Cooperate or die?

Is our obsession with social networks and relationships the one thing that makes us special?
08 November 2016

Interview with 

Dr Matthew Pope, University College London


It seems that slowly, piece by piece, some of our most treasured human traits Social Mediamay be proven to be not that special after all, and so then what's left? Well as the poet John Donne once wrote "no man is an island" and that seems truer today than ever before with technology giving us the ability to stay connected with people all over the world. But how did this come about? Connie Orbach headed back to UCL to find out...

Matt - I'm Matt Pope. I'm an archaeologist based at the UCL Institute of Archeology.

Humans, if we look at them on the planet today, are more than cooperative we're absolutely hypersocial. Getting the ability for millions of larged-bodied primates with lots of different inclinations, lots of different urges, to live together in very close proximity isn't a miracle, it's a result of a long process of evolution.

A lot of the evolutionary theory looking at the development of human cognition has changed out of all recognition in the past ten or fifteen years. No longer is it classical reasoning or logic that's driving the human brain, it's social cognition, it's our ability to live together to manage those large groupings that's become one of the big drivers of our evolutionary journey.

Connie - What caused this change from less cooperative to something that's hyper-cooperative?

Matt - Certainly by 1.8 million years ago we're seeing a wide range of different environments being exploited and the dispersal from those areas in which our very early stages of evolution took place within Africa. There's lots of things underpinning the adaptation to these different environments.

But certainly one of the things that I think's been kind of underplayed in our evolution is the concept of culture. We can see in primates, their technology, their behaviour isn't just instinctual, it's taught, it's learnt, it's maintained within cultures, maintained within populations. And we're not just hyper-social we're hyper-cultural and a lot of our adaptations are very reliant on effective cultural networks and effective communication.

Connie - So we moved out to new environments. What did they need from us - what did they  we suddenly have to do that we didn't have to do before?

Matt - From the get go we're reasonably adaptable and we're probably very adapted to ecotonal areas on the edges between different ecosystems. But moving outside of Africa certainly seems to have happened in two stages. First of all we do see hominins appearing in the Caucasus, in the Indian subcontinent, even into Eastern Asia. But after a million years ago we see this extension into northern latitudes. At that point, you need to be able to adapt. You're talking about environments that have extreme seasonality. You have very cold periods, you have periods through the year in which there's very little in the way of vegetation resources and you're going to need humans to adapt both to the different environmental conditions and to the different ecology to subsist.

Connie - And so how do we do that?

Matt - It's broken down into two different problems. First of all, how do we adapt to different environments? One of the great things that defines human uniqueness on the planet is the scale at which we engineer to protect us and put a barrier between us and environment and that's everything from clothing, through to shelters, through to architecture. And all of these things come in and have a different part to play.

A long part of our early evolution as we adapted to open environments probably resulted in the loss of body hair. The only thing that could have biologically insulated us against the cold. So once these probably hairless, tropically adapted, early humans, Homo erectus, Homo negasti moved into more northerly latitudes there may have been some physiological adaptations but certainly, you could have accelerated that simply by using animal skins and other materials to insulate yourself against the cold.

Connie - So how do you study something like this - what are the kind of artifacts you're looking at?

Matt - Okay. So the archeological record of human evolution, we could pretty much put it down as being 95 percent stone artifacts. These are the only things that are durable enough to last the geological time and geological processes involved. The stone tools can tell us a lot about adaptations. Stone tools go from being very simple cutting objects in the early stages of human evolution but then we start to see specialised forms.

One of those forms we start to see becoming more apparent within Europe are specialised stone tools that have blunted edges on them. Up until that point, stone tools were all about creating sharp edges but then blunted hard, though edges appear and at least continue on for a period of time. And what we think they're being used for is processing skins and processing hides, turning an animal skin effectively into a durable, weatherproof, insulating membrane. That's one of the examples.

At archeological sites we'll eventually find traces of fire. Not usually until after half a million years ago, and the traces of structures within the archaeological record as well. So we're looking at material traces where humans have come together, transformed objects, whether that be stone, wood, bone, material to engineer their own living spaces.

Connie - And in terms of us going forward, we're in a world where we are hyper-social animals but more and more interacting on the digital scale. Do you think this is a problem - do you think we need those social interactions?

Matt - I think humans are always driven by social interaction and by pushing the limits of it. If we think about a group of chimpanzees operating in a forest, we know that they will keep as close together as they can by the limits of sound. We now have an incredible reach as individuals to maintain contact with disperse social groups in a way unimaginable.

We've got here, not because the technology has allowed us, that's just part of it. It's imperative, it's an evolutionary imperative to extend, to strengthen, to maintain our connection. Yeah. It can cause problems for some individuals but actually underlying it is, I think, such a deeply embedded evolutionary driver. I don't really think we've made sense of what we're going to do with it yet but certainly, I don't think that strength of connection has ever been a problem in human evolution. It's often been the answer.

Chris - That was UCL's Matt Pope. Lee - do you agree?

Lee - Well, I think it is an important point. What I would disagree with is the move in northern hemisphere was, perhaps, the thing that made us human. I think the issue that we are perhaps the most peaceful interspecific species that has ever existed is perhaps one of the very last things. Chimpanzees and other complex primates cooperate with each other, but if you put a group of unrelated members into a room this size they will rip each other apart. And yet here we have four breeding age males sitting in a room that aren't related to each other having a relatively peaceful conversation. And so it may be our last thing...

Chris - But when the show's finished that may change.

Lee - but it's going to be a hard thing to test in the archaeological record. But so many sacred cows have been slaughtered in the last few decades with technology, with new discoveries, I wouldn't be surprised if this one fell too.

Chris - Tomos - concur with that?

Tomos - I agree entirely with that. Some primates will also cooperate. You have chimpanzees that will hunt cooperatively but only for short instances of time and only for a very specific reason.  Like Lee said, with the humans it's far more complex.

Chris - Matthew...

Matthew - Well, I think the thing that really intrigued me was the society that Lee was saying that these individuals were knowingly burying their dead. That will be one of the real markers. If Lee can find that show places where we're going to find that again and again in the hominin record, that's very exciting.

Chris - Why haven't we found this before? Just briefly.

Lee - I think we just overlooked it. I think we maybe had a Victorian assumption that we were so special and that was our thing. It goes back to any of the great religious texts - that's our thing. We recognise our own mortality and no other animal does.


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