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Human Cultures through the Scientific Lens

Pascal Boyer

4. Social groups and adapted minds

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Introductory Note

1Relations between different ethnicities are often fraught with conflict, from mild suspicion to avoidance, discrimination or violent inter-group conflict. In many places, inter-group conflict has consequences for people’s well-being, including their health. But why is that the case? In this article, Rengin Firat, Florian van Leeuwen and I tried to propose a general model of inter-group conflict that would explain these well-documented and sometimes paradoxical public health outcomes.

2In our view, one cannot properly address questions of inter-group relations without a clear understanding of the ways humans form alliances. In traditional social sciences, people often simply assumed that there are social groups, that people find it self-evident that they ‘belong’ to a particular collection of individuals, and that people sometimes sacrifice their individual welfare for what they see as the good of the group. Social scientists, like the rest of us, used to find all these phenomena self-evident, simply because they are very familiar.

3One advantage of taking an evolutionary standpoint is that the familiar cannot be taken for granted, because it happens to be particular to our species. Sustained alliances between genetically unrelated individuals are rare and limited in scope in most animal species (Dugatkin, 1998). But they are ubiquitous among humans, who can form and maintain alliances both stable and extensive, scaling up from a few individuals to several millions.

4How is this possible? A possible, common and often sterile approach is to catalogue those collections of individuals that people identify as different ‘groups’ in their society, and to try to classify kinds of groups. One could sort them, for instance, in terms of size (a street gang vs. an army), permanence (crowds vs. nations), or solidarity (a village vs. a group of commuters) and try to produce a taxonomy of groups based on these observable features. Is that really wrong? In a sense, it is not, since documenting varieties of phenomena is the starting point in any scientific study. But that does not by itself provide us with explanations for the observed similarities and differences.

5Alliances between unrelated individual agents are (at least as a goal) mutually beneficial interactions. They dissolve when members do not see participation as favorable to their welfare. That is why the most promising interpretation of group formation and dynamics came from rational choice models (Elster, 1989; Hechter, 1987). These described the way aggregate individual interests could explain group dynamics— the conditions under which each individual may expect to gain from participation in alliances. The one advantage and limitation of these rational choice models is that they assume no complex psychology in the agents, except a set of prior preferences, some perception of the expected benefits from different courses of actions, and of course a motivation to increase their expected benefits. This description of agents, adopted from micro-economics, is often very powerful, especially in the aggregate. But, as many have pointed out, it comes with two limitations. First, it assumes that agents have an accurate perception of the benefits that may result from their behavior, which is a convenient idealization. Second, more important, rational choice models do not (try to) explain why agents have the preferences they have.

6Now understanding the origin of preferences, and describing the nature and limits of human capacities, are precisely the main goals of evolutionary psychology, in combination with the models and findings of economics, neuroscience and anthropology. In this perspective, we can put forward precise, testable hypotheses about the kinds of preferences that would have been the object of positive selection in human evolution.

7What makes human alliances and groups possible is a set of evolved mechanisms that allow us to see the benefits of coalitions, to detect what alliances are present in our social environment, to monitor who is and who is not committed to the coalitions we join, to signal our own commitment, and so forth. Over the last thirty years, evolutionary scientists have added considerable detail to our understanding of these capacities. For instance, they demonstrated how people are intuitively suspicious of the status of newcomers in a group (Cimino & Delton, 2010), which neuro-physiological systems support coalitional affiliation and rivalry (De Dreu et al., 2011), how people in some countries readily encode ‘racial’ identities as coalitional rather than merely perceptual (Kurzban et al., 2001; Pietraszewski et al., 2014), how accent is seen as a cue of alliances (Pietraszewski & Schwartz, 2014), and much more. For general surveys of the field, see Boyer (2018, Chapter 1), Pietraszewski (2016), and Tooby & Cosmides (2010).



Boyer, P. (2018). Minds Make Societies. How Cognition Explains the World Humans Create. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Cimino, A., & Delton, A. W. (2010). On the perception of newcomers: Toward an evolved psychology of intergenerational coalitions. Human Nature, 21, 186–202.

De Dreu, C. K. W., Greer, L. L., Van Kleef, G. A., Shalvi, S., & Handgraaf, M. J. J. (2011). Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 1262–1266.

Dugatkin, L. A. (1998). A Model of coalition Formation in Animals. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B Biological Sciences, 265, 2121–2125.

Elster, J. (1989). Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hechter, M. (1987). Principles of Group Solidarity. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Kurzban, R., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2001). Can race be erased? Coalitional computation and social categorization. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 98, 15387–15392.

Pietraszewski, D. (2016). How the mind sees coalitional and group conflict: The evolutionary invariances of n-person conflict dynamics. Evolution and Human Behavior, 37, 470–480.

Pietraszewski, D., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2014). The Content of Our Cooperation, Not the Color of Our Skin: An Alliance Detection System Regulates Categorization by Coalition and Race, but Not Sex. PLoS One, 9, 1–19.

Pietraszewski, D., & Schwartz, A. (2014). Evidence that accent is a dimension of social categorization, not a byproduct of perceptual salience, familiarity, or ease-of-processing. Evolution and Human Behavior, 35, 43–50.

Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2010). Groups in Mind: The Coalitional Roots of War and Morality. In H. Høgh-Olesen (Ed.), Human Morality & Sociality: Evolutionary & Comparative Perspectives (pp. 191–234). New York: Palgrave MacMillan.


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