Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society

Review by Bill Gates

In his terrific book Blueprint, Christakis explains that humans have evolved to work together and be social. Although this instinct originally developed because it made us more likely to live longer, our need to form groups has had a huge impact on human history.

Early in the book, Christakis says, “The human ability to construct societies has become an instinct. It is not just something we can do—it is something we must do.” He believes that this instinct has led to eight common traits that—with very few exceptions—you can find in every society on earth. These eight traits form what he calls the “social suite”:

  1. Individual identity

  2. Love for partners and children

  3. Friendship

  4. Social networks

  5. Cooperation

  6. Preference for your own group

  7. Some form of hierarchy

  8. Social learning and teaching

Most of the book is devoted to explaining how each of these traits is found in seemingly disparate peoples, from the Roman Empire to the Turkana people of Kenya. Our world has gone from being small groups of hunter-gatherers that were closely related to the modern world where you can live in a city with millions of other people. The fact that the social suite has remained constant despite those changes is amazing.

But the social suite alone is only part of the story. If you want to explain human behavior, there’s a lot going on. You’ve got the genetics you were born with. You’ve got hormones running through the body. You’ve got your childhood and how that shaped you. And you’ve got learned behaviors—the understanding of what’s allowed and what’s not allowed that is passed to you through societal norms.

Blueprint focuses mostly on the last part. If you want a more complete picture, I recommend the book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky. My older daughter suggested I read it (Sapolsky was one of her favorite professors in college), because it’s a super in-depth look at why humans act the way they do. He’s giving you a framework down to the biological and hormonal level, while Christakis focuses more on person-to-person interactions.

Behave is really long, though—nearly 700 pages!—and the incredible level of detail isn’t for everyone. It almost feels like a very well-written textbook. Blueprint is a lot more accessible for a general audience. I recommend starting with Christakis and then, if your interest in the subject is piqued, moving onto Sapolsky.

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