Human large-scale cooperation as a product of competition between cultural groups

Carla Handley, Sarah Mathew

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

64 Scopus citations


A fundamental puzzle of human evolution is how we evolved to cooperate with genetically unrelated strangers in transient interactions. Group-level selection on culturally differentiated populations is one proposed explanation. We evaluate a central untested prediction of Cultural Group Selection theory, by assessing whether readiness to cooperate between individuals from different groups corresponds to the degree of cultural similarity between those groups. We documented the normative beliefs and cooperative dispositions of 759 individuals spanning nine clans nested within four pastoral ethnic groups of Kenya—the Turkana, Samburu, Rendille and Borana. We find that cooperation between groups is predicted by how culturally similar they are, suggesting that norms of cooperation in these societies have evolved under the influence of group-level selection on cultural variation. Such selection acting over human evolutionary history may explain why we cooperate readily with unrelated and unfamiliar individuals, and why humans’ unprecedented cooperative flexibility is nevertheless culturally parochial.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number702
JournalNature communications
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Chemistry
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Physics and Astronomy


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