At the close of the first decade of the 21st century, we find ourselves continuously connecting to one another. This isn’t a new thing, although it may feel new. The kit has changed – that much is obvious – but who we are has not. Only from an understanding of who we are that we can understand the future we are hurtling toward. Connect, connect, connect. But why? Why are we so driven?
To explain this – and reveal that who we are now is precisely who we have always been, I will tell you two stories. They’re interrelated – one leads seamlessly into the other. I’m not going to say that these stories are the God’s honest truth. They are, as Rudyard Kipling put it, ‘just-so stories’. If they aren’t true, the describe an arrangement of facts so believable that they could very well be true. There is scientific evidence to support both of these stories, but neither is considered scientific canon. So, take everything with a grain of salt; these are more fables than theories, but we have always used fables to help us illuminate the essence of our nature.
For our first story, we need to go back a long, long time. Before the settlement of Australia – by anyone. Before Homo Sapiens, before Australopithecus, before we broke away from the chimpanzees, five million years ago, just after we broke away from the gorillas, Ten million years ago. How much do we know about this common ancestor, which scientists call Pierolapithecus? Not very much. A few bits of skeletons discovered in Spain eight years ago. If you squint and imagine some sort of mash-up of the characteristics of humans, chimpanzees and gorillas, you might be able to get a glimmer of what they looked like. Smaller than us, certainly, and not upright – that comes along much later. But one thing we do know, without any evidence from skeletons: Pierolapithecus was a social animal. How do we know this? Each of its three descendent species – humans, chips and bonobos – are all highly social animals. We don’t do well on our own. In fact, on our own we tend to make a tasty meal for some sort of tiger or lion or other cat. Together, well, that’s another matter.
Which brings us to the first ‘just-so’ story. Imagine a warm late afternoon, hanging out in the trees in Africa’s Rift Valley. Just you and your mates – probably ten or twenty of them. You’re all males; the females are elsewhere, doing female-type things, which we’ll discuss presently. At a signal from the ‘alpha male’, all of you fall into line, drop out of the trees, and begin a trek that takes you throughout the little bit of land you call your own – with your own trees and plants and bugs that keep you well fed – and you go all the way to the edge of your territory, to the border of the territory of a neighboring troupe of Pierolapithecus. That troupe – about the same size as your own – is dozing in the heat of the afternoon, all over the place, but basically within eyeshot of one another.
Suddenly – and silently – you all cross the border. You fan out, still silent, looking for the adolescent males in this troupe. When you find them, you kill them. As for the rest, you scare them off with your screams and your charges, and, at the end, they’ve lost some of their own territory – and trees and plants and delicious grubs – while you’ve got just a little bit more. And you return, triumphant, with the bodies you’ve acquired, which you eat, with your troupe, in a victory dinner.
This all sounds horrid and nasty and mean and just not criket. That it is. It’s war. How do we know that ‘war’ stretches this far back into our past? Just last month a paper published in Current Biology and reported in THE ECONOMIST described how primatologists had seen just this behavior among chimpanzees in their natural habitats in the African rain forests. The scene I just described isn’t ten million years old, or even ten thousand, but current. Chimpanzees wage war. And this kind of warfare is exactly what was commonplace in New Guinea and the upper reaches of Amazonia until relatively recently – certainly within the span of my own lifetime. War is a behavior common to both chimpanzees and humans – so why wouldn’t it be something we inherited from our common ancestor?
War. What’s it good for? If you win your tiny Pierolapithecine war for a tiny bit more territory, you’ll gain all of the resources in that territory. Which means your troupe will be that much better fed. You’ll have stronger immune systems when you get sick, you’ll have healthier children. And you’ll have more children. As you acquire more resources, more of your genes will get passed along, down the generations. Which makes you even stronger, and better able to wage your little wars. If you’re good at war, natural selection will shine upon you.
What makes you good at war? That’s the real question here. You’re good at war if you and your troupe – your mates – can function effectively as a unit. You have to be able to coordinate your activities to attack – or defend – territory. We know that language skills don’t go back ten million years, so you’ve got to do this the old fashioned way, with gestures and grunts and the ability to get into the heads of your mates. That’s the key skill; if you can get into your mates’ heads, you can think as a group. The better you can do that, the better you will do in war. The better you do in war, the more offspring you’ll have, so that skill, that ability to get into each others’ heads gets reinforced by natural selection, and becomes, over time, evolution. The generations pass, and you get better and better at knowing what your mates are thinking.
This is the beginning of the social revolution. All the way back here, before we looked anything like human, we grasped the heart of the matter: we must know one another to survive. If we want to succeed, we must know each other well. There are limits to this knowing, particularly with the small brain of Pierolapithecus. Knowing someone well takes a lot of brain capacity, and soon that fills up. When it does, when you can’t know everyone around you intimately. When that happens your troupe will grow increasingly argumentative, confrontational, and eventually will break into two independent troupes. All because of a communication breakdown.
There’s strength in numbers; if I can manage a troupe of thirty while all you can manage is twenty, I’ll defeat you in war. So there’s pressure, year after year, to grow the troupe, and, quite literally, to stuff more mates into the space between your ears. For a long time that doesn’t lead anywhere; then there’s a baby born with just a small genetic difference, one which allows just a bit more brain capacity, so that they can handle two or three or four more mates into its head, which makes a big difference. Such a big difference that these genes get passed along very rapidly, and soon everyone can hold a few more mates inside their heads. But that capability comes with a price. Those Pierolapithecines have slightly bigger brains, and slightly bigger heads. They need to eat more to keep those bigger brains well-fed. And those big heads would soon prove very problematic.
This is where we cross over, from our first story, into our second. This is where we leave the world of men behind, and enter the world of women, who have been here, all along, giving birth and gathering food and raising children and mourning the dead lost to wars, as they still do today. As they have done for ten million years. But somewhere in the past few million years, something changed for women, something perfectly natural became utterly dangerous. All because of our drive to socialize.
Human birth is a very singular thing in the animal world. Among the primates, human babies are the only ones born facing downward and away from the mother. They’re also the only ones who seriously threaten the lives of their mothers as they come down the birth canal. That’s because our heads are big. Very big. Freakishly big. So big that one of the very recent evolutionary adaptations in Homo Sapiens is a pelvic gap in women that creates a larger birth canal, at the expense of their ability to walk. Women walk differently from men – much less efficiently – because they give birth to such large-brained children.
There’s two notable side-effects of this big-brained-ness. The first is well-known: women used to regularly die in childbirth. Until the first years of the 20th century, about one in one hundred pregnancies ended with the death of the mother. That’s an extraordinarily high rate, particularly given that a women might give birth to seven or eight children over their lifetime. Now that we have survivable caesarian sections and all sorts of other medical interventions, death in childbirth is much rarer – perhaps 1 in 10,000 births. Nowhere else among the mammals can you find this kind of danger surrounding the delivery of offspring. This is the real high price we pay for being big-brained: we very nearly kill our mothers.
The second side-effect is less well-known, but so pervasive we simply accept it as a part of reality: humans need other humans to assist in childbirth. This isn’t true for any other mammal species – or any other species, period. But there are very few (one or two) examples of cultures where women give childbirth by themselves. Until the 20th century medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth, this was ‘women’s work’, and a thriving culture of midwives managed the hard work of delivery. (The image of the chain-smoking father, waiting outside the maternity ward for news of his newborn child is far older than the 20th century.)
For at least a few hundred thousand years – and probably a great deal longer than that – the act of childbirth has been intensely social. Women come together to help their sisters, cousins, and daughters pass through the dangers and into motherhood. If you can’t rally your sisters together when you need them, childbirth will be a lonely and possibly lethal experience. So this is what it means to be human: we entered the world because of the social capabilities of our mothers. Women who had strong social capabilities, who could bring her sisters to her aid, would have an easier time in childbirth, and would be more likely to live through childbirth, as would their children.
After the child has been born, mothers need even more help from their female peers; in the first few hours, when the mother is weak, other women must provide food and shelter. As that child grows, the mother will periodically need help with childcare, particularly if she’s just been delivered of another child. Mothers who can use their social capabilities to deliver these resources will thrive. Their children will thrive. This means that these capabilities tended to be passed down, through the generations. Just as men had their social skills honed by generations upon generations of warfare, women had their social skills sharpened by generations upon generations of childbirth and child raising.
All of this sounds very much as though it’s Not Politically Correct. But our liberation from our biologically determined sex roles is a very recent thing. Men raise children while women go to war. Yet behind this lies hundreds of thousands of generations of our ancestors who did use these skills along gender-specific lines. That’s left a mark; men tend to favor coordination in groups – whether that’s a war or a footy match – while women tend to concentrate on building and maintaining a closely-linked web of social connections. Women seem to have a far greater sensitivity to these social connections than men do, but men can work together in a team – to slaughter the opponent (on the battlefield or the pitch).
The prefrontal cortex – freakishly large in human beings when compared to chimpanzees – seems to be where the magic happens, where we keep these models of one another. Socialization has limits, because our brains can’t effectively grow much bigger. They already nearly kill our mothers, they consume about 25% of the food we eat, and they’re not even done growing until five years after we’re born – leaving us defenseless and helpless far longer than any other mammals. That’s another price we pay for being so social.
But we’re maxed out. We’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. If our heads get any bigger, there won’t be any mothers left living to raise us. So here we are. An estimate conducted nearly 20 years ago pegs the number of people who can fit into your head at roughly 148, plus or minus a few. That’s not very many. But for countless thousands of years, that was as big as a tribe or a village ever grew. That was the number of people you could know well, and that set the upper boundary on human sociability.
And then, ten thousand years ago, the comfortable steady-state of human development blew apart. Two things happened nearly simultaneously; we learned to plant crops, which created larger food supplies, which meant families could raise more children. We also began to live together in communities much larger than the tribe or village. The first cities – like Jericho – date from around that time, cities with thousands of people in them.
This is where we cross a gap in human culture, a real line that separates that-which-has-come-before to that-which-comes-after. Everyone who has moved from a small town or village to the big city knows what it’s like to cross that line. People have been crossing that line for a hundred centuries. On one side of the line people are connected by bonds that are biological, ancient and customary – you do things because they’ve always been done that way. On the other side, people are bound by bonds that are cultural, modern, and legal. When we can’t know everyone around us, we need laws to protect us, a culture to guide us, and all of this is very new. Still. Ten thousand years of laws and culture, next to almost two hundred thousand years of custom – and that’s just Homo Sapiens. Custom extends back, probably all the way to Pierolapithecus.
We wage a constant war within ourselves. Our oldest parts want to be clannish, insular, and intensely xenophobic. That’s what we’re adapted to. That’s what natural selection fitted us for. The newest parts of us realize real benefits from accumulations of humanity to big to get our heads around. The division of labor associated with cities allows for intensive human productivity, hence larger and more successful human populations. The city is the real hub of human progress; more than any technology, it is our ability to congregate together in vast numbers that has propelled us into modernity.
There’s an intense contradiction here: we got to the point where we were able to build cities because we were so socially successful, but cities thwarted that essential sociability. It’s as though we went as far as we could, in our own heads, then leapt outside of them, into cities, and left our heads behind. Our cities are anonymous places, and consequently fraught with dangers.
It’s a danger we seem prepared to accept. In 2008 the UN reported that, for the first time in human history, over half of humanity lived in cities. Half of us had crossed the gap between the social world in our heads and the anonymous and atomized worlds of Mumbai and Chongquing and Mexico City and Cairo and Saõ Paulo. But just in this same moment, at very nearly the same time that half of us resided in cities, half of us also had mobiles. Well more than half of us do now. In the anonymity of the world’s cities, we stare down into our screens, and find within them a connection we had almost forgotten. It touches something so ancient – and so long ignored – that the mobile now contends with the real world as the defining axis of social orientation.
People are often too busy responding to messages to focus on those in their immediate presence. It seems ridiculous, thoughtless and pointless, but the device has opened a passage which allows us to retrieve this oldest part of ourselves, and we’re reluctant to let that go.
Which brings us to the present moment.