The Evolutionary Origins of the Modern World


‘Insightful and breathtaking.’ Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens
‘Bold and sweeping.’ Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads
‘Profoundly thought-provoking.’ Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics

How our evolved psychology has shaped the past, present and future of humanity.

Each of us is endowed with an inheritance. A set of ancient biases, forged through countless millennia of natural and cultural selection, which shape every facet of our behaviour.

For generations, this inheritance has taken us to ever greater heights, driving the rise of more sophisticated technologies, more organized religions, more expansive empires. But now, for the first time, it is failing us. We find ourselves careering towards a future of unprecedented political polarization, deadlier wars, and environmental destruction.

In Inheritance, renowned anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse offers a sweeping account of how our evolved biases have shaped humanity’s past and imperil its future. Unveiling a pioneering new way of viewing our collective history – one that weaves together psychological experiments, on-the-ground fieldwork, and big data – Whitehouse introduces three biases that shape human behaviour everywhere: conformism, religiosity, and tribalism.

These biases have catalysed the greatest transformations in human history, from the birth of agriculture and arrival of the first kings to the rise and fall of human sacrifice and creation of multiethnic empires. Yet today, they are driving us to ruin. Taking us deep into New Guinea tribes, Libyan militias, and predatory ad agencies, Whitehouse shows how the tools we once used to manage our biases are breaking down, with devastating implications for us all.

By uncovering how human nature has shaped our collective history, Inheritance reveals a surprising new path to solving our most urgent problems. The result is a powerful reappraisal of the human journey; one that transforms our understanding of who we are, and who we could be.


‘A profoundly important book, of breathtaking scope . . . Full of deep insights into human nature, this is a work of compelling conviction by a master in the field.’ Lewis Dartnell, author of Origins

If you spend a lot of time thinking the world seems to have gone mad, bad and dangerous, this thoughtful and thought-provoking book won't just help you work out why that might be – it will also help you see a better path forward.’ Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Channel 4 News presenter

A very powerful, provocative and inspiring analysis of the human condition . . . Compelling and highly readable, this book shows why anthropology matters.’ Gillian Tett, Financial Times columnist and Provost of King's College, Cambridge

Remarkably readable . . . A powerful argument that the behaviour change we need is more likely to occur if we make use of our evolved human nature, rather than seek to transcend it.’ Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation


  • A bold and sweeping analysis that ranges widely through time, across geographies and through different kinds of human societies. A book of rare ambition and scope.
    PETER FRANKOPAN, author of The Silk Roads

About the author

Harvey Whitehouse

Professor Harvey Whitehouse is Chair of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford and Director of the Centre for the Study of Social Cohesion.

One of the world’s leading experts on the evolutionary basis of human culture, Whitehouse has spent four decades studying some of the most extreme groups on earth: from the battlefields of the Arab Spring, via millenarian cults on Pacific islands, to violent football fans in South America. Along the way, he has undertaken research at some of the world’s most important archaeological sites, brain-scanning facilities, and child psychology labs – all with a view to pioneering a new, scientific approach to the study of human society.

Whitehouse’s work has featured in the Telegraph, Guardian, Scientific American and New Scientist, and he has delivered talks at the World Economic Forum and the United Nations. He lives in Oxford.
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