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Oct 17, 2023

A Theory of Everyone with Michael Muthukrishna (video)

Drawing from psychology, economics, biology, and the emerging field of cultural evolution, this book and supplemental videos explore who we are, how we got here, and the possibilities for a flourishing future.

By Templeton Staff

“Our most outstanding achievements and our worst atrocities have come from the actions of human groups,” says Michael Muthukrishna in the description of his most recent Templeton World Charity Foundation-backed study.

Over the past two decades, Muthukrishna has been “obsessed” with understanding the behavior and intelligence of collectives, the disparities and similarities between societies, and the dynamics of being a human. This curiosity has led him on an unconventional research path, drawing from such diverse fields as psychology, economics, biology, and cultural evolution. His new book, A Theory of Everyone: The New Science of Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going, is a culmination of this multidisciplinary exploration. It brings together insights from these various sciences, painting a panoramic picture of human history and offering a “blueprint,” for a flourishing future.

Playing on the concept of a “theory of everything” in physics, the book describes a unified theory of human behavior, culture, and society.

Culture can be thought of as a generationally accumulated repository of knowledge, skills, and experiences. Muthukrishna underscores the role of human culture in enabling our species’ progress. However, he argues, it’s only by understanding and applying what he calls “the laws of life” that we can hope to solve the practical and existential challenges facing humanity and our environment.

These underlying laws apply to everything from bacteria and businesses to cells and societies, the author says in a two-part blog post describing his background and why he wrote the book. According to Muthukrishna, the laws of life are “energy; the innovations that lead to more efficient use of energy; our capacity to cooperate for mutual benefit in the quest for greater energy; and the forces of evolution that shape all three.”

To clarify, the “theory of everyone” is not about a specific kind of fuel, but rather about "how each of our actions contributes to a collective brain, and how we can reach the next level of abundance that leads to a better life.”


A Theory of Everyone is about how each of our actions contributes to a collective brain, and how we can reach the next level of abundance that leads to a better life.


The first part of the book discusses how we learn from one another and what shapes our intelligence. As the author humorously blogs, “we will see how an unremarkable African ape ended up able to make Zoom calls across the planet.”

The second half examines why the world is changing, and looks at “how we can become more creative and increase our capacity for innovation.” It also outlines the barriers that, if we’re not mindful, may hinder our progress.

“Polarization and corruption threaten to tear us apart. Inequality may lead to inefficient allocation of energy budgets. This might in turn lead to an inefficient allocation of talent and opportunity,” says Muthukrishna. 

In a conversation with journalist Matthew Syed at the book’s UK launch, Muthukrishna emphasizes that to flourish, it’s key to investigate “what kind of technologies have the right amount of Energy Return on Investment (EROI).” This is important, Muthukrishna says, because “abundance turns to scarcity as populations grow.” For instance, he shares, "In 1919, 1 barrel of oil found you at least another 1,000. In 1950, 1 barrel of oil found you another 100. By 2010, 1 barrel found you another 5.”

To get us to that next level, Muthukrishna suggests ideas such as “designing better immigration policies” and "targeting taxes on unproductive money.” Readers of the book will get a glimpse into some more radical solutions, such as “start-up cities” and “programmable politics.”

“Today we stand on the shore of a sea of possibilities. We must be careful in how we address the coming waves ahead of us; waves that threaten our now precarious fossil-fueled civilizations," says Muthukrishna. He remains hopeful that with innovation, practical policy applications are possible. “You and I can advocate for innovation to ensure that our children, and all Homo sapiens who follow, have a future.”

In the Field with Michael Muthukrishna
Several life events, including the birth of one of his children, combined with the disruptive effects of the pandemic altered Muthukrishna's original plans to publish the book in 2021, and publicize it with a book tour in 2022. Rather than postpone the promotion, in lieu of a traditional tour Muthukrishna opted for a unique approach suggested by his wife, Stephanie. While still finalizing the book, he traveled with his family to the various global publicity events he had been invited to attend. At each destination, Stephanie captured video clips of the author discussing different aspects of the book in connection with the location. With funding from Templeton World Charity Foundation and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), these videos were transformed into a series titled, "In the field with Michael Muthukrishna."

Watch installments from the video series

Introduction:  A Theory of Everyone

Episodes 1 & 2: Airplanes, Shipping Containers & the Collective Brain

Episode 3: Estonia & Rethinking Education for a Smarter Future

Episode 4: Contrasting Cultural Strategies for Success

Episode 5: Perspectives Beyond WEIRD & the Origins of Behavioral Economics


Michael Muthukrishna is Associate Professor of Economic Psychology in the Department of Psychological and Behavioral Science and Affiliate in Developmental Economics and Data Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).