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The Social Instinct

How Cooperation Shaped the World

Nichola Raihani

St. Martin's Griffin

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ISBN10: 1250262836
ISBN13: 9781250262837

Trade Paperback

304 Pages



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Cooperation is the means by which life arose in the first place. It’s how life progressed through scale and complexity, from free-floating strands of genetic material to nation states. But given what we know about evolution, cooperation is also something of a puzzle. How does cooperation begin, when on a Darwinian level, all the genes in the body care about is being passed on to the next generation? Why do meerkats care for one another’s offspring? Why do babbler birds in the Kalahari form colonies in which only a single pair breeds? And how come some reef-dwelling fish punish each other for harming fish from another species?

A biologist by training, Raihani looks at where and how collaborative behavior emerges throughout the animal kingdom, and what problems it solves. She reveals that the species that exhibit cooperative behaviour most similar to our own tend not to be other apes; they are birds, insects, and fish, occupying far more distant branches of the evolutionary tree. By understanding the problems they face, and how they cooperate to solve them, we can glimpse how human cooperation first evolved. And we can also understand what it is about the way we cooperate that makes us so distinctive–and so successful.


Praise for The Social Instinct

"Excellent and illuminating"The Wall Street Journal

"Enriching"Publisher's Weekly

“Nichola Raihani illuminates how cooperation has shaped such disparate phenomena as cancer, monogamy, menopause, hatred toward vegans, and people leaving dirty dishes in the office sink. . . [She] offers insight into how our hardwired drive to cooperate could help us meet the challenges rushing at us.”Amy Brady, Scientific American

“Raihani's rewarding analysis ranges from genetics to politics, and from the individual to the international, including the COVID-19 pandemic.”Nature

“Raihani employs social, economic, and biological theories to argue that living organisms have evolved through teamwork, and she discusses downsides of humans’ social instinct—it can lead to conspiracy theories and confirmation bias. Colorful examples . . . bring things to life. This enriching survey should have broad appeal.”Publishers Weekly

“In this captivating book, Raihani provides a compelling argument that cooperation is the secret of human success and yet has never been as crucial as it is now, during a global pandemic and with the threat of the climate crisis. I found this intriguing and beautifully written book hard to put down.”—Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, author of Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain

The Social Instinct is surprising, thoughtful and, best of all, endlessly entertaining, examining the puzzle and power of co-operation from the decks of the HMS Bounty to the babbling birds of the Kalahari. Absolutely loved it.”—Will Storr, author of The Science of Storytelling

"A phenomenally important book. The story of why we humans evolved to become such a wonderfully cooperative, social species, and what that means for the world today. Raihani will change the way you think about ourselves.”—Lewis Dartnell, author of Origins: How the Earth Shaped Human History

“Cooperation is at the heart of our bodies, our societies and our ecosystem. Raihani's stunning book flips the selfish gene on its head, showing us not only how to better understand the world, but also how to change it.”—Matthew Cobb, author of The Idea of the Brain

“This is a glorious book, with an insight on every page.”—Rory Sutherland, author of Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas that Don’t Make Sense

“A fascinating exploration of the ties that bind us from our smallest cell to our grandest society. . .”Gaia Vince, author of Transcendence: How Humans Evolved Through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time

Reviews from Goodreads


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You can live some sort of life and die without ever hearing the name of Darwin. But if, before you die, you want to understand why you lived in the first place, Darwinism is the one subject that you...

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About the author

Nichola Raihani

NICHOLA RAIHANI is a Royal Society University Research Fellow and Professor in Evolution and Behaviour at UCL, where she leads the Social Evolution and Behaviour Lab. An evolutionary biologist by training, she won the 2018 Philip Leverhulme Prize in Psychology for her research achievements, and the 2021 Humanists UK Voltaire Medal. The Social Instinct is her first book.

Jake Fairnie