The evolution of altruistic social preferences in human groups

Joan B. Silk*, Bailey R. House

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


In this paper, we consider three hypotheses to account for the evolution of the extraordinary capacity for large-scale cooperation and altruistic social prefer- ences within human societies. One hypothesis is that human cooperation is built on the same evolutionary foundations as cooperation in other animal societies, and that fundamental elements of the social preferences that shape our species’ cooperative behaviour are also shared with other closely related primates. Another hypothesis is that selective pressures favouring cooperative breeding have shaped the capacity for cooperation and the development of social preferences, and produced a common set of behavioural dispositions and social preferences in cooperatively breeding primates and humans. The third hypothesis is that humans have evolved derived capacities for collabor- ation, group-level cooperation and altruistic social preferences that are linked to our capacity for culture. We draw on naturalistic data to assess differences in the form, scope and scale of cooperation between humans and other pri- mates, experimental data to evaluate the nature of social preferences across primate species, and comparative analyses to evaluate the evolutionary origins of cooperative breeding and related forms of behaviour.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages9
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1687
Publication statusPublished - 5 Feb 2016


  • Altruism
  • Cooperation
  • Social preferences

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