The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society


By Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD

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“A dazzlingly erudite synthesis of history, philosophy, anthropology, genetics, sociology, economics, epidemiology, statistics, and more” (Frank Bruni, The New York Times), Blueprint shows why evolution has placed us on a humane path — and how we are united by our common humanity.

For too long, scientists have focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for aggression, cruelty, prejudice, and self-interest. But natural selection has given us a suite of beneficial social features, including our capacity for love, friendship, cooperation, and learning. Beneath all of our inventions — our tools, farms, machines, cities, nations — we carry with us innate proclivities to make a good society.

In Blueprint, Nicholas A. Christakis introduces the compelling idea that our genes affect not only our bodies and behaviors, but also the ways in which we make societies, ones that are surprisingly similar worldwide.

With many vivid examples — including diverse historical and contemporary cultures, communities formed in the wake of shipwrecks, commune dwellers seeking utopia, online groups thrown together by design or involving artificially intelligent bots, and even the tender and complex social arrangements of elephants and dolphins that so resemble our own — Christakis shows that, despite a human history replete with violence, we cannot escape our social blueprint for goodness.

In a world of increasing political and economic polarization, it’s tempting to ignore the positive role of our evolutionary past. But by exploring the ancient roots of goodness in civilization, Blueprint shows that our genes have shaped societies for our welfare and that, in a feedback loop stretching back many thousands of years, societies are still shaping our genes today.

  • "Mr. Christakis's deep optimism (and considerable evidence) about the arc of human society bending towards good is uplifting. Along the way he delves fascinatingly into human cultures and customs, exploring, for instance, why monogamy and marriage have become so common (though not universal), and what friendship really means, from an evolutionary perspective."
    The Economist
  • "A dazzlingly erudite synthesis of history, philosophy, anthropology, genetics, sociology, economics, epidemiology, statistics and more. It uses everything from shipwrecks to the primatologist Jane Goodall to make its pro-kindness case, and it inadvertently shames you into realizing that while most of us, standing at the buffet of knowledge, content ourselves with a pork chop and rice pudding, Christakis pillages the carving station and the omelet station and the soup array and the make-your-own-sundae bar."
    Frank Bruni, New York Times
  • "An encouraging, detailed and persuasive antidote to misanthropy"
    The Wall Street Journal
  • "The diversity of our cultures and personal identities masks the fact that we are one. In this brilliant, beautiful, and sweeping book, Christakis shows how eight universal human tendencies have bound us together, and given us dominion over our planet, our lives, and our common fate. A masterful achievement that is surely the best and most original science book of the year."
    Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness
  • "Nicholas Christakis is a pioneer in bridging the conceptual chasm between the choices of individual people and the shaping of an entire society. In this timely and fascinating book, he shows how the better angels of our nature, rooted in our evolutionary past, can bring forth an enlightened and compassionate civilization."
    Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now
  • "In a book of great wisdom and unusual breadth, Christakis pulls together philosophy, history, anthropology, sociology, genetics, and evolutionary biology to make an extraordinarily optimistic argument: evolution has pre-wired us for goodness. At a moment when the dark history of the early twentieth century suddenly seems relevant again, it's a relief to be reminded of why so many efforts to re-engineer human society have failed -- and of why the better side of human nature often triumphs in the end."
    Anne Applebaum, author of the Pulitzer prize-winning Gulag: A History
  • "In this wisely optimistic book, Christakis explores the evolutionary imperative of forming bonds that are both cultural and genetic. His writing is colorful, personal, and often exuberant."
    Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree
  • "Christakis brings to general readers his most famous theory: the genetic profile of both humans and animals dictates the types of societies that they create. Using a plethora of accessible examples that range from the social behavior of dolphins and chimpanzees to the tenets that link human behavior in a myriad of settings, from reality shows to arranged marriages, along with a generous look into the author's own past, Christakis reminds us that leadership, friendship, and group tendencies are all rooted in the most fundamental mechanism of our biological sorting: natural selection. A must-read for anyone interested in how we find ourselves wholly divided into political, religious, and workplace silos, and where these separations may lead us."
    Hope Jahren, author of Lab Girl
  • "A remarkable achievement! Christakis explains, in the most lucid and accessible way imaginable, how our genetic and cultural heritages are deeply intertwined. The story of human nature is no fairy tale, but it nevertheless reveals our potential, and our proclivity, for good."
    Angela Duckworth, author of Grit
  • "In this brilliant and humane book, Christakis defends an optimistic view of humanity. Human nature is not solitary and brutish -- we are social beings, capable of intimate ties and great kindness, blessed with extraordinary potential. Blueprint is clear, persuasive, and vitally important."
    Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy
  • "Christakis has found that all human cultures converge on a consistent style of social network, and in Blueprint he explores the reasons why. The answer, he boldly argues, lies in our genes. Digging widely, Christakis shows that a gene-based account does not have to challenge the impact of culture, nor does it commit the analysis to reductionism or determinism. Blueprint stakes a powerful claim for a richer incorporation of biology into the social sciences."
    Richard Wrangham, author of Catching Fire
  • With Blueprint, a thoughtful discourse on our genetic disposition toward community, Nicholas Christakis offers a compelling argument, replete with engaging stories, against the reductive notions of so many late-stage capitalists and libertarians. We are wired for a society, for cooperation, for engagement, for collective action. Darwin still applies: the survival of the fittest may mean the survival of those among us who can see beyond themselves and work with others doing the same. And therein lies some real cause for optimism."
    David Simon, writer and producer of The Wire and The Deuce
  • "In Blueprint, Christakis shows that goodness has a biological purpose. More than an ideal pushed upon us by moral and religious leaders, goodness is a survival tactic demanded by our very genes. Christakis's argument about our common humanity, made in such a powerful and vivid fashion, is an important one for these unstable times. He shows that kindness and love are not merely things we can do -- but things we must do."
    Brandon Stanton, founder of Humans of New York
  • "Tribalism is all around us, but it does not have to be. After all, we are all human. In lively and engaging prose, Christakis shows what is possible, and what we must do."
    Eric Schmidt, former chairman of Google
  • "Mixing brilliant insights with vivid and memorable storytelling, Blueprint is both deeply scholarly and, at the same time, a genuine pleasure read."
    Greg Lukianoff, author of The Coddling of the American Mind
  • "Come for the gripping stories about shipwrecks, communes, and Antarctic outposts. Stay for the sociology of networks. As social connectivity and the pace of change both increase in the 21st century, Christakis is the essential guide, and this is the essential book. A joy to read, and a warning about the challenges of creating new societies and institutions within which real human beings can flourish."
    Jonathan Haidt, coauthor of The Coddling of the American Mind
  • "A magnificent achievement. If you think you understand human nature, think again; Christakis will open your eyes and make you gasp. A special bonus: His book is inspiring and deeply optimistic. The perfect book for our time."
    Cass R. Sunstein, coauthor of Nudge
  • "As an historian, I probably tend to overemphasize the darker side of human nature -- our remarkable capacity as a species for generating war and revolution, manias, and panics. As a physician and a social scientist, Christakis is here to tell me to lighten up. 'There is more that unites us than divides us,' he argues in this deeply erudite and engaging book, 'and society is basically good.' If, like me, you respond to that claim with skepticism, you have a treat in store. Christakis will change your view of the naked ape."
    Niall Ferguson, author of The Square and the Tower
  • "We live in a time rife with 'us' versus 'them' divisions based on class, religion, ethnicity, and politics. But in this majestic, important, and enjoyable book, Christakis rightfully reminds us that we also evolved to live together, cooperate, and thrive in complex, diverse social groups. Now more than ever we need to understand and tap into these deep and fundamental adaptations that help us live and work side by side, value each other, and pursue common cause."
    Daniel E. Lieberman, author of The Story of the Human Body
  • "In the media and online, we live with a daily barrage of the things that divide us -- the differences among individuals, groups, and whole societies seem to define the ways we interact with one another. With a broad sweep of history and a deep knowledge of genetics and social science, Christakis takes us along a different path, one that is as important as it is timely. Whether in hunter-gatherer societies, small bands of people brought together by chance, or Silicon Valley corporations, our societies are linked by the common bonds of humanity. In Blueprint, Christakis shows how we are much more than divisiveness and division; we are programmed to build and thrive in societies based on cooperation, learning, and love."
    Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish
  • "Christakis takes us on a spellbinding tour of how evolution brings people together, setting the stage for our modern world where online networks connect people in new and unprecedented ways. Our genes don't work in isolation; rather they equip our species with the capacity to join together and make great things. This powerful and fascinating book shows the fundamental good that lies within us, that connects us, and that helps us cooperate beyond the survival of the fittest."
    Marc Andreessen, co-founder and general partner of Andreessen Horowitz
  • "In this provocative book, Christakis makes a thorough and compelling case that we are hardwired to value goodness in our societies -- and thus innately compelled to participate in building, strengthening, and enhancing the common good. In an era marked by polarization and rising inequality, Christakis marshals science and history into a message of hope."
    Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab
  • "Blueprint is a brilliant and provocative tour de force that could not be more timely. I don't think I've learned this much from a book in a long time. Christakis is the rare author who can combine rigor and erudition with page-turning readability. Filled with fascinating studies, including experiments from his own lab, Blueprint ultimately offers reason for hope grounded in science for our difficult times."
    Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
  • "In an era when borders close and the perceived differences among us drive the public narrative, Christakis travels across societies and continents to remind us that we share much more than what keeps us apart. Blueprint unveils the communities and the social networks that define our successes and failures, and it celebrates the universality of human experience. A powerful and gripping book."
    Albert-László Barabási, author of The Formula
  • "At a time when it seems that nothing can unite us, Christakis cuts through our divisions to reveal a rich and poignant look at our shared human nature. Christakis's trademark passion and broad scholarship are full-throttle as he lays out the ancient recipe for our shared humanity. Compelling, absorbing, and chock-full of delightful examples of what humans can do when they band together, Blueprint is a must-read."
    Coren Apicella, University of Pennsylvania
  • "A blueprint for constructing a good society arrives when we most need it. Christakis has outrageous optimism, rooted firmly in biological and social science, that we will prevail. With a voice that is joyous and uplifting, he teaches us about the core of our nature -- this obligatory patterning of ourselves into units called society, with the building blocks being love, friendship, cooperation, and learning. What an enlightened house this blueprint will build if we, the occupants, heed his message about the possibilities that lie within us."
    Mahzarin R. Banaji, author of Blindspot
  • "One of the world's leading social scientists is on the hunt for the biological bounds of human culture, for what we are capable of as a species, and for society's generic tendencies. In this eloquent, wide-ranging book Christakis finds what turns out to be the good news about what it means to be human."
    Gary King, Harvard University
  • "Blueprint is a timely, powerful, and riveting demonstration of the inherent suite of sensibilities that drive our social life and cultural evolution. An authoritative integration of the social and evolutionary sciences, this engrossing work's great achievement is to definitively shift the focus of social inquiry from what differentiates us to our common humanity, and to show that, while we may be primed for conflict, we are also hard wired for love, friendship, and cooperation, inviting us, should we choose, toward a humane society."
    Orlando Patterson, author of The Cultural Matrix
  • Blueprint is highly original and engrossing. Christakis is a fluent and lucid writer with an arresting personal voice. At the heart of the book is what he describes as 'the social suite' -- a set of cultural universals that constitute the core and the blueprint of all societies. Integral to the universality of the social suite is his contention that these key features of all human societies are shaped by natural selection and encoded in our genes. Christakis calls into question a false dichotomy between cultural and genetic evolution. Rather, he regards the two as co-existing in ways that recurrently intersect and influence one another. He shows that the similarities that exist between the social attributes of human and animal societies bind humans together in a way that heightens our common humanity. Blueprint is a richly interdisciplinary, deeply documented, brilliant opus on how our long evolutionary history bends toward a good society."
    Renée C. Fox, University of Pennsylvania
  • "Blueprint is an exciting volume that constitutes a major scientific contribution of broad interest. It is a fascinating account of how genes and culture interact and how this knowledge provides the foundations for establishing a Good Society."
    Ernst Fehr, University of Zurich
  • "Blueprint is an extraordinarily readable and entertaining book that is also one of the most profound among recently published books on evolution. It brings to bear a long history of research to show that cooperation and pro-social traits of humans are genetically based and are the result of evolution by natural selection. By doing this, Christakis corrects one the most frequent misperceptions about biological evolution, namely that inter-individual competition is a law of nature. I only wish this book would have been published decades earlier."
    Gunter Wagner, Yale University
  • "Nicholas Christakis zooms out, Yuval Noah Harari style, to look at how evolution shapes civilizations. Remarkably broad, deep, and provocative."
    Adam Grant, author of Originals
  • "As he explores human nature and its possibilities, the author touches on all sorts of fascinating anthropological matters, such as the evolution of monogamy and the relative friendliness of affluent vs. working-class people. A refreshingly optimistic view of our kind."
    Kirkus Reviews

On Sale
Mar 10, 2020
Page Count
544 pages
Little Brown Spark

Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD

About the Author

Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, is a professor at Yale University where he is the Sol Goldman Family Professor of Social and Natural Science, in the Departments of Sociology, Medicine, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Statistics and Data Science, and Biomedical Engineering.  Previously, he was a professor at Harvard and the University of Chicago.  He was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2006 and was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2009.  He is the Director of the Human Nature Lab, the Co-Director of the Yale Institute for Network Science, the co-author of Connected, and the author of Blueprint.  His pathbreaking research has appeared on the front pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, and other venues.

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