The best books on social evolution

4 authors have picked their favorite books about social evolution and why they recommend each book.

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War, Peace, and Human Nature

By Douglas P. Fry,

Book cover of War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views

From anthropology and archeology, Douglas Fry and his co-contributors tell us that our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, in small bands, on a five-million-year camping trip around the globe. We had to have adaptations for harmonious communal living. Wary of strangers, we would realize that wanting to fight them was stupid. Man the “killer ape” is fiction. Then, 10,000 years ago, came agriculture, with a population explosion producing abundant goods that others would covet. The consequence was war and prejudice and other vile beliefs and behaviors. Ex-Quaker as I am, I have written a book, Why We Hate: The Roots of Human Conflict, appearing in Spring 2021, arguing that, by making the appropriate cultural moves, we can again attain our natural state of cooperation and peaceful living.

Who am I?

Our discovery that we are modified monkeys rather than modified mud is a human achievement on a par with a Mozart opera or a Vermeer painting. As a historian and philosopher of science, my lifelong mission has been to see how this knowledge transcends earlier myths about divine creation and opens the way to a far richer and more optimistic vision of human nature, our achievements, and our future possibilities. New knowledge can be terrifying. It can also be exciting and liberating. It is an obligation, a privilege, and a joy to be able to express our full humanity. The authors I shall introduce exemplify this so very much.


I wrote...

A Philosopher Looks at Human Beings

By Michael Ruse,

Book cover of A Philosopher Looks at Human Beings

What is my book about?

Why do humans think they are superior to warthogs? Is this belief a legacy of religion? Created in the image of God? Or is the secular alternative, evolution, the answer? We are at the top of the tree of life? Monad to man.

I find both these alternatives wanting. I doubt seriously ancient mid-Eastern fables about beginnings. I am far from certain that evolution guarantees our top status. Just simply as an evolutionary success, the covid virus seems all too successful. I opt for “Darwinian existentialism.” We are evolved beings; but, our superiority, our moral sensitivities, and our actions come from within. “Condemned to freedom!” Intentions held by us and choices made by us as shaped by the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection.

The Social Instinct

By Nichola Raihani,

Book cover of The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World

Why do we cooperate? To a highly cooperative species like ourselves, it might seem obvious that we do, but from a rational perspective, individuals benefit more from pursuing their own narrow interests. To answer this question, this book takes a step back, or rather a few million steps, evolutionarily speaking. From the level of the cell to that of complex societies, it examines cooperation as a driving force in nature, allowing us to see ourselves as part of a much bigger story.


Who am I?

I am an anthropologist and cognitive scientist who studies some of the things that make us human—but not the obvious ones. I am mostly interested in those things that may appear puzzling or pointless, but fill our lives with meaning and purpose. Growing up in Greece, I read National Geographic Magazine and reveled in the documentaries of Jane Goodall, David Attenborough, and Jacques Cousteau, which sparked in me a passion for exploration through the combined lenses of personal experience and scientific scrutiny. In my own research, I have spent two decades studying ritual by conducting several years of ethnographic research and bringing scientific measurements into real-life settings.


I wrote...

Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living

By Dimitris Xygalatas,

Book cover of Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living

What is my book about?

Ritual presents a profound paradox: people ascribe the utmost importance to their rituals, but few can explain why they are so important. Seemingly senseless acts pervade every documented society, from handshakes to hexes, hazings to parades. Before we ever learned to farm, we were gathering in giant stone temples to perform elaborate rites. And yet, though rituals exist in every culture and can persist nearly unchanged for centuries, their logic has remained a mystery—until now. A new science of ritual reveals that it is a primordial part of human nature, that helps us soothe our anxieties, connect, find meaning, and discover who we are.

On the Origin of Tepees

By Jonnie Hughes,

Book cover of On the Origin of Tepees: The Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves)

This is probably the best pop-science book on cultural evolution that I have read. It’s written by Johnnie Hughes, a nature documentary maker who has since worked on series such as Netflix’s Our Planet. It’s half science book, half travelogue, telling the story of Hughes and his brother’s road trip across the USA, like a mini Voyage of the Beagle. As they go, they explore how the design of teepees has evolved over time to take the varied forms that are currently seen in Native American communities. This is a really entertaining way of introducing the idea that ideas evolve.


Who am I?

I am Professor of Cultural Evolution at the University of Exeter, UK. In my research I use lab experiments and theoretical models to understand how human culture evolves. Since my undergraduate psychology degree I have always been attracted to big ideas about how evolution has shaped human minds. Yet evolutionary psychology, with its stone age brains frozen in time, seemed unsatisfying. This led me to cultural evolution, with its grand idea that the same evolutionary process underlies both genetic and cultural change. Humans are not just products of countless generations of genetic evolution, but also of cultural evolution. This view of humanity is grander than any other I’ve come across.


I wrote...

Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences

By Alex Mesoudi,

Book cover of Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences

What is my book about?

Charles Darwin revolutionised biology by showing how his theory of evolution can account for the stunning diversity and complexity of life on earth. Over the last few decades, a growing group of scholars have argued that the same theory of evolution can also explain the stunning diversity and complexity of human culture, encompassing languages, religion, technology, economic systems, art, literature, science, and more. Cultural Evolution provides an accessible overview of this burgeoning field, explaining what it means to say that culture ‘evolves,’ and how evolutionary tools developed in biology can illuminate problems that have long bedevilled the social sciences and humanities. It also argues that just as evolutionary theory united and synthesised the biological sciences, it can do the same for the social sciences.

Cognitive Gadgets

By Cecilia Heyes,

Book cover of Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking

While ‘nature vs nurture’ is an unhelpful dichotomy, most psychologists still assume that our species’ unique cognitive abilities, from language to mindreading, are innate products of genetic evolution. Here Celia Heyes provides a counter-argument to this assumption, arguing instead that human cognition is often the product of cultural evolution. Something like language is therefore not an ‘instinct’ but rather a ‘cognitive gadget,’ akin to a technological gadget, transmitted culturally rather than genetically. This is one of those books that makes you rethink your assumptions, and whether you agree or not with its claims, you come out smarter at the end.


Who am I?

I am Professor of Cultural Evolution at the University of Exeter, UK. In my research I use lab experiments and theoretical models to understand how human culture evolves. Since my undergraduate psychology degree I have always been attracted to big ideas about how evolution has shaped human minds. Yet evolutionary psychology, with its stone age brains frozen in time, seemed unsatisfying. This led me to cultural evolution, with its grand idea that the same evolutionary process underlies both genetic and cultural change. Humans are not just products of countless generations of genetic evolution, but also of cultural evolution. This view of humanity is grander than any other I’ve come across.


I wrote...

Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences

By Alex Mesoudi,

Book cover of Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences

What is my book about?

Charles Darwin revolutionised biology by showing how his theory of evolution can account for the stunning diversity and complexity of life on earth. Over the last few decades, a growing group of scholars have argued that the same theory of evolution can also explain the stunning diversity and complexity of human culture, encompassing languages, religion, technology, economic systems, art, literature, science, and more. Cultural Evolution provides an accessible overview of this burgeoning field, explaining what it means to say that culture ‘evolves,’ and how evolutionary tools developed in biology can illuminate problems that have long bedevilled the social sciences and humanities. It also argues that just as evolutionary theory united and synthesised the biological sciences, it can do the same for the social sciences.

The Philosophy of Social Evolution

By Jonathan Birch,

Book cover of The Philosophy of Social Evolution

The study of how natural selection shapes social behaviour is an important sub-branch of evolutionary biology, but one that has been mired in controversy. Much of this controversy concerns "altruistic’’ behaviours, that is, behaviours that are costly for an organism to perform but benefit others, such as defending one’s colony from attack. Birch’s book offers a deft analysis of the seemingly intractable debates over social evolution, bringing considerable conceptual clarity. Topics discussed include the status of kin selection theory, Hamilton’s rule, cultural evolution, and the idea that a multicelled organism is itself a social group composed of cells.


Who am I?

I am Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Bristol. I am interested in most areas of contemporary philosophy, in particular the interplay between philosophy and the natural and social sciences. Much of my recent work has focused on evolutionary biology, a science that is replete with implications for traditional philosophical debates about human nature, knowledge, and our place in the world.


I wrote...

Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction

By Samir Okasha,

Book cover of Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction

What is my book about?

Throughout most of the 20th century, philosophy of science was a rather physics-centric pursuit. This began to change in the 1970s when philosophy of biology emerged as a distinct sub-field in its own right. My book offers a synoptic overview of this flourishing branch of philosophy, written in a way that presumes no specialist knowledge. The book’s aim is to highlight how pervasive philosophical issues are in the life sciences, and to show how philosophical analysis can be of use to the practicing scientist. Topics discussed included teleology and purpose in nature, altruism and human behaviour, the nature of species, and the concept of the gene.

Guns, Germs, and Steel

By Jared Diamond,

Book cover of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Diamond carries the Darwinian method from biology to human history and culture, in an argument so simple and so powerful that one ends up feeling as Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Huxley felt, when he finished On the Origin of Species: “How stupid of me not to think of that!” Starting with an open mind and no “theory” Diamond advanced the most powerful argument for a Darwinian process of human cultural evolution. 


Who am I?

Even before I became a philosopher I was wondering about everything—life the universe and whatever else Douglas Adams thought was important when he wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe. As a philosopher, I’ve been able to spend my life scratching the itch of these questions. When I finally figured them out I wrote The Atheist’s Guide to Reality as an introduction to what science tells us besides that there is no god. In How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories I apply much of that to getting to the bottom of why it’s so hard for us, me included, to really absorb the nature of reality. 


I wrote...

How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories

By Alex Rosenberg,

Book cover of How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories

What is my book about?

To understand something, you need to know its history. Right? Wrong. Narrative history is always, always wrong, not just incomplete or inaccurate but deeply wrong. Our attachment to history as a vehicle for understanding has a long Darwinian pedigree and a genetic basis. Our love of stories is hard-wired. Human evolution improved primate “mind-reading”—the ability to anticipate and explain the behavior of others, whether predators, prey, or cooperators—to get us to the top of the African food chain. It was a useful enough tool in its time, but neuroscience reveals that human culture shaped hard-wired mind-reading from a tool useful for survival into a defective theory of human nature. As science has revealed, we'll only understand history if we don't make it into a story with a plot.

The Whisperings Within

By David P. Barash,

Book cover of The Whisperings Within

In an easy, breezy style, Barash introduces you to sociobiology, the most mind-blowing perceptual lens since Charles Darwin’s 1857 introduction of evolution. Like Hawkins and Thomas, Barash reveals everything from the operation of genes to the culture of the Inuit in the impossible wastes of the arctic.  And he shows you, once again, how the findings of widely separated sciences fit into a spectacular big picture.


Who am I?

I’ve been called the Einstein, Newton, Darwin, and Freud of the 21st century by Britain’s Channel 4 TV and the next Stephen Hawking by Gear Magazine. My passion is flying over all the sciences, all of history, and a chunk of the arts and pulling it all together in a new big picture. I’ve called this approach Omnology, the aspiration to omniscience. Sounds crazy, right? But I’ve published scientific papers or lectured at scholarly conferences in twelve different scientific disciplines, from quantum physics and cosmology to evolutionary biology, psychology, information science, and astronautics. And I’ve been published in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, and many more.


I wrote...

The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History

By Howard Bloom,

Book cover of The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History

What is my book about?

The Lucifer Principle is a revolutionary work that explores the intricate relationships among genetics, human behavior, and culture to put forth the thesis that “evil” is a by-product of nature’s strategies for creation and that it is woven into our most basic biological fabric.

Emergent Strategy

By Adrienne Maree Brown,

Book cover of Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

So this might be my left field recommendation, and it's important; I begin the list with the individual - wellbeing. I end it with this groundbreaking text that helps me to feel connected to something bigger than me in my classroom with Sandra breaking Otis' pen - again...

Education is a social issue

Education is political

Education is powerful - and because of all of that, I need guidance with the daily battles I have (many in my own head) about behaviour, education, and the role I'm here to play within it. Emergent Strategy gives me guidance for this- it guides me to work with inevitable change- of our pupils, our education systems, and ourselves.


Who am I?

Adele Bates is a Behaviour & Education Specialist who empowers school leaders and teachers to support pupils with behavioural needs and SEMH to thrive with their education. She’s an International Keynote Speaker, a featured expert on teenagers and behaviour for BBC Radio 4, the author of "Miss, I Don't Give A Sh*t", Engaging with Challenging Behaviour in Schools, from Sage & Corwin Press, and is a fully-funded International Researcher on Behaviour & Inclusion, as well as teaching for nearly 20 years. For her tips and resources check out her website above.


I wrote...

"Miss, I Don’t Give a Sh*t" Engaging With Challenging Behaviour in Schools

By Adele Bates,

Book cover of "Miss, I Don’t Give a Sh*t" Engaging With Challenging Behaviour in Schools

What is my book about?

Do you want to be an inspiring teacher for everyone you teach, even the trickier cherubs in your class? Or maybe you just want to get through a lesson without a desk flying at you or a blazer being set alight?

In this down-to-earth book, Adele Bates shares practical approaches, strategies, and tips from the classroom on how to help pupils with behavioural needs thrive with their education. Packed full of real-life classroom scenarios, student voice and relevant theory, every chapter offers an Action Box helping you to implement these strategies - next lesson, next week, and long term.

Lawyers as Changemakers

By J. Kim Wright,

Book cover of Lawyers as Changemakers: The Global Integrative Law Movement

Taken in tandem with Lawyers as Peacemakers, Wright’s books chart a much-needed approach to legal’s involvement in contracting. She advocates for Integrative Law, which puts lawyers at the table with the other negotiators as a contract is developed. This is important because often lawyers come late to the party or with contractual guardrails and Ts and Cs that should have been addressed at the start of (and during) the negotiation. When lawyers are not integrated as changemakers to support the business, you will likely find yourself in a series of back and forth red-line hell that causes frustration and deteriorates trust with your business partner. I challenge you to take Wright’s sage advice to rethink how lawyers can be changemakers. 


Who am I?

I am an international authority for my award-winning research on the Vested® business model for highly collaborative relationships. I began my research in 2003 by studying what makes the difference in successful strategic business deals. My day job is the lead faculty and researcher for the University of Tennessee’s Certified Deal Architect program; my passion is helping organizations and individuals learn the art, science, and practice of crafting highly collaborative win-win strategic business relationships. My work has led to seven books and three Harvard Business Review articles and I’ve shared my advice on CNN International, Bloomberg, NPR, and Fox Business News.


I wrote...

Contracting in the New Economy: Using Relational Contracts to Boost Trust and Collaboration in Strategic Business Relationships

By David Frydlinger, Kate Vitasek, Jim Bergman, Tim Cummins

Book cover of Contracting in the New Economy: Using Relational Contracts to Boost Trust and Collaboration in Strategic Business Relationships

What is my book about?

Today’s business environment is constantly evolving, driven by digital transformation, globalization, and the need to create value through innovation. These shifts demand organizations view contracting through a different lens – one of aligning interests and mitigating risk. Contracting in the New Economy provides a profound yet straightforward five-step approach for developing formal relational contracts that help parties create a flexible contract framework that continually aligns interests. The book is a must-read for anyone developing contracts. As Oliver Hart, Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences, writes in the forward, “It is rare that theory and practice converge, but this (book) is one occasion they do.” Contracting in the New Economy will help you put relational contracting theory into practice for your own relationships.

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