07 July 2018

The Most Important Development in the Evolution of Humans

First an excerpt from Thinking Big, a book about how our brains evolved to adapt to social realities. A key point here is this matter of thinking in terms of relationships and not just rationally.

Food was certainly of vital importance and obtaining it efficiently and securely must have dominated much of their [early hominins’] lives. The archaeologist Rhys Jones, who lived with Aborigines in Northern Australia, once said to us that these hunters and gatherers were always 24 hours away from hunger.But for us the keys to understanding food lie in the implications for social cooperation. This takes two forms. First are the tactical demands, of getting working parties together to hunt or gather safely and with greater chance of success. This covers defence against predators as well as obtaining those foods that were needed to fuel expanding brains. Second is the strategic matter of planning for bad times. This is achieved by looking for help beyond your immediate community. Instead of restricting access to resources by defending them against all-comers, it is better to allow other people in. By linking individuals and their communities over very large geographical areas a form of ecological insurance is produced. [highlighted added]Archaeologists refer to this as social storage: tokens exchanged for food in bad times, and vice versa in good. In other words, if conditions deteriorate where you happen to be ranging, then we will allow your community to come over to our range and use our resources for a while. Later, the reverse will be the case, and you can pay us back. Such a system works well, but it requires that the community has a territory large enough to cover a wide range of habitats. It won’t work so well if community territories are small and consist of essentially the same kind of habitat.
…..Rather than concentrating on what may be rational explanations of why they hunted bison rather than reindeer or chose not to eat fish, as the isolated Tasmanians famously did 6000 years ago, we need to shift the perspective and see the role of food and other materials in creating relationships rather than simply meeting calorific goals. Archaeological explanations for the human story need to be relational (being social) as well as rational (being economic). Social life is not based on calories alone but on the relationships that emerge when things are made, exchanged, used, and kept.pp. 86-7 of Clive Gamble, John Gowlett, and Robin Dunbar’s Thinking Big: How the Evolution of Social Life Shaped the Human Mind, Thames & Hudson, London, 2014, paperback version 2018.

Put more simply, as humanity evolved it faced two choices.
1. Defend your limited resources from others.
2. Expand your limited resources by sharing with others.

Archaeologists think that Neanderthals adopted the first strategy and early humans adopted the second. Neanderthals went extinct. We've become the dominant species.

As it turns out, the second strategy of strengthening relationships rather than walls has a host of advantages. Not only do you have more insurance against bad times but this strategy requires you to cooperate with larger groups of others, which enables all sorts of advances. This means opportunities for wider array of mates, the exchange of ideas, and the "outsourcing" of or cooperation on explanations, research and development, and cultural and technological innovations that eventually dwarfed the diversification of food sources in importance.

The choice to cooperate to share more rather than compete to protect less may be the single most important choice early humans ever made.

No comments: