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.


Preface: Our Common Humanity

When I was a boy spending the summer in Greece in July of 1974, the military dictators unexpectedly fell from power. A former prime minister, Konstantinos Karamanlis, returned from exile to Syntagma (Constitution) Square in central Athens. Enormous crowds gathered in all the avenues approaching the square, and my mother, Eleni, took me and my brother Dimitri out into the city that night. In the preceding hours, the junta had sent scores of trucks with armed men and megaphones into the streets. “People of Athens,” the soldiers blared, “this doesn’t concern you. Stay inside.”

My mother ignored the warnings. We got as close as a block from Syntagma Square, near the royal palace and the national zoo. She boosted us onto a huge stone wall topped with a wrought-iron fence that kept the animals on the other side from escaping. Dimitri and I stood with our backs pressed against the metal rails in the narrow bit of ledge that was available to us, and my mother stood below us wedged in among everyone else.

The crowd was packed body to sweaty body. When Karamanlis arrived in Athens in the middle of the night, the crowd pulsed with power. The masses began chanting slogans revealing their pent-up frustrations with years of dictatorial rule and foreign meddling: “Down with the torturers!” “Out with the Americans!”

Perhaps oddly for a man who has spent his adult life studying social phenomena, I have never liked crowds. As a child clinging to the fence, I remember feeling excited but mostly afraid. Even at age twelve, I knew that I was witnessing something unusual—certainly an event unlike anything I had ever seen—and that scared me.

The crowd grew louder and angrier. I remember not understanding why, if they were supposed to be celebrating, the people were so agitated. I looked down at my mother with complex feelings of pride and alarm because she—my beautiful, gentle mother—was getting into the spirit of things too. She was proud to be Greek and, like many of her fellow citizens, was rejoicing at the restoration of democracy. I also knew that she was intensely devoted to our education and wanted us to participate in and learn from this historic event. She was the sort of parent who took us to civil rights marches and anti-war demonstrations back in the United States and wanted us to see the world.

But I also felt fear because I could see in my mother’s eyes that she was being swept away by a powerful force. I watched uneasily as she became more animated. I worried that she might forget us up on that stone ledge or that we might get separated as the crowds shifted. Suddenly, as the anti-American epithets grew louder, she pointed up at me and my brother and shouted, “”—“ There are the Americans!”

What could possibly have possessed her to do this? I grew up on a heavy diet of Greek mythology, and I wonder if, in that moment, the story of the child-killing mother Medea might have flashed before my eyes.

To this day, I don’t know what my mother meant to accomplish by her outburst. She was a deeply sensible and loving caregiver who adopted children of diverse racial backgrounds in addition to having her own. Why would she draw reckless attention to her beloved sons’ outsider status in the midst of a volatile crowd? Did she believe that such a gesture might work to cool the ardor of an unthinking mob? I can’t ask her these questions because she died when I was twenty-five and she was forty-seven, after a long illness and a life devoted to scientific and humanitarian causes.

In the years since, I have come to understand some of the primal forces that might have motivated my mother, forces that lie at the core of my arguments in this book and that ordinarily work for the good of our societies. Natural selection has equipped us with the capacity and desire to join groups, and to do so in particular ways. For instance, we can surrender our own individuality and feel so aligned with a collective that we do things that would seem against our personal interests or that would otherwise shock us.

Nonetheless, our ability to be charitable to members of our social groups provides us with something very profound: we can see ourselves as all being part of the same group, which means that, in the extreme, we can see that we are all human beings. We can efface the tribalism of small groups and find a kindness for large groups. Knowing my mother’s values and her commitment to the common humanity shared by all people, I choose to see her statement this way: she was pleading for forbearance. Clearly, not all Americans were bad people; some were just young boys, like her beloved children.

A few years later, when I was about fifteen, I saw another volatile crowd, this time while on a trip to Crete with my socialist grandfather, who was also named Nicholas Christakis. We watched the leader of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, Andreas Papandreou, whip a vast crowd into a nationalist frenzy during an election. By then, I had seen movies of Hitler and Mussolini doing the same thing in the run-up to World War II, and I could not believe what I was witnessing. We stood way in the back of the crowd, quite safe, but still, I could feel its power. My grandfather took me aside and explained that leaders could prey on people’s sense of community and their xenophobia simultaneously. He also taught me the word demagogue. I was tremendously roused by the whole experience and can still remember the disturbing feelings of injustice that the frenzied crowd evoked.

In his classic work Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, published in 1841, Scottish journalist Charles Mackay argued that people “go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”1 People in crowds often act in thoughtless ways—shouting profanities, destroying property, throwing bricks, threatening others. This can come about partly because of a process known to psychologists as deindividuation: people begin to lose their self-awareness and sense of individual agency as they identify more strongly with the group, which often leads to antisocial behaviors they would never consider if they were acting alone. They can form a mob, cease to think for themselves, lose their moral compass, and adopt a classic us-versus-them stance that brooks no shared understanding.

Despite my mostly negative personal experience with crowds, it is clear that they can be a force for good. Even nonviolent crowds can threaten dictators and authoritarian governments—as in Greece in 1974, in China in 1989 (at Tiananmen Square), in Tunisia in 2010 (the Arab Spring), and in Zimbabwe in 2016 (the anti-Mugabe demonstrations). Crowds are especially feared by those in power when they emerge organically, without explicit organization, as they frequently do. In recent years, governments have tried to control access to the internet precisely to keep people from more easily organizing themselves.

Consider the famous organized civil rights marches in the United States, from the March on Washington in 1963 (where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech) to the march at Pettus Bridge in 1965 (where the Alabama police brutally beat African-American protesters demanding voting rights). The coalescence of concerned and aggrieved individuals into larger groups reinforces their own beliefs, but it also demonstrates to outsiders a power not available to a similar number of isolated persons acting independently.

For good or ill, forming crowds comes so naturally to our species that it is even seen as a fundamental political right. It is codified in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which notes that “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” shall not be infringed by law. The right to assemble is similarly encoded in constitutions of countries all over the world, from Bangladesh to Canada to Hungary to India.2 As with the capacity for empathy, the inclination to assemble into groups and deliberately choose friends and associates is part of our species’ universal heritage.

Mutual Understanding

As I write, the United States seems riven by polarities—right and left, urban and rural, religious and a-religious, insiders and outsiders, haves and have-nots. Analyses reveal that both political polarization and economic inequality are at century-long peaks.3 American citizens are engaged in vocal debates about their differences, about who can and should speak for whom, about the meaning and extent of personal identity, about the inexorable pull of tribal loyalties, and about whether the ideological commitment to the melting pot in the United States—and to a common identity as Americans—is feasible or even desirable.

Lines appear sharply drawn. It may therefore seem an odd time for me to advance the view that there is more that unites us than divides us and that society is basically good. Still, to me, these are timeless truths.

One of the most dispiriting questions I have encountered in my own laboratory research is whether the affinity people have for their own groups—whether those groups are defined by some attribute (nationality, ethnicity, or religion) or by a social connection (friends or teammates)—must necessarily be coupled with wariness or rejection of others. Can you love your own group without hating everyone else?

I have seen the effects of overidentifying with one’s group and witnessed mass delusions up close, and I have also studied them in my lab using experiments with thousands of people and by analyzing naturally occurring data describing the behavior of millions. The news is not all bad. Human nature contains much that is admirable, including the capacity for love, friendship, cooperation, and learning, all of which allows us to form good societies and fosters understanding among people everywhere.

I first began to think about this issue—of how humans are fundamentally similar—almost twenty-five years ago during my work as a hospice doctor. Death and grief unite us like nothing else. The universality of death and of our responses to it cannot help but impress human similarity upon any observer. I have held the hands of countless dying people from all sorts of backgrounds, and I do not think I have met a single person who didn’t share the exact same aspirations at the end of life: to make amends for mistakes, to be close to loved ones, to tell one’s story to someone who will listen, and to die free of pain.4 The desire for social connection and interpersonal understanding is so deep that it is with each of us until the end.

My vision of us as human beings, which lies at the center of this book, holds that people are, and should be, united by our common humanity. And this commonality originates in our shared evolution. It is written in our genes. Precisely for this reason, I believe we can achieve a mutual understanding among ourselves.

In highlighting this, I want to be clear that I am not saying that there are no differences among social groups. It’s obvious that some groups struggle with social, economic, or ecological burdens that other groups can only imagine. It’s not immediately obvious what modern-day hunter-gatherers in Tanzania’s Rift Valley might share with software engineers in California’s Silicon Valley. But a focus on the differences among human groups (fascinating and actual though they might be) overlooks another fundamental reality. Our preoccupation with differences is akin to focusing on variations in weather between Boston and Seattle. Yes, one will find different temperatures, amounts of precipitation and sunshine, and wind conditions in these two cities, and these can matter (possibly a lot!). Nevertheless, the same atmospheric processes and underlying physical laws hold in both of them. Moreover, weather around the world is inextricably linked. We could even say that the fundamental point of studying the planet’s diverse microclimates is not to enhance the understanding of local weather conditions but rather to have a fuller understanding of weather in general.

Therefore, I am less interested in what is different among us than in what is the same. Even though people may have varied life experiences, live in different places, and perhaps look superficially different, there are significant parts of others’ experiences that we can all understand as human beings. To deny this would mean abandoning hope for empathy and surrendering to the worst kind of alienation.

This fundamental claim about our common humanity has deep philosophical roots as well as empirical foundations. In his essay “The Culture of Liberty,” Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa notes that people who live in the same place, speak the same language, and practice the same religion obviously have much in common. But he points out that these collective traits do not fully define each individual. Seeing people only as members of groups is, he says, “inherently reductionist and dehumanizing, a collectivist and ideological abstraction of all that is original and creative in the human being, of all that has not been imposed by inheritance, geography, or social pressure.” Real, personal identity, he argues, “springs from the capacity of human beings to resist these influences and counter them with free acts of their own invention.”5

True enough. But the exercise of individual freedom and the focus on our individuality is just one way to efface tribalism. We can also broaden our perspective to the level of our universal heritage. As human beings, we have a shared inheritance, shaped by natural selection, regarding how to live with one another. This inheritance gives us a mechanism to abandon a dehumanizing perspective that privileges difference.

Think of how exposure to a foreign culture can be both a bracing and a reassuring experience. What starts as a heightened sensitivity to differences in attire, smells, appearances, customs, rules, norms, and laws yields to the recognition that we are similar to our fellow human beings in numerous fundamental ways. All people find meaning in the world, love their families, enjoy the company of friends, teach one another things of value, and work together in groups. In my view, recognizing this common humanity makes it possible for all of us to lead grander and more virtuous lives.

Ironically, many people come to this realization during war, which is the starkest manifestation of between-group animosity. There is a poignant demonstration of this in Band of Brothers, a 2001 television series based on the experiences of Easy Company in the 101st Airborne Division during World War II. One of the real-life soldiers, Darrell “Shifty” Powers, speaking late in his life in documentary footage that accompanied the show, made the following observation about a German soldier: “We might have had a lot in common. He might’ve liked to fish, you know, he might’ve liked to hunt. Of course, they were doing what they were supposed to do, and I was doing what I was supposed to do. But under different circumstances, we might have been good friends.”6 Not just friends but good friends. In a 2017 documentary about another war—a series called The Vietnam War, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick—a Vietcong veteran named Le Cong Huan came to a similar realization. As a young soldier, he looked through the trees at the Americans after a bloody battle, and he had the sudden sense of our shared humanity: “I witnessed Americans dying. Even though I didn’t know their language, I saw them crying and holding each other. When one was killed, the others stuck together. They carried away the body, and they wept. I witnessed such scenes and thought, ‘Americans, like us Vietnamese, also have a profound sense of humanity.’ They cared about each other. It made me think a lot.”7

A Blueprint for a Good Society

Where does this cross-cultural similarity come from? How can people be so different from—even go to war with—one another and yet also be so similar? The fundamental reason is that we each carry within us an evolutionary blueprint for making a good society.

Genes do amazing things inside our bodies, but even more amazing to me is what they do outside of them. Genes affect not only the structure and function of our bodies; not only the structure and function of our minds and, hence, our behaviors; but also the structure and function of our societies. This is what we recognize when we look at people around the world. This is the source of our common humanity.

Natural selection has shaped our lives as social animals, guiding the evolution of what I call a “social suite” of features priming our capacity for love, friendship, cooperation, learning, and even our ability to recognize the uniqueness of other individuals. Despite all the trappings and artifacts of modern invention—our tools, agriculture, cities, nations—we carry within us innate proclivities that reflect our natural social state, a state that is, as it turns out, primarily good, practically and even morally. Humans can no more make a society that is inconsistent with these positive urges than ants can suddenly make beehives.

I believe that we come to this sort of goodness just as naturally as we come to our bloodier inclinations. We cannot help it. We feel great when we help others. Our good deeds are not just the products of Enlightenment values. They have a deeper and prehistoric origin.

The ancient tendencies that form the social suite work together to bind communities, specify their boundaries, identify their members, and allow people to achieve individual and collective objectives while at the same time minimizing hatred and violence. For too long, in my opinion, the scientific community has been overly focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for tribalism, violence, selfishness, and cruelty. The bright side has been denied the attention it deserves.


The Society Within Us

After World War II, when my mother, an ethnic Greek raised in Istanbul, was a little girl, she spent her summers on the island of Buyukada, a short ferry ride from the coast. Many years later, in 1970, she took her children to visit. The Greeks had always called the island Prinkipos (the Princes’ Island) and resented its Turkish name. The place had changed little since Leon Trotsky went into exile there in 1929. Then, as now, it did not allow motorized transport, and people got around on foot, on donkeys, or in horse-drawn carriages that slipped on the cobblestones. In 1970, it had been two decades since my mother had been there because she and her parents, like other minorities, had been driven out of Turkey in the 1950s during a period of substantial interethnic strife.

My younger brother, Dimitri, and I were only eight and six, and although we could speak Greek, we could not speak Turkish. Still, we ventured out and found a dozen boys with whom to play. In the pine-covered hills behind my grandfather’s abandoned time capsule of a house, with its wood-fired water heater and blistered green shutters, we boys initially organized ourselves into a large group, working together to explore the terrain and communicating, via pantomime, the urgent necessity of accumulating large piles of pinecones. Eventually—inevitably—we decided to split into two teams and engage in combat, lobbing cones at each other and attempting to steal them via furtive raids. A simple market economy emerged in parallel with the brigandage: small green cones that were easier to throw were exchanged for enormous beautiful cones with brittle, exploding petals that we imagined were grenades. Since our ordnance was not destroyed upon being fired, each attack fueled the opponents’ supply of weapons. The games—with their petty warfare, barter economy, group solidarity, and occasional cheating—lasted hours.

The Turkish boys were different from my brother and me in some ways, of course. They had shorter haircuts and wore vests. They threw their pinecones sideways from the hip rather than overhand across the shoulder, as we did. And they knew the terrain better. But these differences seemed minor and were easily ignored. The social play in which we engaged was wordlessly comprehended by all. Separated by a significant cultural and linguistic distance, we were able to jointly create a little social order with familiar features that we all enjoyed.

One purpose of play is for children to ape adult behaviors and practice grown-up roles. But play is not just about children being taught, explicitly or implicitly, to act like adults. In many forager societies, adults leave children to play by themselves, and they are often only vaguely aware of what their children are up to. Play arises spontaneously, without any guidance. And play like this—a purely voluntary, intrinsically motivated, and eminently enjoyable experience—very often involves the “experiments in social living” that my Turkish friends and I pursued on the island.1

Here is one anthropologist’s description of a long-term playgroup consisting of thirteen children in Ua Pou in the Marquesas Islands. The children, who ranged in age from two to five years old, were observed every day for several months playing for prolonged periods without adult supervision in an area near the beach (a spot with “strong surf” and “sharp lava-rock walls” as well as “machetes, axes, and matches” nearby for good measure). They “organized activities, settled disputes, avoided danger, dealt with injuries, distributed goods, and negotiated contact with passing others—without adult intervention.”2 A more systematic set of landmark longitudinal studies of play in places around the world (Nyansongo, Kenya; Khalapur, India; Juxtlahuaca, Mexico; Tarong, Philippines; Taira, Japan; and “Orchard Town,” a pseudonym for a town in New England), spearheaded by anthropologists Beatrice and John Whiting and their colleagues from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, concluded that, while there was much notable variation by gender, age, and culture in children’s typical companions, activities, toys, and venues for play, children’s social behavior and interaction styles while playing were always extremely similar.3

Societies themselves might even be seen as just scaled-up versions of such children’s games. In Homo Ludens, the classic 1938 book about humans and play, social historian Johan Huizinga goes so far as to argue that “human civilization has added no essential feature to the general idea of play.”4 Children’s behavior often involves innately making a kind of miniature and temporary society. From an early age, humans cannot help themselves.

Child’s Play

Looking back more than forty years later, I can see that the games my brother and I played with the Turkish boys involved a high degree of social organization with features I have since come to recognize by technical terms: in-group favoritism, trade complementarity, social hierarchy, collective cooperation, network topology, social learning, and evolved morality.

I have my own laboratory now, but I am still playing with and thinking about these sorts of things. My group has devised specialized software to recruit thousands of adults from around the world and then to track their behavior as they participate in miniature societies that we create online. I manipulate the social interactions in these societies—for instance, randomly assigning people to be rich or poor or surreptitiously dropping in programmable robotic agents who pretend to be real people to see what mischief they cause—in order to peer more deeply into the origins of human social living and to understand where cooperation, cohesion, hierarchy, and friendship come from. My group also explores the evolutionary biology of these phenomena, searching for the ancient origins of social life even as we concoct thoroughly modern examples.

One of the more dispiriting phenomena that we have observed is the in-group favoritism mentioned above—that is, people’s preferences for their own groups. It’s that warm feeling of belonging to a team that I experienced on Buyukada. In-group favoritism is seen even in preschool children, and many researchers have explored whether this preference is innate. In one experiment, five-year-old children were given T-shirts of different colors (red, blue, green, orange) and then shown pictures of other children wearing T-shirts of the same or different color as their own. The children understood that their shirt colors were randomly assigned. And there was indeed no specific difference among the children in the photographs other than their shirt colors. Still, the children preferred the kids wearing the same T-shirt color; they allocated more of a scarce resource (toy coins) to them; and they reported more positive thoughts about them.5 They also felt that the kids in their shirt-color group would be more likely to be kind and share toys. And they were better able to remember and recall positive actions of their in-group, encoding favorable information describing those of their own type. All this arose simply because of randomly assigned T-shirt colors. Other studies of in-group bias at even younger ages, at three or five months, further support its innateness.6

But this is not the only socially relevant sensibility that we are born with. Humans also appear to have a rudimentary moral sense from birth. And, like the construction of the whole of Euclidean geometry from its few axioms, our inborn moral principles provide a foundation for social behavior that is only later shaped by experience and education.

For instance, psychologist Paul Bloom and his colleagues have documented sensitivity to fairness and reciprocity—which are crucial for cooperation—in babies as young as three months old, using a variety of ingenious experiments.7 In one experiment, three-month-old babies were shown a blue square “helping” a red circle up a hill and a yellow triangle pushing the circle down. The babies reliably chose the blue square when given a choice (colors and shapes were varied to be sure that those features were not driving the preferences).8 In other experiments, babies could tell the difference between puppets who helped or hindered actions attempted by other puppets. Babies preferred the good guys, and they disliked the jerks. Still other experiments involving puppets showed that thirteen-month-old babies have a “theory of mind,” meaning that they have an understanding of the mental states (knowledge, beliefs, intentions) of others, which is obviously crucial for moral reasoning and helpful for social life.9 In another set of experiments, toddlers spontaneously and without any prompting helped adults who were pretending to struggle with opening a cabinet.10 In short, at a very young age, humans appear pre-wired (in the sense of having a strong, innate proclivity) to interact in positive ways, with insight into the intentions of others and with a tendency to care about being fair. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that, although details vary from place to place, every society values kindness and cooperation, defines acts of cruelty, and categorizes people as either virtuous or nasty.

Why are humans this way? Why, even from birth, do we manifest such consistent, socially relevant behaviors? Where do the social principles that guide children’s play and shape adult lives come from? And how do humans in every society come to create a similar kind of social order with important and familiar features that are universally regarded as good?

Cultural Universals


  • "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 26, 2019
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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