The Social Leap by William von Hippel

book cover

…dealing with fellow group members is a much greater mental challenge than manipulating objects. For this reason, many scientists have adopted the social brain hypothesis, which is the idea that primates evolved large brains to manage the social challenges inherent in dealing with other members of their highly independent groups.

…lying is a uniquely human form of social manipulation that requires substantially greater cognitive sophistication. To tell a lie is to intentionally plant a false belief in someone else’s mind, which requires an awareness that the content of other minds differ from one’s own. Once I understand what you understand, I’m in a position to manipulate your understanding intentionally to include falsehoods that benefit me. That is the birth of lying.

William Von Hippel’s The Social Leap looks at the crucial importance of our social evolution as we developed from australopithecines to Homo erectus to the Homo sapiens of today. The first phase was cutting out dependence on

Trees – come on down, why don’t ya. Of course, it was more like an eviction than an option, as changes in the environment made it necessary to descend to find greener pastures, or savannahs, actually. (Sure sounds like being kicked out of Eden to me, going from top tier predator to prey, leaving a verdant, arboreal life for a world of danger). And once our great-great-grandparents had been forced down, there was a clear advantage to

Bipedalism – stay up on those legs, and get a better view over the tall, tall grass, big guy. It might give you a heads up on those incoming lions. Of course, that took many millennia to evolve. Those who succeeded at walking on all twos lived to breed and make more little two-steppers. As we no longer had the need to climb, well, constantly anyway, those lower limbs could be re-focused on locomotion.

If we had not become bipedal, we almost assuredly would never have learned to throw so well, in which case the social-cognitive revolution that made us human might not have happened, either.

The physical realignment that resulted over hundreds of thousands of years is why we have creatures like Jacob deGrom walking the earth. It allowed them to do something their predecessors could not, throw things, rocks in particular, but I expect whatever was lying about would do, which came in pretty handy when something with large claws and teeth was coming at them. But being able to hit a moving strikezone from a distance was not, in and of itself, sufficient. It took something more to turn this rather huge change into a formidable force,

Cooperation – Instead of running in all directions from an incoming large kitty, they learned to join together with their fellow homo saps and throw rocks at the invaders. Voila, y’all get to live another day, or at least until the next predator attack, (and you might even get a nice meal out of the exchange) but that is a lot better than it might have been had you not joined together. This confluence of the ability to throw and the ability to throw as a group at a specific target, allowed humankind to claim the throne (iron?) of apex predator. Think of those films about medieval battles in which a phalanx of archers launches five hundred arrows at the enemy at once. More effective than a single archer, no? The only things we needed to fear, as a group, were other groups of Homo erectus.

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William von Hoppel – image from Singularity University

This combination is a major element in what separates us from our forebears (which sounds uncomfortably ursine in this context) in the primate family tree, cooperation, and learning to kill at a distance. It is not that no other species cooperates, but there is no species that has done so to the astronomical level of Homo sapiens. And that initial cooperation, for self AND group protection has led to a world of change. Also, no other species has mastered the art of long-distance defense, or offense, depending, perhaps the greatest advance in military technology ever.

That change is manifest in the considerable size of our brains. Much larger than our Australopithicus, erectus, habilis, and all our early ancestors. Did we gain our cranial advantage from having to invent methods of coping with the world? von Hippel says not. He argues that most of the cause of our sudden boost in gray matter occurred because when we opted for cooperation for self-defense, that blossomed into cooperation across a passel of other matters as well, and created a social species, and that very pact of cooperation forced us to change.

…dealing with fellow group members is a much greater mental challenge than manipulating objects. For this reason, many scientists have adopted the social brain hypothesis, which is the idea that primates evolved large brains to manage the social challenges inherent in dealing with other members of their highly independent groups.

Cooperation may have been born out of a need for self-defense, but it broadened to form the basis of a community. Instead of only ever thinking of personal survival, our orientation was changed to having to consider the needs of the group at least as much as our own needs. So cooperation within the group was paramount. Anyone found to be slacking in doing their bit to support the group, piss enough of the group off, for whatever reasons, and you would likely be tossed out on your loincloth, and make a fine meal for a large local predator. Ostracism = death = no more babies for you = how natural selection externalizes those whose behavior leads to their death. But there was still

Competition within the group for mates. Von Hippel points out that mate choices were largely driven by females, who had a far greater amount at risk than any male. It is not really so different today, even to the physical characteristics that we find attractive in a mate. And then there was competition with those outside the group, which led to a not groundless

Hating/Fearing of the outsider, the other. When we evolved to the apex predator point that the only real threat to the group was from other groups of Homo erectus, we became particularly wary of outsiders. Not only might they attack us militarily, maybe take prey and other foods in our hunting domain, but they could make us ill. One does not need to have a theory of microbes to learn from experience that contact with certain groups is likely to result in illness. This inclination to be wary of anyone outside our group, however that may be defined, has certainly flourished in our DNA and in our social organizations. Thus racism, xenophobia, and bigotry of all sorts. Part of the development of our groups, clans, tribes, et al, was the development of a

Theory of Mind, meaning a desire, and some ability to see what is in someone else’s mind, gauge what they are thinking, even if the people of that time had no such grad school terminology. They learned to evaluate what other people were thinking and learned how to turn that knowledge to their advantage. The methods for accomplishing this make considerable use of

Lying and Exaggerating

But most of our smarts are going be dedicated to jockeying and manipulating our position among others. And if that’s the case, then the truth is only semi-important. If I can convince you of a world that’s actually favorable to me, then I can get you to back down in conflicts or defer to me when you really shouldn’t; that is a form of power. – from the Vox interview

Sound like something that might be relevant today? Even with our predilections we are not creatures of instinct. Unlike other animals we do not carry inside us a set of instructions on how to get by in the world. And our brains are not even ready to take in the information until we have been around a relatively long time. So we must be taught. Our urges, our impulses will still be there, but we do not have to yield to them. At least 50% of who we are, what we do, is the product of choice, and education. As a result, our genes may not be able to order us around, but they are ever-present, and bossy.

The tale revs up big time when it gets to the beginning of agriculture. I will leave that, and it’s very relevant look at the beginnings of contemporary society, for you to discover for yourself. It explains a lot.

Von Hippel certainly makes a strong case for our cranial ballooning being more the result of having to cope with other people, rather than from having to invent things. We are social creatures, who are both inclined toward cooperation, but also primed for competition, for mates and against outsiders. Thus the aphorism All’s fair and love and war.

This book was written as an attempt to help explain why we behave today in the ways that we do. What evolutionary basis might there be for those behaviors.

…potential ancestors who wandered the woods in the moonlight were less likely to survive and procreate, and thereby less likely to pass on their proclivity for midnight strolls. This is how evolution shapes our psychology, with the end result being that no one needs to tell you to be afraid of the dark; it comes naturally.

There are plenty of roots to be found here to the forest of our current world. Many of the ancestral behaviors described in this book were waaaaay too familiar. I found that throughout the book, while the socio-psychological evolution of humans was totally fascinating, I kept flashing specifically to the politics of today. So much of what von Hippel writes of offers an understanding, or at least some insight into the psychology of politics in the time of Trump. Don’t mistake me, I am not saying this is an anti-Trump screed. It is not. But some of what is in here makes understandable what seems singularly opaque about the motivations of any true Trump (or any other demagogue or authoritarian) supporter (those who are not cynically supporting Trump in order to accrue personal gain in some specific way). As in, how can any sane person buy into Trump’s transparent stream of lies, xenophobia, and demagoguery? There are plenty of group-think practitioners on the left as well, but those tend not to have guns, or to bother, ya know, voting, or threatening to kill people. But the innate need for the approval of the group makes it possible that people will believe whatever they want to believe, regardless of objective truth, and that is a very difficult barrier to breach. Von Hippel may make this dynamic more understandable, but it makes it no less frightening and disheartening.

The similarities between ancestral and contemporary mate selection preferences was quite interesting, as is his discussion of leadership styles, contrasting the styles of those who rule for all (elephants) with those who rule only for themselves (baboons), as is his discussion of how a division of labor enabled early man a great ability to do well in the world, as is his explanation for the basis of politeness.

This is very much a pop-psychology book, aimed at a general audience. It is eminently readable, and offers brain candy of the first order. Von Hippel cites his sources (including his own research) for the sundry opinions offered, without leaving one struggling with obscure charts or mathematical formulae. He is an excellent writer with a friendly, familiar style that will make the information go down very easily. I recommend checking out some of the videos linked in EXTRA STUFF, to get a feel for how he sounds as a lecturer and interviewee. He comes across very much the same in the book. Von Hippel is absolutely the prof you want for your psych classes.

You will not have to get an ok from your group to go ahead and check this book out. The Social Leap will expand your brain, without you having to wait a few hundred thousand years. That counts as real progress.

Of all the preferences that evolution gave us, I suspect the desire to share the contents of our minds played the single most important role in elevating us to the top of the food chain.

Review posted – December 17, 2021

Publication date – November 13, 2018

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, LinkedIn, and Twitter pages

Von Hippel was born, raised, and educated in the USA. He taught at Ohio State and Williams College for over a decade. He has been teaching and conducting research in evolutionary social psychology in Australia for more than twenty years, since 2006 as a professor at the University of Queensland. He lives in Brisbane with his family

Interviews
—–Vox – Why humans evolved into such good bullshitters By Sean Illing
—–The Covid Tonic – Autism and Innovation – 2:03
Most folks. Because we are inherently social creatures, will seek social solutions to presenting problems. But people who are much less socially adept, those on the autism spectrum, for example, will, as a group, turn more to technical solutions to problems.
—–Owltail – There are several audio interviews available here
—–Vox – Why humans evolved into such good bullshitters – by Sean Illing
—–London Real – What Women Look for in Men – 3:32
—–London Real – WILLIAM VON HIPPEL-THE SOCIAL LEAP: Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy Part 1/2 – 45:37 – begin at 3:20

Items of Interest from the author
—–The Evolutionary Origins of Human Culture – Von Hippel offers a lecture on the origins of culture
—–The Royal Institute of Australia – Seven Deadly Sins: Lust – Is Love Blind? – Bill von Hippel – 26:38 – on how physical differences between males and females result in psychological differences as well, the impacts of testosterone, selecting long-term mates, and the significance of menopause

Just in case the ones linked here are not enough, there are many videos of the author being interviewed or delivering lectures.

Item of Interest
—–Five Early Hominids – Introduction to Hominids

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Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Reviews, Science and Nature

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