Skip to main content

Unit information: How Societies Evolve in 2019/20

Please note: Due to alternative arrangements for teaching and assessment in place from 18 March 2020 to mitigate against the restrictions in place due to COVID-19, information shown for 2019/20 may not always be accurate.

Please note: you are viewing unit and programme information for a past academic year. Please see the current academic year for up to date information.

Unit name How Societies Evolve
Unit code ARCH20064
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Kit Opie
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of Anthropology and Archaeology
Faculty Faculty of Arts


A simple reading of Darwinian natural selection suggests that evolution only takes place between competing individuals. However, societies are based in large part on cooperation. How then did those societies evolve? This course explores the mechanisms by which cooperation can evolve through natural selection and the resulting societies, in primates, hominins and modern humans. Group living has major implications for behaviour, reproduction and cognition, where the balance of costs and benefits can result in unexpected outcomes, which can be seen across primate species. We then turn to social evolution in hominins and how this shaped early modern human society. Finally, we assess a number of hypotheses for the evolution of large-scale human societies over the last 5,000 years. The common features of the evolution of societies can give us insights into contemporary human social life and help us identify future trends in social change.

Intended learning outcomes

  1. Explain the mechanisms by which cooperation can evolve through natural selection.
  2. Evaluate the main theories for the origin of human and non-human primate social systems.
  3. Describe the variety of primate social systems and draw out details of their underlying structure.
  4. Discuss the major implications of group living for reproductive strategies, social behaviour and cognition in humans and other primates.
  5. Draw out the main features of hominin social structures that contributed to early modern human societies.
  6. Analyse the implications of gene-culture co-evolution for the emergence of human societies.
  7. Review the key stages in the evolution of large-scale human societies and assess the various hypotheses for these changes.

Teaching details

Ten 2-hour lectures

Five 1-hour seminars

Student presentations (2 sessions - 8 hours total at Bristol Zoo and in-class)

Assessment Details


Presentation – ILOs 3-6


2-hour exam (50%) – ILOs 1-7

2,500-word essay (50%) – ILOs 1-7

Reading and References

Maynard Smith J, Szathmary E. 1999. The origins of life: from the birth of life to the origin of language. (selected chapters).

Dawkins R. 1976. The Selfish Gene. (selected chapters).

Boyd and Silk. 2018. How Humans Evolved. (selected chapters).