The Evolution of Power and the Divergence of Cooperative Norms

44 Pages Posted: 12 Mar 2014 Last revised: 30 Jan 2015

See all articles by Michael D. Makowsky

Michael D. Makowsky

Clemson University - John E. Walker Department of Economics

Paul Smaldino

University of California, Davis

Date Written: January 20, 2015


We consider a model of multilevel selection and the evolution of institutions that distribute power in the form of influence in a group’s collective interactions with other groups. In the absence of direct group-level interactions, groups with the most cooperative members will outcompete less cooperative groups, while within any group the least cooperative members will be the most successful. Introducing group-level interactions, however, such as raiding or warfare, changes the selective landscape for groups. Our model suggests that as the global population becomes more integrated and the rate of intergroup conflict increases, selection increasingly favors unequally distributed power structures, where individual influence is weighted by acquired resources. The advantage to less democratic groups rests in their ability to facilitate selection for cooperative strategies – involving cooperation both among themselves and with outsiders – in order to produce the resources necessary to fuel their success in inter-group conflicts, while simultaneously selecting for leaders (and corresponding collective behavior) who are unburdened with those same prosocial norms. The coevolution of cooperative social norms and institutions of power facilitates the emergence of a leadership class of the selfish and has implications for theories of inequality, structures of governance, non-cooperative personality traits, and hierarchy. Our findings suggest an amendment to the well-known doctrine of multilevel selection that “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups.” In an interconnected world, altruistic groups led by selfish individuals can beat them both.

Keywords: multilevel selection, institutions, cultural evolution, conflict, agent-based modeling, leadership

JEL Classification: C73, Z10

Suggested Citation

Makowsky, Michael D. and Smaldino, Paul, The Evolution of Power and the Divergence of Cooperative Norms (January 20, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

Michael D. Makowsky (Contact Author)

Clemson University - John E. Walker Department of Economics ( email )

Clemson, SC 29634
United States


Paul Smaldino

University of California, Davis ( email )

Department of Political Science
1 Shields Ave
Davis, CA 95616
United States

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