Before humans came together in cities and villages they did so, for hundreds of thousands of years, in bands of hunter-gatherers.

The transition to urbanism has long been a research focus at SFI. Now several Institute collaborators and researchers have formed a long-term working group to identify and measure the commonalities across various forms of human agglomeration.

The group, Universals in Human Social Organization, “seeks to identify and formally describe regularities across the enormous diversity of social organizations and systems and to explain their origins and continuity,” says Jose Lobo, a professor of urban economics at Arizona State University.

The effort has roots stretching back a decade. As SFI Distinguished Professor Geoffrey West explains, it grew in tandem with SFI’s scaling in biology work, which in turn led to two connected branches: the study of cities, and the study of social invariants in human societies. The new effort builds on both branches, with a focus so far on hunter-gatherers.

The group began meeting weekly last summer and plans to continue at least through spring 2015. Its combined expertise in physics, human ecology, anthropology, and urban economics creates a multidisciplinary perspective in building empirically-based mathematical models for the study of common human social dynamics.

Further, explains group co-founder Marcus Hamilton, “given the increased understanding of ecological structure over the last couple of decades, through quantitative theory building and empirical data analysis, we are now in a prime position to ask the same deep questions in anthropology.”

Hamilton is particularly interested in exploring how the uniqueness of humanity evolved. “In what ways are humans truly a unique primate, or mammal, or even organism in the history of life on this planet,” he asks, “and what evolutionary and ecological pathways did we evolve along that other species didn’t. And why?”

The project is an activity of the ASU-SFI Center for Biosocial Complex Systems.