The role of writing and recordkeeping in the cultural evolution of human cooperation

Daniel A. Mullins, Harvey Whitehouse, Quentin D. Atkinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Citations (Scopus)


Efforts to account for the emergence of large-scale cooperative human societies have focused on a range of cultural advances, from the advent of agriculture to the emergence of new forms of political regulation and social identification. Little attention has been accorded to the role of writing and recordkeeping in cultural evolution. Recent insights garnered here from behavioural economics, palaeography, grammatology, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology suggest that writing and recordkeeping helps to solve the problem of cooperation in large groups by transcending the severe limitations of our evolved psychology through the elaboration of four cooperative tools - (1) reciprocal behaviours, (2) reputation formation and maintenance, (3) social norms and norm enforcement, and (4) group identity and empathy.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Economic Behavior and Organization
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2013


  • Cooperation
  • Cultural evolution
  • Literacy
  • Social complexity
  • World history


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