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Agriculture as a major evolutionary transition to human ultrasociality


  • John Gowdy


  • Lisi Krall



The adoption of agriculture was one of the most momentous transformations in human history. It set into motion forces that changed our species from living in small numbers within the confines of local ecosystems into one that is now changing the biophysical characteristics of the entire planet. We argue that this transformation can be understood as a leap to ultrasociality—a type of social organization rare in nature but wildly successful when it occurs. Several species of ants and termites made a similar leap in social organization and the broad characteristics of their societies are remarkably similar to post hunter-gatherer human societies. Ultrasocial species dominate the ecosystems they occupy in terms of sheer numbers and the scale of ecosystem exploitation. We argue that the drivers for the ultrasocial transition to agriculture are economic. These societies operate as superorganisms exhibiting an unparalleled degree of division of labor and an economic organization centered around surplus production. We suggest that the origin of human and insect agriculture is an example of parallel evolution driven by similar forces of multi-level selection. Only with the evolution of expansionist agriculturalist societies did humans join ants and termites in the social domination of Earth. Viewing agriculture as an ultrasocial transition offers insights not only about the origins of agriculture and its consequences, but also about the forces shaping the current demographic transition and the modern global socio-economic system. Copyright Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Suggested Citation

  • John Gowdy & Lisi Krall, 2014. "Agriculture as a major evolutionary transition to human ultrasociality," Journal of Bioeconomics, Springer, vol. 16(2), pages 179-202, July.
  • Handle: RePEc:kap:jbioec:v:16:y:2014:i:2:p:179-202
    DOI: 10.1007/s10818-013-9156-6

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Boyd, Robert & Richerson, Peter J., 1980. "Sociobiology, culture and economic theory," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 1(2), pages 97-121, June.
    2. Witt, Ulrich & Schwesinger, Georg, 2013. "Phylogenetic footprints in organizational behavior," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 90(S), pages 33-44.
    3. Gowdy, John M. & Dollimore, Denise E. & Wilson, David Sloan & Witt, Ulrich, 2013. "Economic cosmology and the evolutionary challenge," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 90(S), pages 11-20.
    4. Gowdy, John M. & McDaniel, Carl N., 1995. "One world, one experiment: addressing the biodiversity--economics conflict," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 15(3), pages 181-192, December.
    5. Gowdy, John & Iorgulescu, Raluca & Onyeiwu, Stephen, 2003. "Fairness and retaliation in a rural Nigerian village," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 52(4), pages 469-479, December.
    6. Wilson, David Sloan & Ostrom, Elinor & Cox, Michael E., 2013. "Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 90(S), pages 21-32.
    7. van den Bergh, Jeroen C.J.M. & Gowdy, John M., 2009. "A group selection perspective on economic behavior, institutions and organizations," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 72(1), pages 1-20, October.
    8. Hirshleifer, Jack, 1977. "Economics from a Biological Viewpoint," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 20(1), pages 1-52, April.
    9. Wilson, David Sloan & Gowdy, John M., 2013. "Evolution as a general theoretical framework for economics and public policy," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 90(S), pages 3-10.
    10. Witt, Ulrich, 2005. "'Production' in nature and production in the economy--second thoughts about some basic economic concepts," Structural Change and Economic Dynamics, Elsevier, vol. 16(2), pages 165-179, June.
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    Cited by:

    1. David Wilson & John Gowdy, 2015. "Human ultrasociality and the invisible hand: foundational developments in evolutionary science alter a foundational concept in economics," Journal of Bioeconomics, Springer, vol. 17(1), pages 37-52, April.
    2. repec:taf:oaefxx:v:4:y:2016:i:1:p:1161322 is not listed on IDEAS
    3. Tisdell, Clem & Svizzero, Serge, 2016. "Different Behavioral Explanations of the Neolithic Transition from Foraging to Agriculture: A Review," Economic Theory, Applications and Issues Working Papers 229769, University of Queensland, School of Economics.
    4. Makowsky, Michael D. & Smaldino, Paul E., 2016. "The evolution of power and the divergence of cooperative norms," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 126(PA), pages 75-88.

    More about this item


    Bioeconomics; Division of labor; Economies of scale; Evolutionary economics; Neolithic demographic transition ; Origin of agriculture; Ultrasociality; B52; N5; Q1; Q5;

    JEL classification:

    • B52 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - Current Heterodox Approaches - - - Historical; Institutional; Evolutionary
    • N5 - Economic History - - Agriculture, Natural Resources, Environment and Extractive Industries
    • Q1 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Agriculture
    • Q5 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics


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