Nine Sapiens — the evolutionary origins of the enneagram?

Nine Sapiens: Biology and Evolution of Personality Types (2021) by Claudia Nario and Hugo Krüger is an interesting recent book that combines the ideas of Evolutionary Psychology (as well as neuroscience and genetics) with the enneagram. The enneagram is based on ancient wisdom and is one of the most popular systems used by personality buffs on the internet. Like almost all typologies (including scientific ones like Big 5 and HEXACO) it has lacked an evolutionary perspective. Nario and Krüger have endeavoured to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the nine enneagram types using fictitious examples of stone age types and modern neuroscience and genetics. So, when I saw the book online I didn’t hesitate a moment to get it for my Kindle library.

I did love the basic idea of investigating the nine types from an evolutionary point of view and connecting the picture to recent research in genetics (genome-wide association studies) and neuroscience. However, the authors are too eager to connect everything and miss the many details and problems that their approach brings.

To begin with, there is almost no social differentiation in foragers (hunter-gatherers) to warrant the idea that cavemen had nine different personality types. There is some minor division between men and women, hunting vs gathering, and even this division is not very strict as women are actively involved in hunting as well as men in foraging. The only distinct role in foragers are shamans, but they are far from being universal and the Hadza, for example, lack shamans.

Many of the nine roles would simply not work for egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands. The authors often lack detailed knowledge of foragers, e.g. describing their bands as “clans”, which is a serious miscategorization of foragers social organization. Clans are often at war with each other, foragers have a flexible split and join pattern regarding foreign bands. Enneagram type 8, “the challenger” or “the warrior” as the authors call it, does not fit anywhere into egalitarian forager organisations that have no permanent leadership. Leadership is temporary and based on competence, rather than a challenging personality type.

Likewise, the authors assign the most ambitious type, 3 “The Achiever” (called “The Hunter” in the book) to the most successful hunters. According to the authors “Hunters” are driven by testosterone, have a sense of self-confidence, exaggerated optimism, decreased levels of fear and empathy, increased impulsiveness and risk-taking, and a tendency to assume one’s own opinion is correct while ignoring other opinions. While hunters are certainly higher in testosterone than gatherers, some of these traits would actually be detrimental to real hunter-gatherers who hunt in groups, frequently make hypotheses about possible trajectories of their prey and consult each other and rarely act impulsively. The last thing a hunter would do is boast about his success, they do the opposite, downplaying it which is called “shaming the meat” and a part of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism. This is what authors get when they don’t do their homework properly. A hunter is more likely a 5 (an Investigator or a “Tracker” aka “Hunter”) than a 3 (a Goalgetter) on the enneagram. The work of hunters is much more similar to detective work than hardcore action. I guess this is the reason why we 5s are so into scavenger hunts or finding easter eggs in video games. Foragers don’t kill dangerous animals like lions, at least not if they have a choice.

Two enneagram types, 4s and 5s, called “Wizards” and “Sages”, respectively in the book, are hard to justify from an evolutionary point of view, as both types tend to be loners. They might be the closest thing to a shaman, but a 4 who feels painfully different from his peers so that she needs to go against the grain and a 5 who loves to overthink in his cave instead of going hunting simply would have found it difficult to survive and reproduce.

To summarize, here are some of the main problems with the book and assigning evolutionary profiles to enneagram types:

  • No scientific model yields anywhere near nine factors for personality (two to six)
  • Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had very little differentiation when it comes to social roles
  • The authors have little inside knowledge of foragers and present a general caveman kind of prehistory and very general ideas of what hunting is like
  • Many of the roles the authors assign just would not work for egalitarian hunter-gatherers
  • Some of the roles they discuss would not have been viable from an evolutionary perspective (i.e. 4 and 5).

What I agree with the authors is their evolutionary approach to personality. Scientists generally find five or six factors (which can be considered roles, or rather the maximum values for each evolutionary profile). However, this is only true in complex societies. In subsistence societies, they typically only find two different factors, e.g. in farmers a conscientious and hard-working profile and a more social and caregiving profile. In Evolutionary Psychology these profiles are called providing and caregiving.

A possible evolutionary model based on subsistence strategies would therefore look like this

We, therefore, arrive at six evolutionary profiles, each assigned to a maximum value in the HEXACO model (e.g. provisioning pastoralist = highest in extraversion/risk-taking). We could add complex (sedentary) hunter-gatherers compared to nomadic foragers (NJ vs NP) and extraversion/introversion to our model and would get the 16 profiles of MBTI.

If we now compare our evolutionary model with the distribution of MBTI types in the enneagram we find some interesting patterns. The distribution for type 3 resembles the distribution of MBTI types most closely and is therefore rather neutral. 1,2 and 6 are totally dominated by SJ (farmer) types. These roles are quite relatable when you picture that ancient farmers had to work hard, slowly improve their farming methods, and generally have high levels of cooperativity and conformity. Nario and Krüger label type 6 (the Loyalist) “the Guardian (the same label Keirsey used for the SJ temperament). This is probably the most common enneagram type and does not represent the forager who keeps watch over the bonfire so much as the farmer who keeps watch over the granary and his property to protect it from being pillaged. Foragers don’t have special guards, they frequently wake during the night, so that at any one point always one member of the band is awake.

The last three enneagram types are firmly held by herder types (who make up around 30% of the general population). Explorer, Challenger and Peacekeeper are roles that make sense in nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralist societies that tend to have the highest levels of violence. Peacekeepers are less needed in a conformist farmer society, hence the almost total absence of SJ types. The same is true for Explorers (7s) and Challengers (8s). On the flip side, there are almost no herder 1s or 2s. Farmers and herders lived in very different kinds of worlds, the former seeking stability, the latter adventure.

As we can see, farmer world and herder world are almost complementary. It’s the hunter-gatherer types who need to find their purpose in life and fit in. This leaves a lot of hunters with the 5 role (3x overrepresented) and a lot of gatherers (a whopping 50%, almost 5x overrepresented) in the 4 position. Hunters also often side with the farmers in becoming 1s or 3s or with herders in becoming rebels (8s). Gatherers, on the other hand, frequently side with farmers as 2s (Helpers) or with herders as 9s (Peacekeepers).

We got a clear farmer world (1,2,6) and a clear herder world (7,8,9) with people who don’t

easily fit in occupying 4 and 5 and all the niches in between.

My conclusion: the enneagram is unlikely to represent any evolutionary evolved personality profiles. It’s the product of evolved preferences, culture and personal experiences. People aren’t born with an enneagram type like they are born introverts or extroverts. The enneagram shows life trajectories and my hunch is that people can change their enneagram type across their lifespan, whereas introverts hardly can become real extroverts. Nine Sapiens is still a book worth reading, especially for people interested in the enneagram. It’s important to keep in mind that the authors aren’t always dealing with our forager ancestors, though.

For more information on the evolution of the three tribes check out my book:

Originally published at on November 29, 2021.