Humans love intercourse. We like it in pairs, in groups, in the house and in the woods. We seek it out during the day and at night, in person and online. To be human is to want to do it, to need to do it. But this “it” is probably not what you think. Intercourse is a connection or interaction between people, an exchange, especially of thoughts and feelings. We are, as the Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Leader of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Group at University College of London, says “an exquisitely social species.” This probably represents a very old and important pattern that is part of our success as a species and is deeply embedded in our bodies and brains. It is something we do not want to mess up.
But is “it” getting harder to do? Isolation and insecurity are increasingly common, and depression affects 1 in 10 adults in the USA. Being alone and lonely can cause major health and psychological problems for many of us. It seems increasingly difficult for people to engage in the intercourse that we need. A by-product of this reality is the rapid and extensive turn to online intercourse as both a response to these obstacles and because of ease of access to the millions of minds on the internet…but are live intercourse and e-intercourse the same thing? Is there something special, and evolutionarily important, about face-to-face intercourse? Can a virtual social network replace a real one? Does it need to?
If you look around today in 2012 you see that we live in houses and neighborhoods that prioritize the private and downplay public space. Our society creates contexts where age, orientation, economic, racial, and gender inequality foster conflict and divisiveness in daily life. It often seems there is so much pressure to conform to a given “right” way to be that we find ourselves in situations where being different in any way can isolate us. For all these reasons it is increasingly difficult to be part of a physical social network, to be with people face to face…and this has serious implications if we think about human evolution.
Living in communities and sharing information in deep, rich and complex manners was what enabled humans to succeed, without fangs or horns or claws, in potentially dangerous environments for millennia. Living together and sharing information is common in many other species, especially social mammals and birds, but not to the extent or manner in which we do it. Human social information exchange moves beyond topics like food, safety, friendship or even sex, it can be about time, space, hope, dreams, and so much more. This getting together to share (or hide, or transform, or create) information is so important to our evolutionary past and present that it has even been called a new “niche” that humans have created: We evolved a new way to do “it.”
The psychologist Andrew Whiten and his colleague at St. Andrews University, David Erdal, recently published an overview on this new ecological and social space that humans occupy, dubbing it “the socio-cognitive niche.” They suggest that the available evidence from psychology, biology and the anthropology of past and present humans indicates a kind of complex feedback system that tied our evolution to series of behavioral and cognitive shifts in how we have intercourse. As humans we are both organisms on the planet and part of a complex and dynamic world of social information and linkages. This world is part of an extended storage network of data, ideas, knowledge, hopes and beliefs that exists both in our heads and in these social webs. To be human is to constantly tap into the net of information via social interfaces, to think together, to see, and dream, a world that is negotiated, and shaped, by our communal and individual responses and perceptions. Do we really want to build of cities and societies in such a way that makes it harder for us to do this?
Maybe social media has come to the rescue…can we get our dose of intercourse via the web? Good question, and with nearly a billion people on Facebook it might just be true…or not. Twitter and Facebook can provide enormous access to electronic connectivity, but they can also create an illusion of intimacy, of social connectivity, that is brittle and tenuous at best. Good social intercourse needs more than 140 characters, accumulating “likes,” and tagging pictures...we require face to face, voice to voice, and even sometimes body to body interactions to fulfill our evolutionary heritage. The research is ongoing, but it seems very unlikely that we can substitute online chat time and a video image for our evolved predilection for getting together to talk, think, and dream in the flesh. Online intercourse might be another way to expand our social networks, but it is not sufficient to satisfy our need to be together.
The good news is that even in spite of so many obstacles most humans still find a million ways to do “it,” and we can help others who are in need of “it.” We are an amazingly resourceful species. Whether we are debating the presidential candidates’ positions, college football standings, Hollywood versus Indie, hip-hop versus jazz, top or bottom, or even what to eat tonight, we love to do “it.” For the last million years or more our species has carved out a new and increasingly amazing niche of intercourse and we will continue to do so. So, stay healthy and do what humans do: find some other members of our species and go out or stay in to talk, debate, discuss, critique, engage, and get “it” on.