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Survival of the Friendliest

Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity

By Brian Hare, Vanessa Wood
15-minute read
Audio available
Survival of the Friendliest by Brian Hare, Vanessa Wood

Survival of the Friendliest (2020) presents a scientific look at the origins of human sociability. This history of humanity demonstrates how evolutionary pressure made us the friendly, community-oriented species we are today.

  • Loners looking for an empirical reason to mingle
  • History buffs seeking a deep look at ancient communities
  • Anyone interested in an evolutionary take on human friendship

Brian Hare is a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and co-author of The Genius of Dogs, a New York Times best seller.

Vanessa Woods is a research scientist at the Duke Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, the co-author of The Genius of Dogs, and the author of her own title Bonobo Handshake.

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Survival of the Friendliest

Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity

By Brian Hare, Vanessa Wood
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
Survival of the Friendliest by Brian Hare, Vanessa Wood
Synopsis

Survival of the Friendliest (2020) presents a scientific look at the origins of human sociability. This history of humanity demonstrates how evolutionary pressure made us the friendly, community-oriented species we are today.

Key idea 1 of 9

Humans have evolved special cognitive skills to help us cooperate.

Let’s start with a fun game: Take two cups and hide a treat or colorful toy under one of them. Then, present the pair of cups to a baby. Will they be able to find the prize?

The answer is yes! That is, if you give them a hint. Just point to the correct cup and watch what happens. By nine months old, most infants can recognize this gesture as an attempt to communicate something important. They’ll follow your finger and investigate the indicated item.

It may not seem amazing, but it is. It shows that even as children, humans can recognize that other people can harbor knowledge and intentions beyond their own. This is called theory of mind, and it’s one of humanity's greatest achievements.

The key message here is: Humans have evolved special cognitive skills to help us cooperate.

At first, theory of mind may seem like a basic cognitive faculty. After all, it seems obvious that other people have their own thoughts, feelings, and individual experiences that may be different from our own. However, this is actually a sophisticated concept that we don’t share with even our closest evolutionary relatives.

Try playing the same two cup game with a chimpanzee. You’ll quickly end up frustrated. Even if the chimp knows there’s food under one of the cups, they won’t recognize your pointing as a helpful gesture. They’ll simply guess. After playing dozens of times, a chimp may catch on a little, but change the gesture even a small bit, and it’s back to square one.

Interestingly, dogs fare a bit better. If you point to the correct cup, they’ll usually investigate that object over the other one. While it remains unclear if they understand the intention of our gestures, they at least instinctively follow them.

Why the difference? Well, we’ve domesticated dogs. Throughout history, we’ve fed and bred dogs that follow our commands. This gave an evolutionary advantage to ones that cooperate well with human communication. Chimps haven’t had this evolutionary pressure; therefore, they haven’t evolved the cognitive ability to really apprehend our gestures.

So, the ability to conceive of other minds and communicate with them is an evolved trait. But, that leaves us with the question: Out of all the species of animals on Earth, why do humans have the most honed ability to understand theory of mind? As we’ll see in the next blinks, evolution could provide some answers.

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