PerspectiveAnthropology

The Deep Social Structure of Humankind

Science  11 Mar 2011:
Vol. 331, Issue 6022, pp. 1276-1277
DOI: 10.1126/science.1203281

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Summary

Despite the variability of chimpanzee groups, it is possible to identify some common features that characterize a unique “chimpanzee society.” The same is possible with other social species except, apparently, our own. Given the extreme diversity of human societies, defining a common denominator—or “deep structure” (1)—has appeared unrealistic. The problem lies in cumulative cultural evolution. Culture has generated so many elaborations of that deep structure that, now, it is hardly discernible, as if heavily embellished versions of the same alphabet letter now mask the letter itself. Two sources of data, however, can help circumvent this problem: comparing hunter-gatherer societies, which are the most informative groups for understanding the social evolution of humans; and comparing human hunter-gatherer societies to nonhuman primate societies. Together, these analyses enable us to identify the unique attributes of human society. Hill et al. (2) nicely illustrate this process on page 1286 of this issue by providing quantitative data on the social structure of hunter-gatherers that support a model of humankind's deep social structure that was derived from a comparison with primate societies (1).