The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society
"A dazzlingly erudite synthesis of history, philosophy, anthropology, genetics, sociology, economics, epidemiology, statistics, and more" (Frank Bruni, The New York Times), Blueprint shows why evolution has placed us on a humane path -- and how we are united by our common humanity.
For too long, scientists have focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for aggression, cruelty, prejudice, and self-interest. But natural selection has given us a suite of beneficial social features, including our capacity for love, friendship, cooperation, and learning. Beneath all of our inventions -- our tools, farms, machines, cities, nations -- we carry with us innate proclivities to make a good society.
In Blueprint, Nicholas A. Christakis introduces the compelling idea that our genes affect not only our bodies and behaviors, but also the ways in which we make societies, ones that are surprisingly similar worldwide.
With many vivid examples -- including diverse historical and contemporary cultures, communities formed in the wake of shipwrecks, commune dwellers seeking utopia, online groups thrown together by design or involving artificially intelligent bots, and even the tender and complex social arrangements of elephants and dolphins that so resemble our own -- Christakis shows that, despite a human history replete with violence, we cannot escape our social blueprint for goodness.
In a world of increasing political and economic polarization, it's tempting to ignore the positive role of our evolutionary past. But by exploring the ancient roots of goodness in civilization, Blueprint shows that our genes have shaped societies for our welfare and that, in a feedback loop stretching back many thousands of years, societies are still shaping our genes today.
Christakis (Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives), a Yale professor of social and natural science, proposes that the human capacity for cooperation and empathy derives from an "evolutionary blueprint for making a good society" possessed by everyone. Setting himself against scientists focused on aggression and selfishness as the "dark side of our biological heritage," Christakis lays out what he considers powerful evidence that biology not socialization is ultimately responsible for good deeds. He begins by analyzing how social structures developed among survivors of shipwrecks, extreme circumstances that he treats as real-world experiments. Reviewing dozens of such cases leads Christakis to conclude that these survivors did not "invent wholly new sorts of effective social order," but followed an evolutionary playbook. His book's scope also includes other species, including primates and elephants, known to exhibit altruism and self-sacrifice, and massive online gaming communities. Not every reader will come away persuaded of Christakis's thesis that the "arc of our evolutionary history is long" but "bends towards goodness." Nonetheless, his thoughtful and comprehensive analysis, a valuable complement to Steven Pinker's similarly themed The Better Angels of Our Nature, provides much food for thought and a refreshingly optimistic perspective.