In this paper we present a reconceptualization of the social dimension of the human niche and the evolutionary process that brought it into existence. We agree with many other evolutionary approaches that a key aspect of the human niche is a social environment consisting primarily of cooperating and altruistic individuals, not a Hobbesian social environment of “war of all against all.” However, in contrast to the conception of this social environment as consisting of individuals who, in Boyd and Richerson’s words, “cooperate with large groups of unrelated individuals,” we propose that it is more accurately described as consisting of cooperating individuals who currently are often nonkin but who, until relatively recently in human existence, were primarily, and in many cases almost exclusively, kin. In contrast to the conception of this social environment coming into existence by way of a process of selection within and between groups, we propose that it is the result of selection operating on traditions originated by ancestors and transmitted to their descendants. We use our fieldwork in three areas of the world (New Guinea, Ecuador, and Canada) to illustrate this process and how current social environments can be roughly placed on a continuum from traditional to nontraditional.
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