Our Social Nature and the Future

I’ve spent more than a year investigating the sources of our species reaction to autocrats, pandemics, global warming and the crisis of global capitalism. Here is a draft of an introduction to the topic. Lots of evolution, anthropology, archeology, neurology and cognitive psychology all rolled up.

Now on to understanding how the 290,000 years of our species’ lives as hunter-gatherers produced behaviors that have become maladaptations in our present environment.

Download the essay here >>>>> (3,800 words, about 7 pages 1.2MB)


Dear Extended Tribe,

As I have mentioned to many of you over the last year or so my recent interests in genetics, archaeology, cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, sociology and other allied fields has been driven by a desire to understand the unfortunate state of our species. Here is a report of my current thinking. I hope that you will contribute your criticisms and suggestions in response.

Recently the intermingled phenomena of Trump, global warming, global capitalism, and the pandemic have raised questions for me about the capacity of our species to live on the earth in a sustainable trajectory.

How can we explain that 74 million Americans voted for a man who they had four years to observe in great detail. The 30,573 lies and misleading claims over four years.[1] The painfully obvious narcissism. The meanness. The fact that his only legislative accomplishment was a $1.9 trillion tax give back to the rich and corporations.[2] His active role in assuring that hundreds of thousands of Americans died during the COVID pandemic who would not have if he had taken even moderate action to prevent it. Worse is to understand that this craziness in the land of the free is not a parochial phenomenon. All around the world one can find examples of similar behaviors among leaders (e.g. Bolsonaro, Orban, Xi, Putin, and others) and similar reactions by supporters.

The COVID pandemic has revealed the notably bizarrely non-rational group thinking of those opposed to vaccinations and even any public health measures. At the same time the pandemic displays the very fractionated reactions of the governments of the world to this challenge.

Global warming and the general degradation of the earth by our species raises both short term and long term questions about our capacity to solve the problems we face with enough speed to actually produce a positive outcome. The steps required to address global warming are reasonably clear if difficult to accomplish in practice. However, in the broader body politic around the world there is almost no recognition of the limits of our capitalist economy as a sustainable system. Leaving aside the instability of this system and its now painfully obvious tendency towards extreme concentrations of income and wealth, two other structural problems stand out. First, capitalism requires firms to employ strategies to get other people to pay for as much of their costs of production as possible. Economists refer to these as “external costs”. Pollution and exhaustion of the earth are external costs for capitalist firms[3]. Injuries and deaths to workers another.[4] Second, and most intractable, there is no such thing as a steady state in a capitalist economy. Continuous growth is a requirement.[5] This feature flies in the face of the obvious fact that the earth is finite. It will not be possible to construct a sustainable let alone equitable economy with the capitalist system as our economic engine.[6] In the end, replacing the capitalist system with one that is sustainable and reasonably equitable will be the most difficult challenge.

So, these three phenomena drive me to ask how well equipped is our species to deal with these challenges? What are the problem solving tools at hand? What are the structures and functions of our intelligence at the individual and group levels? Where are the boundaries between evolutionary adaptation, our individual mental capacities and our social problem solving capacities? What are the problem solving capabilities of each of these elements individually and collectively?

To be clear, genetic evolution is not a solution for us. It moves at a very slow pace requiring many thousands of years for a new genetic variation to gain traction in a population. We are talking only of cultural evolution.

It has become painfully obvious to me that the Enlightenment model of rational man, the data-driven scientist, the sceptic who rejects religious and political dogma in pursuit of the truths that science can bring us, temporary as those might be, is at best a very thin veneer on an underlying mind and culture filled with fears, hatreds, myths, and violence, lots of violence. Further, the individualism that is such a central feature of American life and elsewhere in the Eurocentric world, is very much at odds with our species’ history and evolution. It is at odds with the crises at hand.

For months I rooted about in neurology, cognitive psychology, and other branches focusing on how our individual brains work. I waded through 24 lectures by Nancy Kanwisher in her MIT course, The Human Brain[7]. Much of interest there. Then I stumbled on work by Michael Gazzaniga, then John Tooby and Leda Cosmides and evolutionary psychology. This brought me to the facts surrounding the social brain – the functions that enable our most important attribute – sociality.[8] We emerged as the dominant species on the planet not because we are so clever as individuals. It is our abilities as social animals that drive the show. So I shifted my focus from the individual to the group, the social.

There has been an explosion in new findings in archaeology, genetics, neurology and psychology in the last twenty years or so. For example, since the moment that researchers devised methods to extract DNA from fossils in the mid 1980s the field has exploded. It has long been held that Homo Sapiens did not interbreed with Neanderthals even though the fossil record clearly shows that our geographic domains overlapped for a long time. With ancient DNA now available it is estimated that we all have roughly 2% of our DNA inherited from this now extinct Homo species. The paths of our species spreading out across the world from the home base in Africa is now a much richer and very different picture.

So I have rooted about and am now focusing on the role played by how we evolved as a species over the last 290,000 years[9] as tribe based hunter-gatherers, social creatures with a brain significantly focused on supporting this social environment. Our present state of social organization is only 6,000 to 7,000 years old, since the founding of the first cities.

My operating hypothesis is that we are experiencing an evolutionary maladaptation. What does that mean? An adaptation that was successful under one set of environmental conditions can become a negative under changed conditions. In medicine the plague of what is referred to as metabolic syndrome (the global spread of heart disease, obesity, diabetes are examples) is a physical example of an evolutionary maladaptation[10]. During our long history before the present agricultural (phase starting some 10,000 years ago) the body evolved drives to eat as much food as possible, especially high calorie foods, whenever possible. This served to build reserves for the inevitable periods of food shortages.[11] However, in our present moment we live in an environment in which high calorie foods are ubiquitous, especially fats and sugars. Our body reacts in the ancient fashion and we fill our guts continuously in preparation for the starvation that does not arrive. Our body does not handle this well, therefore metabolic diseases emerge and are now endemic. This problem is accentuated by capitalist food production that builds on these cravings and advertises the hell out of them.[12] So an adaptation that served us well for 290,000 years has become a maladaptation.

My thought is that social behaviors, driven in part by brain functions, for example the hard-wired cognitive biases discussed below, and driven also in part by our culture, sustained us during our long hunter-gather period. These adaptations are at the center of our success as a species. However many of these social behaviors are now plaguing us in our urbanized mass society phase. In particular the social strategies that worked to make small groups (typically fewer than 300) flourishing enterprises may now be a source of some of our troubles. In the arena of sociability we stand out by far amongst all species for our attention to others in our clan. We produce and reproduce through our culture.  A whole range of cognitive biases evolved. Here are a few examples that jumped out for me:

  • Groupthink – a socially driven bias used to maintain social harmony within our group.
  • Authority Bias – opinions of a person or institution with authority receive greater weight than others regardless of the context.
  • Confirmation bias – the tendency to find information that supports our existing ideas while ignoring information that contradicts.
  • Anchor Effect – a specific point of reference around which subsequent perceptions and thoughts are subordinated.
  • Halo Effect – positive impressions of one feature of an object, person, group and so on influence the evaluation of other features.[13] [14]

We learned to live in small bands, tribes, share cooking and food, innovating tools and social structures. These allowed our species to spread all around the globe living in very disparate environments. There has been a long period in which gene-based evolution and cultural evolution have interacted. Culture leading (some say driving)  genetic adaptation. The spread of lactose tolerance in our species is the classic example of this phenomenon.[15]

Typically living organisms evolve through genetic variation to meet the challenges of new environments. This is classic Darwin in action.  For example, ants who are present in every environment that we occupy (except Antarctica), evolved step by step across millions of years to create more than 10,000 different species to meet the needs of different environments. An ant species that can thrive in our house in Hudson would not survive in Sao Paolo.

We are physically almost identical to each other across all this time and space. There is enormous genetic similarity across all humans. Almost all of our recent adaptations have come in the social cultural domain. That is the last 290,000 years[16]. Some of these have fed back into the genetic stream. We didn’t need to evolve thick fur to live in cold climates. We made clothing and built warm houses. In life forms without a substantial social component, gene based adaptation is the rule. Our genius as a species is that we are social. We can innovate, add to human knowledge and pass that knowledge down from one generation to the next. But the behavioral baggage of our 290,000 years of tribal life persists now in a social environment of urbanized mass societies. What worked then may not be working so well now.

An aside here. Our sociality has driven interesting adaptations. We spend an enormous amount of time thinking about other people. The state of their mind and attitudes. How do we think they feel about us? This is actually reflected in a bit of evolution involving our eyes, specifically the whites of our eyes. It is widely held that we evolved white sclera in order to facilitate sociality.[17] Some of our ape cousins have somewhat lighter sclera, but we have a brilliant white sclera. This facilitates our tracking of other’s gaze. Where is the other person looking? To whom are they paying attention? Babies learn to track gaze at a very early point. In this pandemic moment with the ubiquity of Zoom and other videoconferencing, the issue of training yourself to look directly into the camera while speaking is further evidence of the high value we put on knowing where others’ eyes are focused. There is even a tiny video camera[18] that hangs in the middle of computer screens to facilitate this direct gaze.

To really get my hands around this I will need to delve into the extensive research on the tribal societies that have persisted into our era. Fortunately anthropologists and sociologists have been at work for over a hundred years in this field. And I am not the first guy to think that evolutionary maladaptation is in play here so I am hoping that researchers have already begun to puzzle this out.

So if this thesis of maladaptation begins to explain the current state of our abilities to adapt to new environments where does that leave us in the present moment? We are facing species ending cataclysms. Global warming and the continuing threat of an economic system built on endless growth, endless exploitation of a finite planet. What are the chances that we will be able to solve these problems?

First, though, what is meant by “culture”? Surely it is not limited to exhibits at MOMA or attendance at the opera. No, culture includes our social behaviors, customs and norms, the accumulated knowledge of the world, capabilities to build and create, the arts and spiritual beliefs. In short all of the elements of human life that we work to pass on to the next generation. Our extended school lives are a recent innovation to pass along our accumulated culture of knowledge.

What, then, are the prospects for cultural change that can successfully deal with the challenges in front of us? How quickly does culture adapt to new environments? Certainly faster than gene based adaptation. I have not yet seriously searched for existing research on this topic. So far the articles are discussing the archeological record for the rate of changes in tools over the last several hundred thousand years. Not exactly on target for this discussion. Nevertheless I think we can poke about a bit to get an idea of the appropriate time scale for cultural change.

The scientific revolution and its adoption by human beings is an example of significant cultural change.[19] One can think of the origins of modern science as having its beginning phase in the mid 16th century – Copernicus – followed by Galileo in early 17th century – and ending with Newton at the beginning of the 18th century. The revolution has continued to this day. The scientific method is one of the great achievements of our species. Yet despite the demonstration of its superior productivity over the ensuing 300 years most humans still worship various gods, read and fight wars over the received moral edicts passed down through sacred texts that date back at least 1,500 years, some twice that. This is evidence of the extremely effective systems of cultural transmission adopted by religious groups. Sunday school is not for nothing!

Or, for example, how long did it take for capitalism to emerge and achieve its current global status. Beginning in roughly 1750 private capital, new technologies and a dependent labor force arose to create the first phase of industrial production. The exploitation of rural black and brown people was integrated into the system by the early decades of the 19th century through colonialism around the world.[20] By the late 19th century the banking system that has become an increasingly dominant feature of capitalism was in full flower. Adam Smith’s fears about monopoly power were likewise already evident. Labor and political struggles likewise were evident everywhere in the capitalist world. So we might envision a timeline of cultural change in relation to capitalism spanning 150 years.

I do have in mind another example of cultural change that is both still at hand and encouraging. How can we account for the enormous change in how many people think about and live with the fact that not everyone is heterosexual? Compared to the timelines already posed, the arc of this change is incredibly short. From perhaps the Stonewall Rebellion in NYC in 1969 to gay marriage in Massachusetts in 2004 then the Supreme Court weighing in with its 2015 ruling. How did this happen? Clearly there was lots of political activism driving it, but then the struggle over white supremacy in the United States has been no less vigorous over a much longer period with very mixed results.

I have much more work to do. I need to dig into the mountains of anthropological and sociological research on tribes, clans and other small groups. How do their structures, norms, and so on work? Can we see remnants sticking around in our present mass societies? Fortunately there is lots of material available to research how our social natures work.[21]

Here are a few resources about cultural maladaptation that I have identified:

  • Boyd, Stephen The Bionarrative: The story of life and hope for the future ANU Press 2016
  • Fear, Ernst; Henrich, Joseph Is Strong Reciprocity a Maladaptation? On the Evolutionary Foundations of Human Altruism in P. Hammerstein (ed.), Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004
  • Nicole Creanza, Oren Kolodny, Marcus W. Feldman How culture evolves and why it matters Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jul 2017, 114 (30) 7782-7789;

I am working through a newish book by Harvard Prof. Joseph Henrich, The Secret Of Our Success: how culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species and making us smarter (Princeton U. 2016). Here is a lecture by Henrich: https://youtu.be/im65Y6cPnW8  Henrich is a true polymath and also a good lecturer. He holds degrees in anthropology and aerospace engineering. There are lots of lectures available online by a wide range of researchers. This is an approachable method to getting the lay of the land before digging in to the reading.

In the end I am hoping to identify more clearly how human social nature works with a clear eye on how we can improve the possibilities for our species to survive on this planet in a sustainable equitable fashion.

If you have suggestions, criticisms, other than any gaping yawns, send them my way.

Variously your step-father, grandfather, sibling or friend,



[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/01/24/trumps-false-or-misleading-claims-total-30573-over-four-years/ accessed 10.6.2021

[2] https://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-tax/fundamentally-flawed-2017-tax-law-largely-leaves-low-and-moderate-income accessed 10.6.2021

[3] Not happy with merely pillaging the land and the resources under land, we are at the beginning of a capitalist exploitation of the seabed in search of mineral rich nodules that can provide materials to sustain our high tech life style. This is being carried out in a part of the world about which we know less than what we know about the moon. See: Story by Wil S. Hylton, “History’s Largest Mining Operation Is About to Begin,” The Atlantic, accessed May 14, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/01/20000-feet-under-the-sea/603040/; Mary Beth Gallagher, “Understanding the Impact of Deep-Sea Mining,” MIT News | Massachusetts Institute of Technology (blog), December 5, 2019, https://news.mit.edu/2019/understanding-impact-deep-sea-mining-1206.; and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Mining the Deep Sea, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWvCtF1itQM.

[4] The other night during a Zoom with friends there was a quip about “herd immunity” at Amazon. The working conditions there are so bad that employee turnover is so high that soon Amazon will run out of workers to hire because there are none left who have not already experienced Amazon and refuse to work there.

[5] The capitalist economy is an aggregation of individual firms each of which competes with others for sales and profits. No firm can long survive without being successful in increasing sales and at least sustaining profitability congruent with that typical for their industry. There is no speed control setting system-wide limits on any economic activity.

[6] My critique of capitalism goes far beyond what is presented here. See AmericanDelusions.com for more on that topic and much else.

[7] The first lecture is here: https://youtu.be/ba-HMvDn_vU

[8] This is the word some academics use to invoke the fact of living together in an organized way as a society. Neuroscientists even describe some functions of the brain as “prosocial”. Thus in their lingo, “prosociality”

[9] The dating of the branching of our species from others in the Homo genus has recently been updated from 200,000 years to 300,000 years. My 290,000 here is the 300,000 less the post hunter-gatherer phase of roughly 10,000 years.

[10] Wilkin, T. J., & Voss, L. D. (2004). Metabolic syndrome: maladaptation to a modern world. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 97(11), 511–520. https://doi.org/10.1258/jrsm.97.11.511 accessed 05.22.2021

[11] It is surely true that this eating strategy evolved much earlier since we would hardly be the first animal to face periods of privation.

[12] You can add metabolic syndrome to the list of “external costs” in the capitalist industrial food system.

[13] There is a whole field in economics, behavioral economics, devoted to understanding how and why we make decisions in ways that defy standard fact-centered logic models of the classic “man as a utility maximizing agent”. These still drive standard neo-classical economics and other areas of the social sciences.

[14] One might think that we can unlearn our cognitive biases. It appears that this is not so easy to do. See  Forscher, Patrick; Lai, Calvin; Axt, Jordan; et al. A Meta-Analysis of Procedures to Change Implicit Measures Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2019/08/09

[15] Here is an NPR story about this: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/12/27/168144785/an-evolutionary-whodunit-how-did-humans-develop-lactose-tolerance accessed 2.3.2022

[16] Many evolutionary adaptations that are features of our species date back far earlier to the branch of apes that initially featured Homo Erectus from whom our species evolved about 3 million years ago.

[17] for example: Bickham, Joanna. 2008. The whites of their eyes: The evolution of the distinctive sclera in humans. — Lambda Alpha Journal, v.38, p.20-29

[18] https://www.thecentercam.com accessed 2.2.2022

[19] This is a very complex story. The purpose here is not to present a serious review of the history but rather to suggest something of the timeline involved.

[20]see for example: Beckett, Sven Empire of Cotton: A Global History, London, Penguin Books, 2014 and  Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.  Basic Books, 2014.

[21] Talk about human nature is a foreign if not verboten topic for many. I think it is clear that the 290,000 years of our hunter-gatherer lives has in fact produced many features that represent a present social nature.


  1. Big topic! In case you aren’t already familiar with him… I’ve found Harari’s books enlightening…

    Yuval Noah Harari

    Actually a historian and a tenured professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Yuval Noah Harari’s books Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015) are some of the recent years’ bestselling non-fiction books. For those interested, Harari gives a free online course in English titled A Brief History of Humankind, which has already been taken by more than 100,000 people throughout the world.

  2. Yuval Noah Harari

    Actually a historian and a tenured professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Yuval Noah Harari’s books Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015) are some of the recent years’ bestselling non-fiction books. For those interested, Harari gives a free online course in English titled A Brief History of Humankind, which has already been taken by more than 100,000 people throughout the world.

Comments are closed.