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Social Animal or Curious Animal?

  • It is a commonplace that humans are social animals: we create complex societies and enjoy the company of others.
  • It also makes evolutionary sense (e.g., John Cacioppo, 2005): loneliness causes depression and suicide because evolutionarily humans need to socialize in order to survive. For example, prehistoric humans could kill large mammals only by hunting in groups, and agriculture solved the problem of food when humans got together to create irrigation.
  • Natural selection has programmed us to be happy when we socialize and unhappy when we are lonely. Those who don't like to socialize went extinct.
  • There are in fact specific neurons, the "loneliness neurons", that are in charge of punishing us with depression if we don't socialize (Gillian Matthews, 2012)
  • But this cannot be the whole story. "Loners" have always been important in human civilization. Great philosophers preferred solitude to come up with great thoughts, and many of us view them as role models, not as sick people. Scientists working day and night in laboratories (or at their desk) invented some of the artifacts that improved the lives of millions. Monks and hermits were widely admired. Loners have discovered continents. The USA was colonized by loners.
  • We think of these achievements by "loners" as milestones in the evolution of human civilization, not as tragedies.
  • Human progress has always depended on loneliness, or, at least, solitude.
  • Socializing activities tend to decline proportionally to economic development. We were "social" when it was convenient to be part of a group: we needed others to feel safe; we needed others to help us; we needed others to take care of us when we get old; etc. But now that the police protect us, that we can buy what we need, and that the state takes care of us when we get old, etc, we are becoming a lot less social. We still socialize but in a superficial manner, while we are doing many other things, and we do more and more often it in a distant manner, over the Internet, not in person.
  • Given the choice, people prefer privacy over socialization.
  • What is truly unique about humans is our ability to "multi-task". We can flip through a book while watching tv and phoning a friend. Humans can and like to multi-task.
  • The less we socialize, the more we multi-task
  • No other animal wants to do multiple things at the same time. We are the only multitasking animal on the planet. We are not good at most of the things we do, but we do many things at the same time.
  • Humans are not social animals but curious multi-tasking animals.
  • Humans are curious animals, animals who want to know and do as much as possible.