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The economic origins of ultrasociality

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 April 2015

John Gowdy
Department of Economics and Department of Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180johngowdy@earthlink.net
Lisi Krall
Department of Economics, State University of New York (SUNY) at Cortland, Cortland, NY


Ultrasociality refers to the social organization of a few species, including humans and some social insects, having a complex division of labor, city-states, and an almost exclusive dependence on agriculture for subsistence. We argue that the driving forces in the evolution of these ultrasocial societies were economic. With the agricultural transition, species could directly produce their own food and this was such a competitive advantage that those species now dominate the planet. Once underway, this transition was propelled by the selection of within-species groups that could best capture the advantages of (1) actively managing the inputs to food production, (2) a more complex division of labor, and (3) increasing returns to larger scale and larger group size. Together these factors reoriented productive life and radically altered the structure of these societies. Once agriculture began, populations expanded as these economic drivers opened up new opportunities for the exploitation of resources and the active management of inputs to food production. With intensified group-level competition, larger populations and intensive resource exploitation became competitive advantages, and the “social conquest of Earth” was underway. Ultrasocial species came to dominate the earth's ecosystems. Ultrasociality also brought a loss of autonomy for individuals within the group. We argue that exploring the common causes and consequences of ultrasociality in humans and the social insects that adopted agriculture can provide fruitful insights into the evolution of complex human society.

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The economic origins of ultrasociality
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