Research Output

The co-evolution of social institutions, demography, and large-scale human cooperation

  Human cooperation is typically coordinated by institutions, which determine the outcome structure of the social interactions individuals engage in. Explaining the Neolithic transition from small‐ to large‐scale societies involves understanding how these institutions co‐evolve with demography. We study this using a demographically explicit model of institution formation in a patch‐structured population. Each patch supports both social and asocial niches. Social individuals create an institution, at a cost to themselves, by negotiating how much of the costly public good provided by cooperators is invested into sanctioning defectors. The remainder of their public good is invested in technology that increases carrying capacity, such as irrigation systems. We show that social individuals can invade a population of asocials, and form institutions that support high levels of cooperation. We then demonstrate conditions where the co‐evolution of cooperation, institutions, and demographic carrying capacity creates a transition from small‐ to large‐scale social groups.

  • Type:


  • Date:

    10 September 2013

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  • Publisher


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  • Library of Congress:

    HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare

  • Dewey Decimal Classification:

    306 Culture & institutions

  • Funders:

    Historic Funder (pre-Worktribe)


Powers, S. T., & Lehmann, L. (2013). The co-evolution of social institutions, demography, and large-scale human cooperation. Ecology Letters, 16(11), 1356-1364.



Agriculture, cooperation, institutions, irrigation, large‐scale societies, Neolithic Demographic Transition, punishment, tragedy of the commons,

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