Given the constraints of human evolved psychology (such as our memory and oral communication capacities), many forms of cooperation necessary for large groups to evolve and persist would have been impossible.

Current theory in the cognitive sciences can explain most of the cooperation observed in the small-scale societies that characterised most of our species’ evolutionary history. These evolved capacities, however, would have been insufficient to sustain the form and scale of cooperation in large-scale societies. The evolution of social complexity required an extension of human cognitive capacities in ways that could not have occurred solely through genetic selection. Large-scale human societies require individuals routinely to bear costs for the benefit of genetically unrelated individuals in a wide variety of ways, ranging from the remittance of tribute or tax to more extreme forms of self-sacrifice as cannon fodder on the battlefield. Explaining the evolution of cooperation in large societies presents a theoretical puzzle because co-operators in a population are vulnerable to exploitation by free-riders.

Efforts to account for the emergence of large-scale cooperative human societies have focused on a range of cultural advances, from the advent of agriculture to the emergence of new forms of political regulation and social identification. A number of these cultural adaptations have been proposed to overcome the shortcomings of our innate psychological tools but little attention has been accorded to the role of writing and recordkeeping in the evolution of cooperation in large-scale societies, the main focus of the current study.

The behavioural innovation of literacy is one of the most consequential changes that humans experienced during the Holocene. Recent insights and evidence garnered here from anthropology, behavioural economics, palaeography, grammatology, and evolutionary psychology suggest that writing and recordkeeping allowed humans to solve the problem of cooperation in ethnically diverse, ultrasocial polities by facilitating five processes vital for the effective cooperation among strangers: reciprocity, reputation formation and maintenance, norm enforcement, identification with imagined communities, and the extension of empathy to anonymous others.

Writing and recordkeeping support systems of reciprocal exchange by facilitating the tracking of heterogeneous interactions that would otherwise have been impossible to track and remember. They provide a durable record of people’s past behaviour and reputational status. They promote the standardization and maintenance of social norms and associated moral punishments in large populations. They expedite the creation of increasingly large and salient group identities. Finally, literate systems facilitate empathy towards strangers. These varied functions of literacy played a crucial and hitherto neglected role in the evolution of social complexity.


Read the paper: Mullins, D.A., Whitehouse, H. & Atkinson, Q. D., (2013). The Role of Writing and Record Keeping in the Cultural Evolution of Human Cooperation.

Published On: July 3, 2013


  • Michael O'Shea says:

    Great article. How do I obtain permission to reprint it?

  • Bryan Atkins says:

    Great stuff! Thanks!

    Speculating that the advent of CODE, writing in this case, may be a physics/evolution phenomenon: information structures become increasingly complex over time per their interactions, and generate code, or coding structures over time as info processing tech to functionalize complex network relationships/interactions.

    Code is infrastructure for complexity.

    Bio network: genetic, epigenetic code.
    Cultural network: moral, religious, language (spoken, written), math, legal, etiquette, monetary, musical, and other codes.
    Tech network: software code.

    Arguing from this philosophic base: information-in-relationship is fundamental, entities are simultaneously noun and verb, simultaneously aggregate information structure, and information processor.

    Survival, or the arms race for entities in bio, cultural, and tech networks, is the ability to process complex network relationship information with increasing speed, accuracy, and power.

    Code is complex network tech that facilitates relationship information processing.

    Btw, think our current cultural coding structures—namely our moral, religious, monetary, and legal codes—are, to varying degrees, increasingly complexity inadequate. These coding structures can’t process exponentially accelerating complexity with sufficient speed, accuracy and power. Think this contributes significantly to the increase in externalities, whether obesity, climate change, species extinction, overfishing, etc. (Mismatch evident in our coding structures.)

    We added legal, etiquette, and monetary cultural coding structures per the huge increase in complexity from hunter-gatherer social structures to city states.

    Think we need to do this again.

    “A technology can only be pressed so far before it runs into some limitation.” Economist Brian Arthur—“The Nature of Technology”

    Think money and god are culture apps that were important network relationship tech, augmenting cultural evolution, i.e., information processing, as code does. Think per complexity, god and money have reached their limits as culture apps. Think they are now too inaccurate, slow, and weak as info processing tech. Think they need to be retired to the museum of cultural evolution, replaced by new culture apps, new cultural coding structures.

    Naturally, may be wholly wrong.

    If you’re interested, more here:  http://postgenetic.com




  • Coolessay says:

    One of the biggest changes in modern writing is the slow decay of what are called function words. These are the articles (the and a) and particles (if, then, and well); these are the same kinds of words that get dropped in texts. If the trend continues, we should all be speaking and writing something like Twitterese in the next several hundred years. Many of my customers already do.

  • Thank you so much for the article! For me, she was very informative. in gratitude, I would like to add some useful information from myself. There exists a clear relationship between art and fashion. To begin with, fashion defines art. This is mainly because fashion cannot be designed if people do not know art. Both art and fashion describe something. They give an expression of something that already exists. Both of them have the element of scheming something.

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