Toward a Macroevolutionary Theory of Human Evolution: The Social Protocell
Journal article, 2019

Despite remarkable empirical and methodological advances, our theoretical understanding of the evolutionary processes that made us human remains fragmented and contentious. Here, we make the radical proposition that the cultural communities within which Homo emerged may be understood as a novel exotic form of organism. The argument begins from a deep congruence between robust features of Pan community life cycles and protocell models of the origins of life. We argue that if a cultural tradition, meeting certain requirements, arises in the context of such a “social protocell,” the outcome will be an evolutionary transition in individuality whereby traditions and hominins coalesce into a macroscopic bio-socio-technical system, with an organismal organization that is culturally inherited through irreversible fission events on the community level. We refer to the resulting hypothetical evolutionary individual as a “sociont.” The social protocell provides a preadapted source of alignment of fitness interests that addresses a number of open questions about the origins of shared adaptive cultural organization, and the derived genetic (and highly unusual) adaptations that support them. Also, social cooperation between hominins is no longer in exclusive focus since cooperation among traditions becomes salient in this model. This provides novel avenues for explanation. We go on to hypothesize that the fate of the hominin in such a setting would be mutualistic coadaptation into a part-whole relation with the sociont, and we propose that the unusual suite of derived features in Homo is consistent with this hypothesis.

Cultural group selection

Cultural Evolution

Macroevolutionary Theory

Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality

Human Evolution



Social Protocell


Claes Andersson

Chalmers, Space, Earth and Environment, Physical Resource Theory

Petter Törnberg

Chalmers, Space, Earth and Environment, Physical Resource Theory

Biological Theory

15555542 (ISSN) 15555550 (eISSN)

Vol. 14 86-102

Odycceus- Opinion dynamics and cultural conflict in European spaces

European Commission (EC) (EC/H2020/732942), 2017-01-01 -- 2020-12-31.

Subject Categories

Evolutionary Biology


Other Social Sciences not elsewhere specified


Basic sciences

Areas of Advance

Life Science Engineering (2010-2018)



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