Demography and ecology drive variation in cooperation across human populations

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Aug 30;108(35):14426-30. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1105186108. Epub 2011 Aug 9.


Recent studies argue that cross-cultural variation in human cooperation supports cultural group selection models of the evolution of large-scale cooperation. However, these studies confound cultural and environmental differences between populations by predominantly sampling one population per society. Here, we test the hypothesis that behavioral variation between populations is driven by environmental differences in demography and ecology. We use a public goods game played with money and a naturalistic measure of behavior involving the distribution of salt, an essential and locally valued resource, to demonstrate significant variation in levels of cooperation across 16 discrete populations of the same small-scale society, the Pahari Korwa of central India. Variation between these populations of the same cultural group is comparable to that found between different cultural groups in previous studies. Demographic factors partly explain this variation; age and a measure of social network size are associated with contributions in the public goods game, while population size and the number of adult sisters residing in the population are associated with decisions regarding salt. That behavioral variation is at least partly contingent on environmental differences between populations questions the existence of stable norms of cooperation. Hence, our findings call for reinterpretation of cross-cultural data on cooperation. Although cultural group selection could theoretically explain the evolution of large-scale cooperation, our results make clear that existing cross-cultural data cannot be taken as empirical support for this hypothesis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cooperative Behavior*
  • Cross-Cultural Comparison
  • Demography*
  • Ecology*
  • Humans
  • Social Support