Human Tolerance Evolved from Living in Harsh Conditions

Human tolerance sets us apart from other animals. Discover how a computer simulation shows that harsh conditions drove our ancestors’ self-domestication process.

Back in the 60s, there was a short-lived TV show called It’s About Time. It was made by Sherwood Schwartz and his team, the same production company that brought us Gilligan’s Island

It’s About Time was filmed on the same location and was similar to Gilligan’s Island. Sadly, it lacked the sophisticated humour of the seven stranded castaways on that uncharted isle.

I have fond memories of watching it on our black and white TV in my parents’ quirky old house. Although it was a farce, I feel that it deserved better than to be cancelled after only one season.

It’s About Time Deserved Better than to Be Cancelled

The premise is that two astronauts find themselves travelling back in time to caveman days. While they try to repair their space capsule and return home, they interact with local hunter-gatherers Gronk and his wife, Shad.

Another character is the extraordinarily aggressive, dominant tribal chief known only as Boss. Cliff Norton plays Boss as the stereotypical alpha male, asserting his status through brute force and low cunning.

That’s how we’ve been taught to think of hunter-gatherer societies. We seem to believe that survival of the fittest means that only the strong survived in those times and only by “looking out for number one.”

Science Tells a New Story About Paleolithic People

Increasingly, science is telling a different story about paleolithic people. They’re finding that the attributes that enabled our prehistoric ancestors to survive the severe challenges they faced weren’t the ruthless brute force we had assumed about them. 

As they sift through the artifacts and evidence, a new pattern is emerging that anthropologists call cultural selection. Since humans are intensely social animals, their survival depends more on group survival than on any individual.

Groups with strong cultural cohesion fare better in challenging times than those that are divisive. This generates a Darwinlike process where nature selects cohesive, cooperative cultures to succeed and endure. A quote attributed to Charles Darwin goes, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

 Nature Selects Cohesive, Cooperative Cultures

The Journal of Archeological Method and Theory published a new study this week that supports the idea of cultural cohesion. Researchers from the University of York in England ran computer simulations representing thousands of people interacting within groups and with neighbouring groups. 

The idea was to emulate conditions as they might have been between 300,000 and 30,000 years ago. That’s the time when hunter-gatherer groups became mobile and started interacting more often.

The investigators wanted to learn more about the evolutionary pressures that drove intergroup tolerance. They also wanted to understand what behaviours were most successful when groups faced harsh environmental conditions.

What Behaviours Worked Best in Harsh Conditions?

Archeologists know that interaction increased because they have found raw materials and finished goods from distant places among artifacts from the period. Groups must have obtained these goods from other, faraway societies, likely through intermediaries along the way.

It seems that these cooperative trading arrangements began when people started moving out of Africa and fanning out across Eurasia. They were encountering more extreme and severe environments than they were used to.

The increase in trade tells us that intergroup relationships became friendlier during these harsh conditions. The investigators used the simulation to see whether intergroup tolerance or avoidance was the better strategy for group survival and using natural resources.

High Levels of Tolerance Yielded the Best Outcomes

They found that high levels of tolerance yielded the best survival outcomes. They believe that the harsh conditions our ancestors endured in those times caused emotional and hormonal shifts toward a process we’ve covered in these pages before called the “self-domestication hypothesis.”

People who were friendlier, more cooperative and more tolerant made better mates under harsh conditions. As a result, our human ancestors gradually became naturally inclined toward intergroup tolerance and related domestic traits like friendliness and cooperation.

This seems to be the simplest explanation that covers all the facts. The team argues that it’s a better theory than other ideas like cognitive changes or population growth.

We Can See These Traits All Around Us

We can see these traits in action all around us. We send donations to the other side of the world to help people we’ll never meet. 

Businesses on opposite sides of the ocean engage in global trade. Governments coordinate massive relief efforts wherever a natural disaster may strike on our planet.

Professor Penny Spikins studies the Archaeology of Human Origins at the University of York and is the study’s lead author. She explained, “That our study demonstrates the importance of tolerance to human success is perhaps surprising, especially when we often think of prehistory as a time of competition, however we have seen that in situations where people with surplus share across borders with those in need everyone benefits in the long term.” 

Our Natural Tolerance Wasn’t Inevitable

Other animals are more defensive when it comes to members of other packs or herds. Our natural tolerance wasn’t inevitable. We acquired it because of adversity. That triggered the cultural selection and self-domestication processes that shaped our modern human minds and institutions.

Even so, as we all know, tolerance isn’t our only trait. We’ve also fought wars and oppressed one another at various times.

Tolerance for One Another and Our Planet is Vital

We can’t tolerate those baser instincts in ourselves any longer. We’ve reached a crossroads where tolerance for one another and for our home planet is vital to our survival.

Is our world capable of nurturing our tolerance and abandoning our selfish defensiveness? The alternative is no world at all.

“Important Implications for Wider Debates”

Team member Dr Jennifer C. French of the University of Liverpool concluded by saying, “Our study’s findings also have important implications for wider debates about the increases in examples of innovation and greater rates of cultural evolution that occurred during this period. 

“They help to explain previously enigmatic changes in the archaeological record between 300,000 and 30,000 years ago.”

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
Study suggests environmental factors played a key role in the evolution of human tolerance and friendliness
Theoretical and Methodological Approaches to Ecological Changes, Social Behaviour and Human Intergroup Tolerance 300,000 to 30,000 BP
Hunter-Gatherer Culture and Storytellers
Friendly People Ensured Human Survival
Friendly Faces Drove Human Evolution

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