Tag Archives: Evolution

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.

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

—–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

Being There – Being a human by Charles Foster

book cover

We think of wilderness as an absence of sound, movement and event. We rent our rural cottages ‘for a bit of peace and quiet.’ That shows how switched off we are. A country walk should be a deafening, threatening, frantic, exhausting cacophony.

If today’s shorn, burned, poisoned apology for wilderness should do that to us, just think what the real wild, if it still existed, would do. It’d be like taking an industrial cocktail of speed, heroin and LSD and dancing through a club that’s playing the Mozart Requiem to the beat of the Grateful Dead, expecting every moment to have your belly unzipped by a cave bear.

All humans are Sheherazades: we die each morning if we don’t have a good story to tell, and the good ones are all old.

Up for a bit of time travel? No, no, no, not in the sci-fi sense of physically transporting to another era. But in the mostly imaginary sense of picturing oneself in a prior age. Well, maybe more than just picturing, maybe picturing with the addition of some visceral experience. Charles Foster has written about what life is like for otters, badgers, foxes, deer and swifts, by living like them for a time. He wrote about those experiences in his book, Being a Beast. He wonders, here, how experiencing life as a Paleolithic and a Neolithic person can inform our current understanding of ourselves.

I thought that, if I knew where I came from, that might shed some light on what I am…It’s a prolonged thought experiment and non-thought experiment, set in woods, waves, moorlands, schools, abattoirs, wattle-and-daub huts, hospitals, rivers, cemeteries, caves, farms, kitchens, the bodies of crows, museums, breaches, laboratories, medieval dining halls, Basque eating houses, fox-hunts, temples, deserted Middle Eastern cities and shaman’s caravans.

Charles Foster – image from Oxford University

His journey begins with (and he spends the largest portion of the book on) the Upper Paleolithic (U-P) era, aka the Late Stone Age, from 50,000 to 12,000 years ago, when we became, behaviorally, modern humans. Foster is quite a fan of the period, seeing it as some sort of romantic heyday for humanity, one in which we were more fully attuned with the environments in which we lived, able to use our senses to their capacity, instead of getting by with the vastly circumscribed functionality we have today.

Interested in the birth of human consciousness, he puts himself, and his 12 yo son, Tom, not only into the mindset of late Paleolithic humans, but into their lives. He and Tom live wild in Derbyshire, doing their best to ignore the sounds of passing traffic, while living on roadkill (well, I guess they do not entirely ignore traffic) and the bounty of the woods. They deal with hunger, the need for shelter, and work on becoming attuned to their new old world.

We’re not making the wood into our image: projecting ourselves onto it. It’s making us. If we let it.

In one stretch Foster fasts for eight days, which helps bring on a hallucinatory state (intentionally). Shamanism is a major cultural element in the U-P portrait he paints. It is clearly not his first trip. He recalls an out-of-body experience he had while in hospital, the sort where one is looking down from the ceiling at one’s physical body, seeing this as of a cloth with a broader capacity for human experience. He relates this also to the cave paintings of the era, seeing them, possibly, as the end-product of shamanic tripping. This section of the book transported me back to the 1960s and the probably apocryphal books of Carlos Castaneda.

Social grooming was important to ancestors of our species. But, with our enlarged brains able to handle, maybe, a community of 150 people, grooming became too cost-intensive.

To maintain a group that size strictly by grooming, we’d have to groom for about 43% percent of our time, which would be deadly. Something else had to make up for the shortfall, and other things have. We have developed a number of other endorphin-releasing, bond-forming strategies that don’t involve touching [social distancing?]. They are…laughter, wordless singing/dancing, language and ritual/religion/story.

It sure gives the expression rubbed me the wrong way some added heft.

He has theories about religion, communication, and social organization that permeate this exploration. He posits, for example, that late Paleo man was able to communicate with a language unlike our own, a more full-body form of expression, maybe some long-lost form of charades. There is an ancient language, thought to have been used by Neanderthals, called HMMM, or holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical, and memetic communication. It is likely that some of this carried forward. And makes one wonder just how far back the roots go to contemporary languages that incorporate more rather than less musicality, more rather than less tonality, and more rather than less bodily support for spoken words.

He writes about a time when everything, not just people, were seen as having a soul, some inner self that exists separately, although living within a body, a tree, a hare, a blade of grass. This sort of worldview makes it a lot tougher to hunt for reasons that did not involve survival. And makes understandable rituals in many cultures in which forgiveness is begged when an animal is killed. This becomes much more of a thing when one feels in tune with one’s surroundings, an experience Foster reports as being quite real in his Derbyshire adventure. This tells him that Paleo man was better able to sense, to be aware of his surroundings than almost any modern human can.

Foster has a go at the Neolithic as well, trying to see what the shift from hunting-gathering to agriculture was like, and offers consideration of the longer-term impacts on humanity that emanated from that change. This is much less involved and involving, but does include some very interesting observations on how agriculture revolutionized the relationship people had with their environment.

…the first evidence of sedentary communities comes from around 11,000 years ago. We see the first evidence of domesticated plants and animals at about the same time. Yet, it is not for another 7,000 years that there are settled villages, relying on domesticated plants or fixed fields. For 7,000 years, that is, our own model of human life, which we like to assume would have been irresistibly attractive to the poor benighted caveman, was resisted or ignored, just as it is by more modern hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherers only become like us at the end of a whip. Our life is a last resort for the creatures that we really are.

He notes that even when farming took root, many of those newly minted farmers continued living as hunter-gatherers for part of the year.

He finishes up with a glance at the contemporary. More of a screed really. He notes that phonetic writing severed the connection our languages have with the reality they seek to portray. Pre-phonetic languages tend to be more onomatopoeic, the sounds more closely reflecting the underlying reality. He sees our modern brains as functioning mostly as valves, channeling all available sensation through a narrow pipeline, while leaving behind an entire world of possible human experience that we are no longer equipped to handle. To that extent we all have super-powers, of potential awareness, anyway, that lie waiting for someone to open the right valve, presuming they have not been corroded into inutility by disuse. He tells of meeting a French woman in Thailand whose near-death experience left her passively able to disrupt electronic mechanisms. She could not, for example, use ATMs. They would always malfunction around her.

He takes a run at what is usually seen to indicate “modern” humanity.

I’ve come to wonder whether symbolism is all it’s cracked up to be, and in particular whether its use really is the great watershed separating us from everything else that had gone before.

He argues that trackers, for example, can abstract from natural clues the stories behind them, and those existed long before so-called “modern man.”

He calls in outside authorities from time to time to fill in gaps. These extra bits always add fascinating pieces of information. For example,

Later I wrote in panic to biologist David Haskell, an expert on birdsong, begging him to reassure me that music is ‘chronologically and neurologically prior to language.’ It surely is, he replied. ‘It seems that preceding both is bodily motion: the sound-controlling centers of the brain are derived from the same parts of the embryo as the limb motor system, so all vocal expression grows from the roots that might be called dance or, less loftily, shuffling about.

Foster is that most common of writers, a veterinarian and a lawyer. Wait, what? Sadly, there is no telling in here (it is present in his Wiki page, though) of how he managed to train for these seemingly unrelated careers. (I can certainly envision a scenario, though, in which we hear lawyer Foster proclaiming to the court, “My client could not possibly be guilty of this crime, your honor. The forensic evidence at the scene clearly shows that the act was committed by an American badger, while my client, as anyone can see, is a Eurasian badger.”) It certainly seems clear, though, from his diatribes against modernity, where his heart is. In the visceral, physical work of dealing with animals, which lends itself to the intellectual stimulation of a truer, and deeper connection with nature.

The first time (and one of the only times) I felt useful was shoveling cow shit in a Peak District farm when I was ten. It had a dignity that piano lessons, cub scouts, arithmetic and even amateur taxidermy did not. What I was detecting was that humans acquire their significance from relationship, that relationships with non-humans were vital and that clearing up someone’s dung is a good way of establishing relationships.

In that case, I am far more useful in the world than I ever dreamed.

Foster can be off-putting, particularly to those us with no love of hunting, opening as he does with I first ate a live mammal on a Scottish hill. (Well, as least it wasn’t haggis.) I can well imagine many readers slamming the book shut at that point and moving on to something else. Will this be a paean to a manly killing impulse? Thankfully, not really, although there are some uncomfortable moments re the hunting of living creatures.

Sometimes he puts things out that are at the very least questionable, and at the worst, silly. Our intuition is older, wiser and more reliable than our underused, atrophied senses. Really? Based on what data? So, making decisions by feelz alone is the way to go? Maybe I should swap my accountant for an inveterate gambler?

He sometimes betrays an unconscious unkindness in the cloak of humor:

The last thing I ate was a hedgehog. That was nine days ago. From the taste of them, hedgehogs must start decomposing even when they’re alive and in their prime. This one’s still down there somewhere, and my burps smell like a maggot farm. I regret it’s death under the wheels of a cattle truck far more than its parents or children possibly do.

I doubt it.

One stylistic element that permeates is seeing an imaginary Paleo man, X, and his son. Supposedly these might be Foster and Tom in an earlier era. It has some artistic appeal, but I did not think it added much overall.

All that said, the overall take here is that this is high-octane fuel for the brain, however valved-up ours may be. Foster raises many incredibly fascinating subjects from the origins of religion, language, our native capabilities to how global revolutions have molded us into the homo sap of the 21st century. This is a stunning wakeup call for any minds that might have drifted off into the intellectual somnolence of contemporary life. There are simply so many ideas bouncing off the walls in this book that one might fear that they could reach a critical mass and do some damage. It is worth the risk. If you care at all about understanding humanity, our place in the world, and how we got here, skipping Being a Human would be…well…inhuman. It is an absolute must-read.

We try to learn the liturgy: the way to do things properly; the way to avoid offending the fastidious, prescriptive and vengeful guardians of the place. Everything matters. We watch the rain fall on one leaf, trace the course of the water under a stone, and then we go back to the leaf and watch the next drop. We try to know the stamens with the visual resolution of a bumblebee and the snail slime with the nose of a bankvole and the leaf pennants on the tree masts with the cold eyes of kites.

Review posted – 9/17/21

Publication date – 8/31/21

I received an ARE of Being a Human from Metropolitan Books in return for a modern era review. Thanks, Maia.

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

Links to the author’s personal, and Twitter pages

By my count this is Foster’s 39th book

Foster’s bio on Wiki

Charles Foster (born 1962) is an English writer, traveller, veterinarian, taxidermist, barrister and philosopher. He is known for his books and articles on Natural History, travel (particularly in Africa and the Middle East), theology, law and medical ethics. He is a Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford. He says of his own books: ‘Ultimately they are all presumptuous and unsuccessful attempts to answer the questions ‘who or what are we?’, and ‘what on earth are we doing here?’

—–The Guardian – Going underground: meet the man who lived as an animal – re Being a Beast by Simon Hattenston
—–New Books Network – Defined by Relationship by Howard Burton – audio – 1h 30m

Items of Interest from the author
—–Emergence Magazine – Against Nature Writing – on language as a barrier to understanding
—–Shortform – Charles Foster’s Top Book Recommendations

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on Bear Grylls – a British adventurer – mentioned in Part 1 as an example of someone more interested in the technology of survival than the point of it (p 62 in my ARE)
—–Wiki on Yggdrasil – mentioned in Part 1 – humorously (p 85)
—–Wiki on the Upper Paleolithic
—–Dartmouth Department of Music – a review of a book positing that Neanderthals used musicality in their communications Review Feature – The Singing Neanderthals:
the Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body by Steven Mithen – Foster addresses this in this discussion of the origins of human language
—–Wiki on Carlos Castaneda
—–Discover Magazine – Paleomythic: How People Really Lived During the Stone Age By Marlene Zuk Like it says – an interesting read

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