Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Man is the most social animal

The new book, This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress (Edge Question Series), has a curious collection of opinions. It was promoted on the recent Science Friday.

The essays are all free online. One attacked this Aristotle quote:
Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.
Adam Waytz wrote:
For reinforcing a perilous social psychological imperialism toward other behavioral sciences and for suggesting that humans are naturally oriented toward others, the strong interpretation of Aristotle's famous aphorism needs to be retired. ...

Despite possessing capacities far beyond other animals to consider others' minds, to empathize with others' needs, and to transform empathy into care and generosity, we fail to employ these abilities readily, easily, or equally. ...

Even arguably our most important social capacity, theory of mind — the ability to adopt the perspectives of others — can increase competition as much as it increases cooperation, highlighting the emotions and desires of those we like, but also highlighting the selfish and unethical motives of people we dislike. ...

Because our social capacities are largely non-automatic, ingroup-focused, and finite, we can retire the strong version of Aristotle's statement.
No, man is very social by nature.

I used to think that chimps were more social, but they are not. They never cooperate in the ways that humans commonly do, such as building something together.

Only a few animals are truly social in the sense of cooperating. Mainly humans, ants, bees, and termites. And only human are social in the sense of a theory of mind.

I used to think that women were more social than men. That might be true when the group is the size of a small dinner party, but men are much more social in larger groups. See for example this Dutch reality TV experiment.

Aristotle's statement makes a lot more sense than Waytz's. Humans being social does not mean that we never compete or that we treat all others equally. Ants and bees are essentially slaves to the group. Some humans are also, but as Aristotle explained, our society permits some to become individualists, either because they are less than human or more than human. That is, the nonconformist may be the criminal who fails to adapt to society, or the free man who chooses to go his own way.

Sometimes a preference to the in-group over the out-group bugs people. But that is an essential part of being a social animal. Bees prefer their hive over a foreign hive, and ants prefer their own colony. If a social relationship means anything, it means a preference over those without a social relationship.

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