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? 

The books I picked & why

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

By Richard Wrangham,

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

Why 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.


Homicide: Foundations of Human Behavior

By Martin Daly, Margo Wilson,

Book cover of Homicide: Foundations of Human Behavior

Why 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.


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

By Sarah Blaffer Hrdy,

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

Why 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.


Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality

By Kingsley R. Browne,

Book cover of Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality

Why 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.


The Evolution of Human Sexuality

By Donald Symons,

Book cover of The Evolution of Human Sexuality

Why 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.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in natural selection, homicide, and sexuality?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about natural selection, homicide, and sexuality.

Natural Selection Explore 28 books about natural selection
Homicide Explore 17 books about homicide
Sexuality Explore 23 books about sexuality

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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