What Is Our Fundamental Nature?

What is our fundamental human nature?

Posted Oct 20, 2008

What is our fundamental human nature? To address this question, biological, behavioral, and cognitive scientists in the 20th century tended to focus on single organisms, organs, cells, intracellular processes, and genes. From the perspective of many scientists during the 20th century, the contributions of the social world to behavior were thought best to be considered later, if at all. Social factors were thought to be of minimal interest with respect to the basic development, structure, or processes of the brain and behavior. To the extent that social factors were suspected of being relevant, their consideration was thought to be so complicated that they should be considered at some later date.

Further fueling this focus on the solitary individual in scientific analyses was the dominant metaphor of the mind - the isolated desktop computer. Complete with input, processing, long and short term memory stores, and output stages, the brain was thought to be analogous to the hardware and the mind to software. Culture in this context was like the computer operating system -Mac or PC.

How things had changed by the dawn of the 21st century. If you had a computer that was connected only to the electrical outlet, you would not have a very powerful computer. To understand computers today, one has to appreciate their capabilities as a connected collective. Culture, in this context, is not so much about the operating system in a solitary computer as it is in the norms, conventions, and practices that have evolved to promote the effective connection and interaction among a set of computers.

Whereas computers have been connected on the order of years, hominoids have been mobile and broadband connected for hundreds of thousands of years. We like to think of ourselves as individualists, but we are fundamentally social organisms. We are born to the most prolonged period of abject dependency of any mammal, and for our species to survive, human infants must instantly engage their parents in protective behavior, and the parents must care enough about their offspring to nurture and protect them. Even once grown we are no match in a one-on-one contest against a cougar or wolf much less a lion, tiger, shark, or rogue elephant. Our major evolutionary advantage is our brain and ability to communicate, remember, plan, and work together. Our survival depends on our collective abilities, not our individual might. Teamwork meant not only that increasing numbers of children might survive, but that these creatures could afford to be more developmentally and behaviorally complex. Greater behavioral latitude led to greater diversity, which led to innovation, which led to more rapid cultural learning.

The social nature of the human species is not simply an add-on, either. It has fundamentally shaped the evolution of our biological design, including the rapid increase in neocortical connectivity and intelligence. According to Robyn Dunbar and colleagues' social brain hypothesis, deducing better ways to find food, avoid perils, and navigate territories has adaptive value for large mammals, but the complexities of these ecological demands pale by comparison to the complexities of social living. Among the demands of social living are learning by social observation; recognizing the shifting status of friends and foes; anticipating and coordinating efforts between two or more individuals; using language to communicate, reason, teach, and deceive others; orchestrating relationships, ranging from pair bonds and families to friends, bands, and coalitions; navigating complex social hierarchies, social norms and cultural developments; subjugating self-interests to the interests of the pair bond or social group in exchange for the possibility of long term benefits; recruiting support to sanction individuals who violate group norms; and doing all this across time frames that stretch from the distant past to multiple possible futures. Cross-species comparisons suggest that the evolution of large and metabolically expensive brains is more closely associated with social than ecological complexity.

Humans create and depend on emergent organizations beyond the individual- structures ranging from dyads and families to institutions and cultures. These emergent structures evolved hand in hand with genetic, neural and hormonal mechanisms to support them because the consequent social behaviors helped these organisms survive, reproduce, and care for offspring sufficiently long that they too reproduced. These higher organizations have long been apparent, but we are beginning to understand their neural, hormonal, and genetic substrates and consequences. Investigations of these social structures and biological substrates, and the interplay between the two, form the basis of an interdisciplinary field that two decades ago Gary Berntson and I termed "social neuroscience." I will have more to say about this field, and about our fundamental social nature, in future blogs. In the meantime, I would appreciate hearing what you think.