The first two months of the Covid-19 crisis may have increased your faith in human nature. Or they may have convinced you that humans have no future. But if you found yourself wondering what make us human in the first place, know that there is a “Blueprint.”
Nicholas Christakis is a Professor at Yale and the co-author of a 2009 book about how our social networks shape our lives. By that he didn’t mean simply Facebook and Instagram (which hadn’t even been invented when the book was published). He meant the way humans interact with each other in groups. We’re “stronger together” (as all the hashtags on Facebook insist), and Prof. Christakis is here to prove that.
Fair enough. And in a wide-ranging recent book, Christakis makes a number of excellent points.
“Animal species may face a wide variety of threats, but the biggest threat to humans, more than predators or any environmental exigencies, is other humans,” he writes, and that is worth remembering even as a virus stalks humanity. “If the most important feature of the human environment is other humans, then that feature is a constant across all physical and biological environments, from the poles to the equator. And our species has adapted to that.”
His book “Blueprint” is about how we’ve adapted: through social evolution. Traits that make for a successful society tend to be passed along. Traits that do not tend to die out.
As an aside, the Christakis book shouldn’t be confused with Robert Plomin’s book “Blueprint,” because that is about how DNA makes us who we are. Think of it as nature over nurture for Plomin, nurture alongside nature for Christakis.
What makes for a successful society? Well, monogamy, for one thing. “Political entities, nations, and religions that adopted monogamy had a reduced rate of this sort of violence and could deploy their resources more productively, internally and externally,” he writes. “From this perspective, modern norms and institutions regarding monogamous marriage have been shaped by a kind of evolutionary process in response to the forces of intergroup competition and intragroup benefits.”
That is counterintuitive, since on a strictly genetic level, it would make sense for a many to have sex with as many women as possible. If he could convince another man to pay to raise his children, so much the better. Society flips that script, convincing (most) men to focus their attention on one woman, and invest in offspring with only her. That leads to two-parent households, which are the most effective places to raise children.
A common culture also means we don’t need to begin each generation anew. We can “stand on the shoulders of giants,” and not just Newton, but everyone who has ever lived. “No human has to learn everything on his or her own; we can all rely on others to teach us, a hugely efficient practice present in all cultures,” he writes.
Also, there are no “universal people.” But if there were, they would share certain traits, Christakis writes, quoting another scientist, Prof. Donald Brown. We all seem to “have gossip, music, taboos, belief in magic, rites of passage, attention to male aggressive impulses, fancy speeches for special occasions, as well as other features.”
“If there is a blueprint for a basic, functional society that has been shaped by evolution and that is part of our genetic heritage, why do societies ever fail?” Christakis wonders. Specifically, he blames human violence (we tend to kill each other, although levels of violence are dropping in recent decades) and the threat from difficult physical environments (it’s tough to survive in the Sahara, or at the South Pole).
That’s a good start, but while Christakis goes into exhaustive detail about various societies, if you want to understand how people can cooperate to survive in difficult climes, a much better book is “The Secret of Our Success,” by Joseph Henrich. It’s a much easier and entertaining read.
Meanwhile, a good takeaway from either book is, as Christakis writes, that “when it comes to society, the whole comes to be greater than the sum of its parts, with distinctive features not present in the components.”
Reason enough to be confident about the future of society – and humanity – after Covid-19.