The Social Leap by William Von Hippel

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Summary

Evolutionary psychology is not deterministic. The environment also sculpts our minds: once we took the evolutionary pathway toward greater intelligence and a lifestyle that relies on learning rather than inborn knowledge, our genes had no choice but to relinquish much of their control.

You and I are descendants of chimplike creatures who left the rainforest and moved to the savannah six or seven million years ago. Tectonic activity along the East African Rift Valley sporadically raised vast portions of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania to an elevated plateau. This is what split us from our chimpish ancestors. We had to leave the trees.

Once in the plain field of the African savannah, our ancestors might have responded to the threat of predation by throwing stones, particularly if they could band together and throw lots of them. This might be the initial cause that made cooperation fundamental to our lives until this day.

The need for cooperation created the need for new means to enforce it. One of the first ways was the threat of ostracism. To be forced out of a group of apes in the forest was a bummer, but to be forced out of a group of Australopithecines on the grasslands was a death sentence.

Ostracism and rejection have remained important tools for enforcing cooperation through to the present, and as a result we still find social rejection incredibly painful and do whatever it takes to stay in our group’s good graces.

Moreover, our highly interdependent lives ensured that we also evolved new social emotions such as pride, guilt, and shame. These are often referred to as self-conscious emotions, as their development requires awareness of how others are appraising us. They tell us immediately and forcefully which behaviors make us more valuable to our group and which behaviors devalue us.

Evolution is amoral, and animals adopt whatever strategy works. Reproduction is the currency of evolution. Survival is important, but only in terms of living long enough to reproduce and pass your genes on to the next generation.

Evolution doesn’t care if we’re happy, so long as we’re reproductively successful. If you are constantly happy you lose all cravings and need to achieve (e.g. hunting a mastodont). By no longer being of value to the group, you will suffer social and reproductive consequences. Evolutionary perspective clarifies that maximal or permanent happiness is neither achievable nor desirable. Continued ambition is what pushed our ancestors to reach for further goals.

We need to be of value to our community and the most obvious way to be of value is to produce more than you cost. As a consequence, evolution has ensured that learning is tightly linked to our motivational system; humans all over the world love to learn.

Evolution is brutal, but those of us with the good fortune to live in established democracies have used the tools that evolution gave us to create unprecedentedly safe and satisfying lives. We evolved a psychology that continually searches for something better, but a moment’s reflection reveals that it’s hard to ask for much more than that.

Book Notes

⇾ Many animals that live in large groups have very little engagement with one another. They live to spend less energy being alert in case of predators.

Fear of being left out of the mating game still guides our psychology in profound ways (e.g. incessant social comparison)

⇾ It’s easy to imagine a world in which genes have control over our minds, and for many animals they do. But once we took the evolutionary pathway toward greater intelligence and a lifestyle that relies on learning rather than inborn knowledge, our genes had no choice but to relinquish much of their control.

A lot of evolutionary behaviors evolved because they were computationally efficient (i.e., it didn’t require too much brainpower). It doesn't mean that they are useful today.

⇾ Our genes are one factor in that decision-making process, but they are only a single factor. Human agency remains an important determinant of behavior.

⇾ Evolutionary psychology is not deterministic. The environment also sculpts our minds, culture and values.

⇾ You and I are descendants of chimplike creatures who left the rainforest and moved to the savannah six or seven million years ago. Tectonic activity along the East African Rift Valley sporadically raised vast portions of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania to an elevated plateau. This is what split us from our chimpish ancestors. These changes in topography led to localized changes in climate, with the rainforests drying out one by one, to be replaced by savannah. We didn’t leave the trees after all—the trees left us.

⇾ The gradual replacement of the rainforest with savannah meant that they had to find a new way to make a living. Our chimpish ancestors adopted this sort of combined dik-dik/baboon approach, clustering together (more eyes to watch predators) and cautiously avoiding open areas where there are no trees available for a ready escape.

⇾ Our ancestors might have responded to the threat of predation on the savannah by throwing stones, particularly if they could band together and throw lots of them.

It was this need for collective action that brought about the most important psychological change that enabled us to thrive, rather than just survive, on the savannah: the capacity and desire to work together.

⇾ The need for cooperation created the need for new means to enforce it. Their first weapon was the threat of ostracism. To be forced out of a group of apes in the forest was a bummer, but to be forced out of a group of Australopithecines on the grasslands was a death sentence.

Ostracism and rejection have remained important tools for enforcing cooperation through to the present, and as a result we still find social rejection incredibly painful and do whatever it takes to stay in our group’s good graces.

⇾ Cooperation demanded numerous changes in the ways their minds worked. First and foremost, our ancestors began to benefit from information sharing. It was more effective to be on the same page, than withholding knowledge.

⇾ The choice our ancestors made was partially random but heavily constrained by the opportunities they had at their disposal. Loss of our rainforest habitat could easily have been the end of us. If you replayed this vanishing rainforest scenario repeatedly, nine times out of ten I suspect we’d end up as timid versions of baboons at best, constantly looking over our shoulder for lions while keeping an eye on the nearest tree.

⇾ Two important inventions of Homo Erectus are division of labor and planning for the future. and the control of fire.

⇾ Storytelling may have been another by-product of the control of fire, as the conversations of hunter-gatherers during the day differ notably from the stories they tell around the fire at night. During the day, people spend most of their time talking about ongoing social concerns and matters of economic necessity. But once night falls, communal fires are lit, and people gather in small groups, conversations blend into stories, and stories often reveal important lessons about how to live one’s life and follow cultural rules.

⇾ Gathering by the fire was an opportunity for socializing and reflecting (besides sharing knowledge through stories).

Our highly interdependent lives ensured that we also evolved new social emotions such as pride, guilt, and shame. These are often referred to as self-conscious emotions, as their development requires awareness of how others are appraising us. They tell us immediately and forcefully which behaviors make us more valuable to our group and which behaviors devalue us.

Over-imitation is an important human propensity, as it allows us to learn to do things even when we can’t fully understand them. By assuming that our teacher knows best, we engage in the highest-fidelity copying we can, which enhances our effectiveness.

Once people began to accumulate private property, those who had stuff were in a much better position to provision a family than those who did not. Wealth and ownership rapidly have become attractive in a potential partner. That is why men are typically much more motivated than women in their pursuit of wealth.

Division of labor was cool but the true potential of division of labor can be realized only when people become specialists. Cities made that possible. If you live in a city, numbers alone guarantee there will always be someone who can generate the goods and services you need yet are unable to produce for yourself.

Farming hardened our hearts (and ruined our teeth), but it also allowed literature, commerce, and science to blossom.

⇾ Woman invest considerably more in reproduction and raising a baby, therefore men tend to compete for women and women tend to be much choosier than men.

Reproduction is the currency of evolution. Survival is important, but only in terms of living long enough to reproduce and pass your genes on to the next generation.

Evolution is amoral, and animals adopt whatever strategy works.

⇾ Women find that symmetry, strength, height, and humor are honest signals of quality of men.

⇾ Because being fertile is much more biologically demanding for women than it is for men, men are attracted to signs of youthfulness and an hourglass shape—both signals of female fertility.

Behavioral flexibility may be the single most important attribute for skilled social functioning. A number of factors enable behavioral flexibility, but one of the most important is our capacity for self-control. Mental speed, or the ability to retrieve information and solve problems rapidly, is another cognitive capacity that enables a flexible response to the world.

⇾ Some researchers have argued that our minds evolved the ability to process logical arguments not so we could discover the true state of the world, but so we could convince others of the accuracy of our own self-serving beliefs. In this sense, the social brain hypothesis suggests that the great discoveries of humankind are really just an evolutionary by-product of our ancestors’ efforts to persuade others of their dubious claims.

⇾ The reason why most of people never invent anything is because we tend to solve problems socially rather than technically (i.e. the invention of wheeled suitcase -> locate a friend or porter to help us vs. put wheels on the suitcase in the first place)

We marvel at the audacity of our ancestors who struck off into the unknown, but a fair portion of human expansion and exploration reflects desperation rather than bravery. As often as not, exploration meant that our ancestors were escaping, or being forced to abandon preferred areas by their stronger or more aggressive neighbors.

⇾ Most meditation practices teach people to live in the moment. This is a laudable goal, but we have a great deal of difficulty shutting down thoughts of the future unless the demands or pleasures of the moment are so substantial that they drag us back to the here and now.

⇾ As in so many other ways, evolution gives with one hand but takes with the other.

Evolution doesn’t care if we’re happy, so long as we’re reproductively successful.

If you are constantly happy you lose all cravings and need to achieve (e.g. hunting a mastodont). By no longer being of value to the group, you will suffer social and reproductive consequences. Evolutionary perspective clarifies that maximal or permanent happiness is neither achievable nor desirable. Continued ambition is what pushed our ancestors to reach for further goals.

⇾ Evolution depends on reproduction, first and foremost. But that fact has led to two common misconceptions. The first misconception is the belief that we must have children of our own if we are to pass on our genes. In fact, we can also be an evolutionary success if we enhance the reproductive success of our relatives. The second misconception is the widespread belief that evolution gave us a desire to reproduce. Just because evolution relies on reproduction doesn’t mean that humans evolved a desire to have children. Rather, evolution gave us a strong desire to have sex, and then (because we are a species that requires parental care) tossed in a tendency to feel fond of any children we produced. By evolving sexual desire plus nurturance, we arrived at the same outcome as we would have if we’d evolved to want children and knew how to produce them.

⇾ Our ancestors were more likely to survive childhood and mothers were more likely to have children in rapid succession if they had the help of a grandmother. This is why women evolved menopause, to have the opportunity to focus on their grandchildren rather than their children.

⇾ We need to be of value to our community and the most obvious way to be of value is to produce more than you cost. Since we’re born knowing very little, with a brain that is really only half-baked, it takes a long period of development before we can become viable, contributing members of our community. As a consequence, evolution has ensured that learning is tightly linked to our motivational system; humans all over the world love to learn.

Keys to happiness today: sex and food, parenthood and play, mastery and storytelling, friendship and kin, heart and home, community and contribution.

⇾ One of the most disconcerting aspects of evolution is the enormous role played by random chance. Our existence as a species is the result of innumerable rolls of the dice, every one of which had to go our way. The most trivial perturbations in our past would have changed everything. [..] As Richard Dawkins puts it in his fascinating book unweaving the Rainbow, “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.”

⇾ Evolution is brutal, but those of us with the good fortune to live in established democracies have used the tools that evolution gave us to create unprecedentedly safe and satisfying lives. We evolved a psychology that continually searches for something better, but a moment’s reflection reveals that it’s hard to ask for much more than that.

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