Sociality

Every one will admit that man is a social being. We see this in his dislike of solitude, and in his wish for society beyond that of his own family. Solitary confinement is one of the severest punishments which can be inflicted. . . . It is no argument against savage man being a social animal, that the tribes inhabiting adjacent districts are almost always at war with each other; for the social instincts never extend to all the individuals of the same species. Judging from the analogy of the majority of the Quadrumana, it is probable that the early ape-like progenitors of man were likewise social; but this is not of much importance for us. Although man, as he now exists, has few special instincts, having lost any which his early progenitors may have possessed, this is no reason why he should not have retainedfrom an extremely remote period some degree of instinctive love and sympathy for his fellows. . . . As man is a social animal, it is almost certain that he would inherit a tendency to be faithful to his comrades, and obedient to the leader of his tribe; for these qualities are common to most social animals. He would consequently possess some capacity for self-command. He would from an inherited tendency be willing to defend, in concert with others, his fellow-men; and would be ready to aid them in any way, which did not too greatly interfere with his own welfare or his own strong desires.

CHARLES DARWIN, THE DESCENT OF MAN

THE YANOMAMO are a tribal people who dwell in remote forests on the border of Brazil and Venezuela. Until recent decades, they lived in a traditional manner, their practices unchanged by missionaries or other intruders from the civilized world. They dwell in settled villages and practice agriculture, deriving their staple food from their gardens of plantains, a kind of large cooking banana. The forest supplies many other prized foods, such as armadillos, and the delicious grubs, about the size of a mouse, that the Yanomamo harvest from the pith of palm trees and take home to roast.

The labor required to obtain food is a mere three hours a day. During their ample leisure time, the men snort hallucinogenic drugs prepared from a variety of forest trees while their shamans enter trances from which they communicate with the spirits and recite the myths of the Yanomamo world. If life is so easy, why then do Yanomamo villages engage in almost continuous warfare with their neighbors? Villages entice others into alliances, bolstered with trade and ritual feasting, for the purpose of defending against or attacking rival coalitions. Not so rarely, the feasts are set-ups for a deadly massacre of the invited guests. The constant warfare carries a serious price. About 30% of all deaths among adult males are due to violence, according to Napoleon Chagnon, the anthropologist who has studied the Yanomamo over many decades.169 Chagnon found that 57% of people over the age of 40 had lost two or more close relatives—a parent, sibling or child—to a violent death. The Yanomamo way of life is entirely different from the daily experience of most people in developed economies. Yet it embodies all the institutions that are distinctive of human sociality, including warfare, trade, religion and a defined division of roles between the sexes. Where did these social institutions come from? Do they have biological roots or are they purely cultural? What is it that knits human societies together in the first place?

A possible answer to all these questions, though one for which there is at present no direct evidence, is that human social behavior is rooted in various ways in a genetic template that people have inherited from their primate forebears and that has been adapted throughout evolution to prevailing circumstances. Those adaptations would seem to include a vigorous expansion of the chimpanzee propensity for territorial defense and aggression against fellow members of the same species. But they must also include a special array of quite different behaviors, ones that enable people to work effectively with others in large, complex societies. In chimpanzee groups, most of the males are related to each other; their common genetic interest is the glue that holds the group together. Humans have developed behaviors that enable even strangers to be treated as kin, a compact basic to all city life. These softer behaviors, which are as much a part of human nature as the propensity to kill and punish, provide the cohesion at the root of civilized societies.

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