Papers presented by David Sicilia since 2019

2023 Detroit, MI, United States


David Sicilia, University of Maryland College Park





2020 Charlotte, North Carolina

"Human Collaboration: Insights from Evolutionary Biology and Anthropology for Business History"

David Sicilia, University of Maryland


In recent decades, several of the human sciences have fundamentally revised our understanding of human nature and human behavior, including issues related to selfishness, altruism, and cooperation. (As BHC members know, cognitive psychology helped launch behavioral economics, which in turn has challenged to homo economicus). In this exploratory essay, I survey key developments in recent evolutionary biology and anthropology related to human cooperation and their implications for business history. Evolutionary theory seemed to leave no room for “altruism” – defined as generous acts without expectation of reciprocity toward non-relatives – because they did not promote genetic fitness. This individualistic model – exemplified by Richard Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene (1976) – has been challenged by newer models of “group survival” that appear to resolve the altruism conundrum (e.g. Elliott Sober and David Wilson, Unto Others [1999]; and Christopher Boehm, Moral Origins, [2012]). Group cooperation more than individual striving has emerged as a core survival trait, with humans developing elaborate mechanisms for monitoring, communicating, and enforcing group-oriented goals. Homo sapiens developed varieties of such norms, expectations, and routines within small, face-to-face (mostly hunting and gathering) communities over millennia, while regularly confronting foreign, rival tribes. In-group cooperation, competition, and exchange have been fundamentally different from out-group relationship, parallel to the communalistic (gift and barter) versus formalized (capitalist) modes of exchange in modern society. Long-evolved human propensities to cooperate and compete in particular ways point to ways that business organizations can effectively define employee team sizes, rules, and routines. In the final portion of the essay, I consider examples suggested by common social patterns related to gift reciprocity, bullying, free riding, and hierarchical fluidity.


business and culture
corporate culture