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why there are no monkeys on facebook
on 15 June 2017
At the core of the "Social Brain" hypothesis is the suggestion that social group size in primates is limited by the relative size of the neocortex. This posed a challenge for the early hominins who moved beyond the forest habitats occupied by their ancestors, as in open habitats, they would be more vulnerable to predators and their main defence would be that of a belonging to a larger group. At the same time, increased group size also makes direct contact between individuals more difficult. Physical grooming - a primary means of maintaining relationships in primate groups - must be replaced by other, more symbolic connections (such as language) if the group is to remain cohesive. In meeting these challenges, our ancestors embarked on a process of brain evolution which facilitated larger effective group sizes and the transmission of innovations over long distances and between widely scattered groups. This capacity to handle large, dispersed, social networks is the key to human evolution.
It's a persuasive thesis. However, it is significant that this book does not represent a balanced synthesis of all the disciplines which have contributed to the "Social Brain" hypothesis. Rather, it emphasises the work of the 7 year long "Lucy to Language" project which focused on the archaeological evidence. and the book reflects the strengths and weaknesses of this emphasis.
Highlights include discussions of the exclusively hominid innovations of the use of fire and the technology of the handaxe. Less satisfactory is that evidence from extant models - particularly other primate cultures, and modern hunter-gatherer societies - is too often absent or inadequately considered. For example, the key graph establishing the relationship between neocortex size and group size includes points that appear to represent 19 monkey species and 3 (not 4?) great apes - but no point is identified on the graph and nowhere in the text is the specific social organisation of any one species described. Since some could include species like the baboon - which occupies precisely the same kind of savannah environment that the book suggests the earliest hominins did - this failure seems strange. Similarly, although the book describes the colonisation of the interior of Australia by Aboriginal humans, there is no discussion of their social organisation - instead, we are left with highly speculative suggestions from extremely scanty fossil hominin evidence. Just how precarious this evidence may be is indicated by the number of remarks that anywhere else would be casual asides, but here seem to be offered as actual evidence. For example, the discovery of a broken axe, found beside a pool with the handle close by the head, seems to be cited as evidence of the emotional disposition of Homo heidelbergensis - "Probably any modern human would have reacted to breaking a favourite tool- you or I might have reacted by throwing it into the pond. But H. heidelbergensis placidly left the two pieces side by side". Similarly, it is suggested that humans are able to maintain concentration on a task for longer periods than other primates as a result of our need to focus on others' mental states. No evidence is offered for this, beyond the following statement - "Chimpanzees are notoriously poor at concentration (except in prolonged bouts of gaining food), but humans can spend hours gazing into each other's eyes, solving a problem or listening to a sermon". The critical reader will immediately ask - "why is chimp's concentration disqualified? And when was the last time I gazed into another person's eyes *for hours*?" The bar for "evidence" here seems exceptionally low!
Part of the problem seems to be the insistence on human exceptionalism - "Truly, we are no longer apes" declares chapter one. But a closer and more sympathetic consideration of the behaviour and cognition of other apes actually makes the steps towards humanity easier. For example, when discussing the importance of social grooming, the authors assert that more abstract and particularly human forms of connection - such as music and laughter - are necessary to extend an emotional bond beyond a dyad, but doesn't that prompt the reader to think, "So what about wolves chorusing?" or to recall how chimpanzee females habitually groom males who have just fought each other so as manipulate them into grooming each other as a means of repairing social bonds?
By the end, my copy was bristling with post-its notes bearing double question marks and phrases beginning, "But what about....?!" But I kept reading, and am glad that I did. There is a great deal of thought-provoking and fascinating material here, and it's well worth the time.