Friendly People Ensured Human Survival

Friendly people are often dismissed as being too kind for their own good. The truth is that they’ve been vital to human success. Find out why.

At the peak of his fame, Professor Jordan Peterson acquired a reputation as an intellectual rock star. His book 12 Rule for Life was the number one book on Amazon for months, and it’s still at number six as I write this.

One of the central themes of the book and of Peterson’s philosophy is that people need to stand up for themselves. He famously points to lobsters’ behaviour, their aggressiveness, and their hierarchical groups as evidence that friendly people shouldn’t be overly agreeable to succeed in life.

Professor Peterson has some personal difficulties these days, so I hesitate to mention him, and I wish him and his family well. I’m still pointing to his theories because they’re probably the best known contemporary example of Social Darwinism.

 Best Known Contemporary Example of Social Darwinism

In his bestselling book, Professor Peterson puts it this way: “All that matters, from a Darwinian perspective, is permanence—and the dominance hierarchy, however social or cultural it might appear, has been around for half a billion years.”

 As we’ve explained before in these pages, science shows that human evolution isn’t driven by dominance, brute strength or low cunning. Humans have become the most successful species on Earth because we are friendly people who like to cooperate.

 Penguin Random House has just released another book on this topic. Unfortunately, it hasn’t drawn nearly the attention that 12 Rules for Life garnered. 

A Much More Accurate View of Human Development

I say “unfortunately” because it provides a much more accurate view of human development and how it applies to contemporary life. The book is called Survival of the Friendliest by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods. 

 The authors argue that “no folk theory of human nature has done more harm—or is more mistaken—than the ‘survival of the fittest.’” In addition to being mistaken, it’s also been misinterpreted. 

Paraphrasing Darwin, Professor Leon C. Megginson famously wrote in 1963, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” The theory of evolution’s concept of “survival of the fittest” never claimed that “the fittest” were the toughest or the most dominant or the craftiest in society.

“Survival of the Fittest Refers to Something Very Specific”

 Hare and Woods explain that “To Darwin and modern biologists, ‘survival of the fittest’ refers to something very specific—the ability to survive and leave behind viable offspring. It is not meant to go beyond that.” Even so, as they point out, many people have gone way beyond that. They’ve used survival of the fittest to justify racism, genocide, eugenics, laissez-faire capitalism and, as with Peterson, bureaucratic hierarchies. 

Survival of the Friendliest outlines a different model of human evolution. As the authors put it, “What allowed us to thrive while other humans went extinct was a kind of cognitive superpower: a particular type of friendliness called cooperative communication.”

 Type of Friendliness Called Cooperative Communication

Hare and Woods argue that friendly people are the fittest people to succeed based on Darwin’s ideas. Neighbourly cultures are more likely to survive than those that are less cohesive and friendly people become desirable mates when a community values cooperation.

Along with the idea that “the fittest” are the strongest and/or the most aggressive, we have a related idea that the most intelligent people have driven our development as a species. There isn’t much evidence behind that notion either.

 The authors point out that, “We shared the planet with at least four other human species. Some of these humans had brains that were as big as, or bigger than, our own.” 

We Don’t Have a Monopoly on Big Brains

So, we don’t have a monopoly on big brains. Yet none of these other species survived, and they never came up with the advanced tools and culture that gave us our ultimate advantage.

Humans have conquered the world simply because we’re friendly people. As the book reminds us, “We are experts at working together with other people, even strangers. We can communicate with someone we’ve never met about a shared goal and work together to accomplish it.”

There are other social animals, including most primates. Even so, none of them can perform this simple task that we do daily without even thinking about it.

Build on Knowledge and Pass it to the Next Generation

This sophisticated capacity for cooperation allows us to learn from one another and from the past. We can also build on that knowledge and pass it down to the next generation, which is the basis of human progress.

 Hare and Woods tell us that, “Homo sapiens were able to flourish where other smart human species didn’t because we excel at this particular kind of friendliness.” Friendly people teaching each other new skills and passing them along fosters an ongoing culture, education and progressive technology.

In a sense, we humans have domesticated ourselves just as much as we have tamed our pets and livestock. Domestication entails gradually changing wild animals into friendly beasts.

We Also Domesticated Ourselves in the Process

It wasn’t entirely intentional, but we also domesticated ourselves in the process. Friendly people consciously choose likeable mates and then raise loving children. It’s almost like the way we selectively breed our dogs to be friendlier.

Friendly people can live in larger groups. Human communities grew from small extended families into groups of a hundred or more. They learned to live together and be neighbourly.

The only trouble with friendly people is that they are very loyal. They will fight to the death to defend their friends.

If We Perceive a Threat, Our Empathy Vanishes

Somehow, if we perceive that a person or another group is a threat to our family, neighbours, or community, our empathy vanishes. The person we see as a threat becomes “the enemy” and we become ruthless and cruel. Some of the friendliest people you’d ever want to meet have taken part in war crimes and genocide.

Part of the new story we all need to make sense of our place in the world involves understanding human origins. Science has taken away our creation myths. We need a science-based narrative that we can all learn and tell each other as part of that highly adaptive culture of ours. 

Hare and Woods make it clear that realizing the vital role of friendly people is part of that new story. As they say, “The self-domestication hypothesis is not just another creation story. It is a powerful tool that points to real solutions that can help us short-circuit our tendency to dehumanize others.”

 We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
Humans owe our evolutionary success to friendship
Survival Of The Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins And Rediscovering Our Common Humanity
Hunter-Gatherer Culture and Storytellers
Friendly Faces Drove Human Evolution
Is the Birthplace of All Humans in the Kalahari


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