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Harvey Whitehouse



The Evolutionary Origins of the Modern World


The ancient inheritance that made us who we are. The ancient inheritance that is now driving us to ruin.

Every human being is endowed with an inheritance: a set of ancient biases – forged by natural selection and transformed by cultural evolution – that shape every facet of our behaviour.

For countless generations, this inheritance has been taking us to ever greater heights: driving the rise of more sophisticated technologies, more organised religions, more expansive empires. But now, for the first time, it is failing us. Suddenly, we find ourselves on a path to destruction.

Here, a leading anthropologist offers a sweeping account of how our inheritance has shaped humanity’s past and future. Unveiling a pioneering new way of viewing our collective history – one that weaves together psychological experiments, on-the-ground fieldwork, and big data – Harvey Whitehouse introduces three evolved biases that shape human behaviour everywhere: conformism, religiosity, and tribalism. He recounts how our tools for managing these biases have catalysed the greatest transformations in human history: the birth of agriculture and the arrival of the first kings, the rise and fall of human sacrifice and the creation of the first crusading empires. And he takes readers deep into modern-day tribes – from Indonesian terrorist cells to Libyan militias to American ad agencies– that show how our three biases are now spiralling out of control.

Above all, he argues that only by understanding our inheritance can we solve our thorniest modern problems, whether violent extremism, political polarization, or environmental catastrophe. The result is a powerful new perspective on the human journey; one that transforms our understanding of where we have been and where we are going.