Chapter 5: The Beauty of Standing in Line

We are the only species that stands in line. In order for a line to be formed, strangers must know and follow the same social norms. This is beautiful! Amish barn raisings and volunteers after Hurricane Katrina are two examples of how humans show massive compassion and coordination in the face of adversity. Other species also demonstrate collaboration and compassion, but very few animals suffer and risk their own lives for members of their species that they have never met. Humans posses a strong, innate bond and a deep level of community. We coordinate and cooperate… which is what allowed us to transition from the hunter-gather lifestyle to one revolving around the domestication of plants and animals. 

Creating Human Communities

Humans have tight-knit communities due to kinship and sense of belonging. It is difficult to form a strong community because in order to do so, everyone in that community must live together– this involves much coordination. Furthermore, the larger the community is, the harder it is to coordinate. Psychologist and anthropologist Robin Dunbar concluded that the larger and more complex your brain is, the larger social group you can manage. He estimated that the largest social group humans could manage is 250 people in one community. His estimation was disproven 10,000 years ago!  

It Takes a Village to Grow a Human Brain

From the first weeks to first years of life, humans need motherly care and protection. Multiple members of the social group are needed to raise a newborn. The reliance on mom is required because humans have very large brains that take a long time to develop and have extremely complex social lives that take a while to figure out.

  • “By constructing a system in which we could have babies born well before their brains and bodies are developed, we have enabled a kind of learning, a complexity in brain development, and a potential for innovation, imagination, and creativity” (90)

Homo babies develop slowly, but this allows for high levels of brain growth and development after birth. These infants require nutritious food during gestation and after birth. Moms need to ensure they are eating high quality foods when pregnant, but more importantly when lactating. Additionally, infants require lots of care. Homo erectus demonstrated that members of the community other than the mother cared for the young. Sarah Hrdy, an anthropologist, calls the system “mothers and others”- grandmothers, siblings, and others would watch the baby while mom scavenged, made tools, etc. Behavioral improvements such as better allocare, nutrition, collaboration and coordination led to increased infant survival rates and longer childhoods. 

The Emergence of Compassion

The transmission of knowledge is a very creative act. Without language, early Homo had to learn how to make tools by watching others. Kids were given tools to play with, so they would understand the shapes and structures from a very early age. Kim Sterelny, a philosopher of biology, called this “the apprentice model.” Anthropologist Tim Ingold explained that “enskillment” is the process of how Homo passed their skills onto others- it involved watching, interacting, learning, and understanding patterns. Additionally, it is worth noting that there is no evidence of gender biases for tool making in the fossil record. Actually,  we have learned that female apes make more tools than males and female chimps are the ones who primarily use tools to hunt. 

Humans are more compassionate that any other animal. We take care of the sick and injured and we do not kick them out of the community. Penny Spikins and colleagues believe there were 3 stages of compassion. The first was 1.8 million years-300,000 years ago and included sharing of meat from scavenged prey and other foods. The next stage was 300,000-100,000 years ago and involved compassion extending to all aspects of human communities and deep emotional investments beyond the self. Finally, 100,000 years ago compassion extended to strangers, animals, and objects, and even abstract concepts like God. We have seen many examples of Homo compassion for millions of years. One example is from 1.5 million years ago of a Homo that suffered from hypervitaminosis A. She would have experienced dizziness, headaches, nausea while developing this disease and would have barely been able to fend for herself… but she survived, likely because she was cared for. 

Although Homo did develop great levels of compassion, compassion was not always shared with members outside of one’s own community. When two communities would meet each other, they would either fight, flee, or fornicate (3 F’s). Most commonly, small communities would fornicate (get along) and large groups would fight. 

Can We Remain Creative Within Even Larger Communities? 

15,000-25,000 years ago we, Homo sapiens sapiens, became the only members of the genus Homo left standing. We have expanded our homes to places around the world and have encountered varying terrains, plants and animals. We have shaped the world around us. We have domesticated plants and animals. We have built large communities. Are we creative enough to navigate the curves that come with these changes?