Skip to main content

Research Repository

Advanced Search

How institutions shaped the last major evolutionary transition to large-scale human societies

Powers, Simon T.; van Schaik, Carel P.; Lehmann, Laurent


Carel P. van Schaik

Laurent Lehmann


What drove the transition from small-scale human societies centred on kinship and personal exchange, to large-scale societies comprising cooperation and division of labour among untold numbers of unrelated individuals? We propose that the unique human capacity to negotiate institutional rules that coordinate social actions was a key driver of this transition. By creating institutions, humans have been able to move from the default ‘Hobbesian’ rules of the ‘game of life’, determined by physical/environmental constraints, into self-created rules of social organization where cooperation can be individually advantageous even in large groups of unrelated individuals. Examples include rules of food sharing in hunter–gatherers, rules for the usage of irrigation systems in agriculturalists, property rights and systems for sharing reputation between mediaeval traders. Successful institutions create rules of interaction that are self-enforcing, providing direct benefits both to individuals that follow them, and to individuals that sanction rule breakers. Forming institutions requires shared intentionality, language and other cognitive abilities largely absent in other primates. We explain how cooperative breeding likely selected for these abilities early in the Homo lineage. This allowed anatomically modern humans to create institutions that transformed the self-reliance of our primate ancestors into the division of labour of large-scale human social organization.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Oct 19, 2015
Online Publication Date Feb 5, 2016
Publication Date Feb 5, 2016
Deposit Date Jun 3, 2016
Publicly Available Date Feb 6, 2017
Journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Print ISSN 0962-8436
Electronic ISSN 1471-2970
Publisher Royal Society
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 371
Issue 1687
Pages 20150098
Keywords Cooperation; institutions; division of labour; human evolution; trade; punishment
Public URL
Publisher URL
Contract Date Jun 3, 2016


You might also like

Downloadable Citations