Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

The economic origins of ultrasociality

  • John Gowdy (a1) and Lisi Krall (a2)

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.

Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

D. Aanen & J. Boomsma (2006) Social-insect fungus farming. Current Biology 16(24):R1014–16.

C. Anderson & D. McShea (2001) Individual versus social complexity, with particular reference to ant colonies. Biological Reviews 76:211–37.

A. Barnosky , D. Hadley , J. Bascompte , E. Berlow , J. Brown , M. Fortlius , W. Getz , J. Harte , A. Hastings , P. Marquet , N. Martinez , A. Mooers , P. Roopnarine , G. Vermeij , J. Williams , R. Gillespie , J. Kitzes , C. Marshall , N. Matzke , D. Mindell , E. Revilla & A. Smith (2012) Approaching a state shift in earth's biosphere. Nature 486:5258.

L. Barrett , P. Henzi & D. Rendall (2007) Social brains, simple minds: Does social complexity really require cognitive complexity? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 362(1480):561–75.

D. J. Beerling (1999) New estimates of carbon transfer to terrestrial ecosystems between the last glacial maximum and the Holocene. Terra Nova 11:162–67.

G. Benckiser (2010) Ants and sustainable agriculture. A review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development 30(2):191–99.

S. Beshers & J. Fewell (2001) Models of division of labor in social insects. Annual Review of Entomology 46:413–40.

M. Blute (2010) Darwinian sociocultural evolution. Cambridge University Press.

J.-P. Bocquet-Appel (2011) When the world's population took off: The springboard of the Neolithic demographic transition. Science 333(6042):560–61.

C. Boehm (1997) Impact of the human egalitarian syndrome on Darwinian selection mechanisms. American Naturalist 150:100–21.

R. Boyd & P. Richerson (1980) Effect of phenotypic variation on kin selection. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 77:7506–509.

R. Boyd & P. Richerson (2002) Group beneficial norms spread rapidly in a structured population. Journal of Theoretical Biology 215:287–96.

A. Bruce & M. Burd (2012) Allometric scaling of foraging rate with trial dimensions in leaf-cutting ants. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 279:2442–47.

J. F. Burkhardt (1998) Individual flexibility and tempo in the ant, Pheidole dentata, the influence of group size. Journal of Insect Behavior 11:493505.

D. Campbell (1974) Downward causation in hierarchically organized biological systems. In: Studies in the philosophy of biology: Reduction and related problems, ed. F. Ayala & T. Dobzhansky , pp. 179–86. Macmillan.

L. Caporael (1997) The evolution of truly social cognition. Personality and Social Psychology Review 1:276–98.

L. Caporael & C. Garvey (2014) The primacy of scaffolding within groups for the evolution of group-level traits. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 37(3):255–56.

R. L. Carneiro (1970) A theory of the origin of the state. Science 169:733–38.

J.-K. Choi & S. Bowles (2007) The coevolution of parochial altruism and war. Science 318:636–40.

M. Cox , D. Morales , A. Woerner , J. Sozanski , J. D. Wall & M. Hammer (2009) Autosomal resequence data reveal Late Stone Age signals of population expansion in sub-Saharan African foraging and farming populations. PLoS ONE 4(7):e6366.

B. J. Crespi & D. Yanega (1995) The definition of eusociality. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 6:109–15.

E. Culotta (2013) Latest skirmish over ancestral violence strikes blow for peace. Science 341:244.

C. Darwin (1871) The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. John Murray.

R. Dunbar (1993) Coevolution of neocortical size, group size and language in humans. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16(6):681735.

S. Edwards & S. Pratt (2009) Rationality in collective decision-making by ant colonies. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 276:3655–61.

D. Falk & B. Dudek (1993) Mosaic evolution of the neocortex. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16(6):701702.

H. Ferguson-Gow , S. Sumner , A. Bourke & K. Jones (2014) Colony size predicts division of labor in attine ants. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 281(1793). [October 2014 issue; article first published Online on August 27, 2014]. doi:10.1098/rspb.2014.1411. Available at:

E. Fittkau & H. Klinge (1973) On biomass and tropic structure of the central Amazonian rain forest ecosystem. Biotropica 5:214.

P. Folgarait (1998) Ant biodiversity and its relationship to ecosystem functioning: A review. Biodiversity and Conservation 7:1221–44.

K. R. Foster & T. Wenseleers (2006) A general model for the evolution of mutualisms. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 19(4):1283–93.

N. R. Franks (1987) The organization of worker teams in social insects. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 2:7275.

U. Frith & C. Frith (2010) The social brain: Allowing humans to boldly go where no other species has been. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 365:165–76.

D. Fry & P. Söderberg (2013) Lethal aggression in mobile forager bands and implications for the origins of war. Science 341:270–73.

N. Georgescu-Roegen (1976) Energy and economic myths. In: Energy and economic myths, ed. N. Georgescu-Roegen , pp. 336. Pergamon Press.

N. Georgescu-Roegen (1977a) Inequality, limits, and growth from bioeconomic viewpoint. Review of Social Economy 35:361–76.

M. Ghiselin (2009) Review of The Superorganism: The beauty, elegance, and strangeness of insect societies, book by Bert Hölldobler & E. O. Wilson. American Scientist 97:240–44.

D. Gordon (2007) Control without hierarchy. Nature 446:143. (Published online March 7, 2007). doi:10.1038/446143a.

J. Gowdy , D. Dollimore , D. Wilson & U. Witt (2013) Economic cosmology and the evolutionary challenge. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 90(Suppl.):S1120.

J. Gowdy & L. Krall (2013) The ultrasocial origins of the Anthropocene. Ecological Economics 95:137–47.

J. Gowdy & L. Krall (2014) The transition to agriculture and the evolution of human ultrasociality. Journal of Bioeconomics 16(2):179202.

D Grayson & D. Meltzer (2003) A requiem for North American overkill. Journal of Archaeological Science 30:585–93.

L. Grinsted , I. Agnarsson & T. Bilde (2012) Subsocial behaviour and brood adoption in mixed-species colonies of two theridiid spiders. Naturwissenschaften 99:1021–30.

K. Hawks (2003) Grandmothers and the evolution of human longevity. American Journal of Human Biology 15:380400.

G. Hodgson & T. Knudsen (2010) Darwin's conjecture: The search for general principles of social & economic evolution. University of Chicago Press.

T. Holbrook , M. Barton & J. Fewell (2011) Division of labor increases with colony size in the harvester ant Pogonomyrmex californicus. Behavioral Ecology 22:960–66.

T. Holbrook , R. Clark , R. Jeanson , S. Bertram , P. Kukuk & J. Fewell (2009) Emergence and consequences of division of labor in associations of normally solitary sweat bees. Ethology 115:301–10.

C. Hou , M. Kaspari , H. B. Vander Zanden & J. F. Gillooly (2010) Energetic basis of colonial living in social insects. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 107(8):3634–38.

T. Judd & P. Sherman (1996) Naked mole-rats recruit colony mates to food sources. Animal Behaviour 52:957–69.

A. Kahn (1966) The tyranny of small decisions: Market failures, imperfections, and the limits of economics. Kyklos 19:2347.

, , & () . –85. H. Kaplan K. Hill J. Lancaster M. Hurtado 2000 A theory of human life history evolution: Diet, intelligence, and longevity Evolutionary Anthropology 156

J. King , R. Warren & M. Bradford (2013) Social insects dominate eastern US temperate hardwood forest macroinvertebrate communities in warmer regions. PLoS One 8(10). (Online article). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0075843.

J. Korb (2007) Termites. Current Biology 17:R995–99. Available at:

I. Kuijt & B. Finlayson (2009) Evidence for food storage and predomestication granaries 11,000 years ago in the Jordan Valley. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 106:10966–70. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0812764106.

K. Laland & G. Brown (2006) Niche construction, human behavior, and the dapative-lag hypothesis. Evolutionary Anthropology 15:95104.

K. Laland , F. Odling-Smee & M. Feldman (2001) Niche construction, biological evolution, and cultural change. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23(1):131–46; discussion 146–75.

P. M. Lambert (2009) Health versus fitness. Current Anthropology 50(5):603608.

C. S. Larsen (2006) The agricultural revolution as environmental catastrophe: Implications for health and lifestyles in the Holocene. Quaternary International 150:1220.

S. Matthew & R. Boyd (2011) Punishment sustains large-scale cooperation in prestate warfare. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 108:11375–80.

J. McCorriston & F. Hole (1991) The ecology of seasonal stress and the origins of agriculture in the Near East. American Anthropologist 93:4669.

M. McDaniel (2005) Big-brained people are smarter: A meta-analysis of the relationship between in vivo brain volume and intelligence. Intelligence 33:337–46.

R. Michod (2005) On the transfer of fitness from the cell to the multicellular organism. Biology and Philosophy 20:967–87.

S. Mithen (2007) Did farming arise from a misapplication of social intelligence? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 362:705–18.

M. Moffett (2012) Supercolonies of billions in an invasive ant: What is a society? Behavioral Ecology 23:925–33.

U. Mueller & N. Gerardo (2002) Fungus-farming insects: Multiple origins and diverse evolutionary histories. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 99(24):15247–49.

U. Mueller , S. Rehner & T. Schultz (1998) The evolution of agriculture in ants. Science 281:2034–38.

U. G. Mueller , N. M. Gerardo , D. K. Aanen , D. L. Six & T. R. Schultz (2005) The evolution of agriculture in insects. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 36:563–95. doi:10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.36.102003.152626.

B. Nanay (2005) Can cumulative selection explain adaptation? Philosophy of Science 72:1099–112.

R. Naroll (1956) A preliminary index of social development. American Anthropologist 58:687715.

M. A. Nowak , C. E. Tarnita & E. O. Wilson (2010) The evolution of eusociality. Nature 466(7310):1057–62.

S. Okasha (2006) Evolution and the levels of selection. Oxford University Press.

E. Pennisi (2014) Our egalitarian Eden. Science 344:824–25.

S. Pimm , C. Jenkins , R. Abell , T. Brooks , J. Gittleman , L Joppa , P. Raven , C. Roberts & J. Sexton (2014) The biodiversity of species and their rates of extinction, distribution, and protection. Science 344:987–96.

D. Price & O. Bar-Yosef (2011) The origins of agriculture: New data, new ideas. Current Anthropology 52:S163–74.

H. Pringle (2014) The ancient roots of the 1%. Science 344:822–25.

H. K. Reeve (2000) Multi-level selection and human cooperation. Evolution and Human Behavior 21:6572.

D. Rindos (1984) The origins of agriculture: An evolutionary perspective. Academic Press.

A. Riveros , M. Seid & W. Wcislo (2012) Evolution of brain size in class-based societies of fungus-growing ants (Attini). Animal Behavior 83:1043–49.

A. Rosen & I. Rivera-Collazo (2012) Climate change, adaptive cycles, and the persistence of foraging economies during the Late Pleistocene/Holocene transition in the Levant. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 109:3640–45.

M. Sahlins (1996) The sadness of sweetness: The native anthropology of Western cosmology. Current Anthropology 37:395428.

E. Sanderson , M. Jaith , M. Levy , K. Redford , A. Wannebo & G. Woolmer (2002) The human footprint and the last of the wild. BioScience 52:891904.

C. Santana & M. Weisberg (2014) Group-level traits are not units of selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 37(3):271–72.

J. Shakun , P. Clark , S. Marcott , Z. Liu & B. Otto-Bliesner (2012) Global warming preceded by increasing carbon dioxide concentrations during the last deglaciation. Nature 484:4954.

J. Z. Shik , C. Hou , A. Kay , M. Kasari & J. F. Gillooly (2012) Towards a general life-history model of the superorganism: Predicting the survival, growth and reproduction of ant societies. Biology Letters 8(6):1059–62. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2012.0463.

P. Smaldino (2014) The cultural evolution of emergent group-level traits. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 37(3):243–95.

P. Smith (1972) Diet and attrition in the Natufians. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 37:233–38.

C. Spencer (2010) War and early state formation in Oaxaca, Mexico. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 100:11185–87.

R. Sperry (1969) A modified concept of consciousness. Psychological Review 76:532–36.

W. Steffen , J. Grinevald , P. Crutzen & J. McNeill (2011) The Anthropocene: Conceptual and historical perspectives. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 369:842–67.

J. Tainter , T. F. H. Allen & T. W. Hoekstra (2006) Energy transformations and post-normal science. Energy 31:4458.

C. Tennie , J. Call & M. Tomasello (2009) Ratcheting up the ratchet: On the evolution of cumulative culture. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364:2405–15.

R. L. Trivers (1971) The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology 46:3557.

P. Turchin , T. E. Currie , E. A. L. Turner & S. Gavrilets (2013) War, space, and the evolution of Old World complex societies. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 110(41):16384–89. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1308825110.

J. van den Bergh & J. Gowdy (2009) A group selection perspective on economic behavior, institutions and organizations. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 72:120.

V. Vanberg (2014) Collective action, institutional design and evolutionary “blindness.Journal of Bioeconomics 16:99104.

W. Wcislo (2012) Big brains, little bodies. Science 338:1419.

H. Weiss & R. Bradley (2001) What drives societal collapse? Science 291:609–10.

H. Weiss , M. A. Courty , W. Wetterstrom , F. Guichard , L. Senior , R. Meadow & A. Curnow (1993) The genesis and collapse of third millennium North Mesopotamian civilization. Science 261:9951004.

G. Williams (1957) Peiotropy, natural selection, and the evolution of senescence. Evolution 11:398411.

G. Williams (1992) Natural selection: Domains, levels, challenges. Princeton University Press.

D. S. Wilson (1997) Human groups as units of selection. Science 276:1816–17.

D. S. Wilson & J. M. Gowdy (2013) Evolution as a general theoretical framework for economics and public policy. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 90 (Suppl.):S3S10. Available at:

D. S. Wilson & J. M. Gowdy (2015) Human ultrasociality and the invisible hand: Foundational developments in evolutionary science alter a foundational concept in economics. Journal of Bioeconomics 17(1):3752. Available at:

D. S. Wilson , E. Ostrom & M. Cox (2013) Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 90(Suppl.):S2132.

E. O. Wilson (1987) Causes of ecological success: The case of the ants. Journal of Animal Ecology 56:19.

E. O. Wilson (2008) One giant leap: How insects achieved altruism and colonial life. BioScience 58:1725.

E. O. Wilson & B. Hölldobler (2005) Eusociality: Origin and consequences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 102(38):13367–71. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0505858102.

J. Woodburn (1982) Egalitarian societies. Man 17:431–51. Reprinted in: Gowdy, J., ed. (1998) Limited wants, unlimited means: A reader on hunter-gatherer economics and the environment. pp. 87–110. Island Press.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Behavioral and Brain Sciences
  • ISSN: 0140-525X
  • EISSN: 1469-1825
  • URL: /core/journals/behavioral-and-brain-sciences
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 11
Total number of PDF views: 136 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 631 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 24th June 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

This erratum applies to the following article(s)