber, Steven LeBlanc, Olof Leimar, Iren Levina, Amara LevyMoore, Bridget Longridge, Eric Maskin, John Mitani, Suresh Naidu, Molly O’Grady, John Pepper, Alan Rogers, Paul Seabright, Rajiv Sethi, Carlos Rodriquez Sickert, E. Somanathan, Eors Szathmáry, Robert Trivers, Alina Vereshchagina, Linda Vigilant, Jon Wilkins, David Sloan Wilson, Elisabeth Wood, Richard Wrangham, and Peyton Young,

We have drawn upon material from several journal articles, some written with coauthors Robert Boyd, Jung-Kyoo Choi and Astrid Hopfensitz, including the following articles: “Group Competition, Reproductive Leveling and the Evolution of Human Altruism.” Science 314 (2006):1569–1572; “Did Warfare among Ancestral Hunter-Gatherer Groups Affect the Evolution of Human Social Behaviors?” Science 324 (2009):1293– 98; “Strong Reciprocity and Human Sociality,” Journal of Theoretical Biology 206 (2000):169–179; “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Altruism: Genes, Culture, and the Internalization of Norm,” Journal of Theoretical Biology 220,4 (2003):407-418; “Solving . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.