The best books for understanding the biological basis of social life

Stephen K. Sanderson Author Of Human Nature and the Evolution of Society
By Stephen K. Sanderson

Who am I?

I have a PhD in sociology but know almost as much about anthropology. I am a comparative sociologist specializing in the study of the entire range of human societies. This gives me an advantage in knowing which social practices are universal, which are only common, and which are uncommon or not found at all. This is critical in being able to assess the basic features of human nature. For over thirty years I have been studying the literature on Darwinian approaches to human behavior, especially sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. I am one of the leading sociologists in the world today studying the biological basis of social behavior. 

I wrote...

Human Nature and the Evolution of Society

By Stephen K. Sanderson,

Book cover of Human Nature and the Evolution of Society

What is my book about?

I wrote this book to show how many fascinating features of human social life have biological foundations and thus can be explained by using principles drawn from Darwinian evolutionary biology and its offshoot, evolutionary psychology. Among the many questions I try to answer are: Why do all societies have an incest taboo? Is there a maternal instinct? Why do some societies allow men to have many wives? Why do humans seek status and it sometimes runs amok? Why are some people gay rather than straight? Why are homicide and war so common, and why is it mostly men who kill? Are there biological races and is racism ancient or modern? Why do some societies have many gods but others only one? 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution

Why did I love this book?

The author seeks to use evolutionary principles to explain why human violence within societies is uncommon whereas violence between societies, expressed mainly as war, is very common. Chimpanzees are a violent species in which both types of violence are extremely common. Males compete for dominance in violent ways and males frequently direct their violence toward females. But with respect to within-society violence humans have “domesticated” themselves, mostly by, over hundreds of thousands of years, killing the most violent and dangerous males. With respect to between-society violence, however, humans remain chimp-like. Chimps are notorious for intercommunity raiding and killing, and the anthropological and archaeological evidence shows that humans are equally notorious. Humans have therefore evolved to be both nice and nasty—and therein lies the paradox expressed in the book’s subtitle.

By Richard Wrangham,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Goodness Paradox as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“A fascinating new analysis of human violence, filled with fresh ideas and gripping evidence from our primate cousins, historical forebears, and contemporary neighbors.”
—Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature

We Homo sapiens can be the nicest of species and also the nastiest. What occurred during human evolution to account for this paradox? What are the two kinds of aggression that primates are prone to, and why did each evolve separately? How does the intensity of violence among humans compare with the aggressive behavior of other primates? How did humans domesticate themselves? And how were the acquisition…

Homicide: Foundations of Human Behavior

By Martin Daly, Margo Wilson,

Book cover of Homicide: Foundations of Human Behavior

Why did I love this book?

This husband-wife team uses Darwinian natural selectionist thinking to account for the most important features of homicide throughout the world. A basic principle of Darwinian theory is known as kin selection, which means that people favor kin over nonkin and close kin over distant kin. In this regard, the authors show, for example, that people are much more likely to kill unrelated acquaintances and strangers than genetic kin, and that child homicide is perpetrated much more often by stepparents than by natural parents. The authors also show that there is a huge sex difference in rates of killing. Throughout the world the vast majority of killing is done by men. This is because men are competing with other men for the status and resources needed to secure mates for reproduction.

By Martin Daly, Margo Wilson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Homicide as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The human race spends a disproportionate amount of attention, money, and expertise in solving, trying, and reporting homicides, as compared to other social problems. The public avidly consumes accounts of real-life homicide cases, and murder fiction is more popular still. Nevertheless, we have only the most rudimentary scientific understanding of who is likely to kill whom and why. Martin Daly and Margo Wilson apply contemporary evolutionary theory to analysis of human motives and perceptions of self-interest, considering where and why individual interests conflict, using well-documented murder cases. This book attempts to understand normal social motives in murder as products of…

Book cover of Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection

Why did I love this book?

In this exceptionally well-written and engaging book, the author, an evolutionary anthropologist and feminist, shows that women need to mother but that successful mothering is highly contingent on context. Mothers are primed to bond with their infants, but this process can be short-circuited when the conditions for successfully rearing an infant are poor. Infanticide is a common practice throughout the world but is most likely to occur when there is a lack of sufficient resources, when the infant is defective, when a mother lacks social support, or when there are doubts about paternity.

By Sarah Blaffer Hrdy,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Mother Nature as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection

Book cover of Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality

Why did I love this book?

The author challenges the prevailing orthodoxy that the differences between men and women, and their respective roles in the work world, are the result of differential socialization. His view is that there are important biological differences between the sexes that lead them to choose different kinds of work. Women, for example, prefer jobs that involve working with people whereas men prefer working with things. Women also frequently choose part-time work because this allows them to spend more time with their children. Men are more likely than women to compete for high-status jobs because they are naturally more competitive than women. Male-female differences have been shaped over hundreds of thousands of years by evolution.

By Kingsley R. Browne,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Biology at Work as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Does biology help explain why women, on average, earn less money than men? Is there any evolutionary basis for the scarcity of female CEOs in Fortune 500 companies? According to Kingsley Browne, the answer may be yes.

Biology at Work brings an evolutionary perspective to bear on issues of women in the workplace: the "glass ceiling," the "gender gap" in pay, sexual harassment, and occupational segregation. While acknowledging the role of discrimination and sexist socialization, Browne suggests that until we factor real biological differences between men and women into the equation, the explanation remains incomplete.

Browne looks at behavioral differences…

Book cover of The Evolution of Human Sexuality

Why did I love this book?

This is a classic work taking a Darwinian perspective on human sexual behavior. A central theme is that there are sharp differences between male and female sexuality. Male sexuality is more urgent and less discriminating than female sexuality. Males also have a stronger desire than females for sexual variety. This is because males can promote their reproductive success by mating with many females, whereas sexual variety provides no real reproductive advantage for females. Males are in competition with other males for access to mates, especially mates of high reproductive value. The author takes up the question of whether the female orgasm is an adaptation or a by-product of the male organism, concluding that it is a by-product.

By Donald Symons,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Evolution of Human Sexuality as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Author Donald Symonds examines the differences between men and women in sexual behavior and attitudes, concluding that these differences are innate and that it is impossible to achieve identical sexualities in males and females. A central theme of this book is that, with respect to sexuality, there is a female human nature and a male human nature, and these natures are extraordinarily different, though the differences are to some extent masked by the compromises
heterosexual relationships entail and by moral injunctions. Men and women differ in their sexual natures because throughout the immensely long hunting and gathering phase of human…

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Interested in natural selection, differences between sexes, and homicide?

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