As a longtime freelancer, working out of a home office, I know a thing or two about social distancing.
What we’re really talking about in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak is physical distancing, not social. It’s a whole lot easier to do so these days with the ability to work remotely, shop online, watch Netflix and stay connected electronically.
While we measure off six feet between us, remember that humans are social animals. Short term, we can make it in isolation. But that’s not how evolution has worked for us.
The ability to communicate and cooperate, face-to-face, is what has defined our survival.
There’s a great book that traces how we got from there to here. It’s called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. (I highly recommend it if you’re compiling a quarantine reading list.) As Harari writes, some 100,000 years ago at least six human species inhabited the Earth. Now there’s just us Homo sapiens.
In Sapiens, Harari explores a range of reasons why we alone thrived. In these days of distancing, I just want to share a couple of his observations.
One starts with our birth.
Harari notes that the skeleton of our primate ancestors developed for millions of years to support a particular type of creature: one who walked on all fours and had a small head.
With modern Sapiens, he writes, evolution selected for larger brains, which means larger heads. Yet if gestation lasted until we were 100% developed, delivery would be impossible. Other animals are born quite developed, ready to take on the world relatively quickly. Humans, in comparison, are under-cooked.
“Natural selection favoured earlier births,” writes Harari. “Human babies are helpless, dependant for many years on their elders for sustenance, protection and education. This fact has contributed greatly to humankind’s extraordinary social abilities. Lone mothers could hardly forage enough food for their offspring and themselves with needy children in tow. Raising children required constant help. It takes a tribe to raise a human.”
It also takes gossip.
I’ve written before in my blog about Harari’s thoughts on this topic. He reminds us that every animal has some kind of language. Monkeys have a call that essentially means “Careful, a lion!” Humans can communicate with far greater complexity, i.e. exactly when and where the lions congregate, how to avoid them and where to find safety.
Language allowed us share information about the world. “The most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans,” Harari writes. “Our language evolved as a way of gossiping.”
Our survival, and the creation of larger communities, depended on social cooperation. Ancient bands needed to know who liked who, who hated who, who was honest, who was selfish, etc.
“The amount of information that one must obtain and store in order to track the ever-changing relationships of a few dozen individuals is staggering,” Harari writes. “In a band of 50 individuals, there are 1,225 one-on-one relationships, and countless more complex social combinations.”
“The new linguistic skills that modern Sapiens acquired about 70 millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end,” he continues. “Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.”
The coronavirus crisis will eventually dissipate. For now, as we remain cooped up for who knows how long, let’s remember our strengths as a species.
It does take a tribe. So if you know others in need of groceries, critical supplies or assistance, lend a hand.
And communicate. Share reliable information. Keep those connections going by phone, text, email, FaceTime, Skype, Zoom and social media. Even if it’s just to gossip.
Our evolution depends on it.
Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.
March 18, 2020