What is it to be human? What separates us from our fellow apes and merits the existence of a whole academic discipline just about us?
In the past anthropologists would have provided the stock answers; tool use, language, consciousness. But as the years have passed and animal research has shown that our cousins have got all these pinned down the distinction has become more blurred.
But I believe there is one aspect of being human that defines us. That sits at the very core of our being. That is underpinned by physiological, biological and behavioural systems so complex we are only just starting to understand them. A trait that has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to occupy vast tracts of our time, our energy and our head space so critical is it to our survival. It is our sociability. You see to be human is to be social. To be social is to survive.
I’ll scratch your back you scratch mine
Humans are arguably the most cooperative species on earth. We need to cooperate to gain the essentials of life; water, food, shelter, knowledge and childcare. But cooperation is stressful and costly in terms of time and energy. In an ideal world we would all live in blissful isolation. The problem is tha the world is populated by those whose aim it is to break the rules of reciprocal cooperation by stealing or cheating or lying. On top of this human society is hierarchical so time must be spent maintaining or improving your position. And finally, we must cooperate with the opposite sex, never an easy task. As a consequence, we need to spend a lot of time, energy and brain power monitoring our fellow humans, spotting the rogues, building the necessary alliances.
This understanding about the nature of our cooperation means two things. Firstly, that the number of social relationship we can cope with must be limited. And it is. The average individual’s social network numbers 150 individuals – denoted Dunbar’s Number so robustly does it stand up across societies. It is limited to this number by two factors. Time and your mental capabilities. We know that people with larger neocortices have comparably large social networks.
A bit of biological bribery
Secondly, we are going to need some sort of reward to motivate and reward us for making all this effort. And evolution has come up with just such a reward, a form of biological bribery to make sure we carry out these essential-to-survival behaviours. This is the set of neurochemicals which are released when you cooperate with another human being; oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin and beta endorphin. They act not only to increase your social confidence and motivate you to form and maintain relationships but they also reward you for doing so.
The power of the new and shiny
But there is a problem. You see arguably there is another aspect of our species which is unique to us, which consumes us and which, if we are not careful, threatens to undermine our very essence; our ability to innovate. Humans are drawn to the new – seeking novelty is a major component of our personalities – and we are uniquely capable of producing it at an ever-accelerating rate. Our species is uniquely capable, through teaching, to build on the advancements of the previous generation meaning our innovation is cumulative. Not for us the trial and error learning which means it takes five years for a chimp baby to learn to crack a nut with a stone. But this love of the new and the exponential rate of our innovation mean that we often do not pause to consider how our innovations might impact the essential human, defined as she is by her sociability.
The power of social media
One of the recent products of all this innovative ability is, of course, social media. It is clear that these developments have had huge benefits in terms of knowledge transfer, citizen journalism and peer support. And when we are on trend, and reaping the ‘likes’, dopamine is our reward. But there are also huge costs. You see the size and quality of our social networks is one of the most powerful, arguably the most powerful, influences on our life satisfaction, our mental and physical health and even our risk of mortality. But by living our relationships online we are preventing ourselves from benefiting from all these advantages.
The most powerful social computer
By interacting at a distance, we handicap our senses and our deductive abilities meaning we are at increased risk of being deceived. The ability to be anonymous, almost impossible in the real world as our complex, interrelated social networks monitor our every move – granny always knows – mean that we are at greater risk of abuse and bullying. And the lack of actual person-to-person contact means that the neurobiology that has evolved to reward us for our cooperative efforts, and is integral to our good mental and physical health, is largely absent. In sum we are rejecting the most powerful social computer on earth, the human brain, to live partial lives on the internet.
The hare of innovation and the tortoise of biological evolution
The issue we need to grasp is this. That our ability to innovate, our cultural evolution, has outstripped our biological evolution. It’s a case of the hare and the tortoise. Where once they existed in harmony in a mutually beneficial feedback relationship our ability to innovate is now the greatest threat to the survival and success of the essential human. Because we are not adapted to live our social lives, the most important element of our continued good mental health, online.
A nuanced conversation
But this is a nuanced conversation. It is not a case of innovation bad, stasis good. It is about understanding that the drive for efficiency which pervades modern life cannot be extended to our relationships. Where efficiency in production may lead to increased quality and reduced cost the exact opposite is true of our relationships. Relationships predominantly handled online decay at faster rates than IRL and the cost to our mental health is only now becoming clear as we experience FOMO, anxiety, depression and self-esteem issues.
Our relationships are supposed to be inefficient, that is the point. Only by committing time and energy to them – investing in one-on-one time, indulging in long, laughter strewn conversations – do we reap their benefits. It is about understanding that we must regain our critical faculties and before leaping head long into the latest development take the time to question how it will impact us at out very core. How it will integrate with what is important to us. How we can use it for its benefits but protect ourselves from its costs.
Learning from the past
We need to put our powerful brains to work and learn from the recent past. Because there is another innovation on the horizon; artificial intelligence. And while concerns have been voiced about the possibility of AI becoming our master or the technology falling into the wrong hands, I think we are missing the most important question of all. How will AI affect the essential human? With the suggestion of robot carers, we are treading on dangerous territory as AI begins to invade human relationships. How do we ensure that we coexist with AI in a beneficial way? How do we ensure the survival of the essential human? We need to have these conversations now. Ask the tricky ethical questions and be fully prepared for the next great leap in human innovation.