The Social Leap Book Summary - The Social Leap Book explained in key points
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The Social Leap summary

William von Hippel

The New Evolutionary Science of Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy

4.4 (71 ratings)
24 mins
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    The Social Leap
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    Conditions on the savannah forced our ancestors to evolve a more social lifestyle.

    It’s six or seven million years ago and you’re a chimpanzee-like ape living in the lush rainforests of central Africa. Up in the forest canopy, food is plentiful, predators are rare, and life is easy. Unfortunately, all that is about to change.

    Over the next million years, climate change and tectonic shifts will erode your verdant jungle habitat. While you get to live in the trees, your descendants will have to scrape by on the open grasslands of the savannah. Down there, there’s less to eat and a lot more hyenas and sabertooth tigers to watch out for. 

    Life isn’t so easy anymore. If your species wants to endure, it will have to adopt a whole new set of survival strategies.

    The key message here is: Conditions on the savannah forced our ancestors to evolve a more social lifestyle.

    Our chimp-like ancestors most likely didn’t move to the savannah by choice. After all, compared to life in the trees, eking out an existence on the ground is much more difficult. For one, the vast, relatively sparse fields of the steppe meant pre-humans had to travel farther to gather food. Worse still, all that open space provided little protection from predators.

    These new conditions put pressure on our ancestors. The only way to survive was to adapt. For instance, Australopithecus afarensis, a species of ape which emerged three million years ago, is notable for having developed narrower hips to aid bipedal walking, and for having more mobile shoulders and wrists to enable throwing. These changes made it possible to move more quickly and also to throw stones – a crucial skill for warding off large predators.

    However, while one ape throwing stones is good, many apes throwing stones is even better. For this reason, the most important adaptation our ancestors evolved was the ability to work cooperatively. Just think, almost every survival strategy – from hunting and watching out for enemies to raising young – becomes much more effective when done in groups.

    Of course, working together in an interdependent group isn’t easy. Effective coordination requires communication skills, emotional intelligence, and other new mental capacities we take for granted today. Thus, in order to survive, early hominids had to make a “social leap” by evolving bigger brains and honing their interpersonal abilities.

    In the next blink, we’ll take a closer look at how our cognitive capacities grew from this evolutionary pressure.

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    What is The Social Leap about?

    The Social Leap (2018) casts a critical eye on our modern world through the lens of evolutionary psychology. This provocative text argues that human nature is the product of generations spent struggling to survive on the savannah and that many of our contemporary problems can be understood by looking backward.

    Best quote from The Social Leap

    When our ancestors chanced upon a social solution to the challenges of life on the savannah they set in place a cascade of events that eventually led to our human origins.

    —William von Hippel
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    Who should read The Social Leap?

    • Those interested in the evolution of humanity
    • Frazzled souls hoping to understand the modern condition
    • Anyone interested in explaining human behavior

    About the Author

    William von Hippel is an internationally-renowned professor of psychology based at Australia’s University of Queensland. His writing has been featured in the New York Times, the Economist, Le Monde, and the Australian.

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