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09 February 2009

Homo Socialis

[I originally posted this blog on Tuesday 18 November 2008 on MySpace. I'm reposting it here as part of "Brad's Greatest Hits."]

I believe that what makes human beings unique is not our intelligence but our nature as radically social beings. In fact, a far better nomenclature than Homo sapiens (lit. "wise human") would be Homo socialis. Perhaps a thought-experiment will help to illuminate my argument. Imagine taking an infant and, immediately after birth, isolating him on a desert island. On the island, he will have every need met but will never have any human interaction. (Forget for a moment that social interaction is a very important requirement for human survival.) On returning seventy years later, what would we find? He certainly wouldn't be able to speak since language is something that we learn from others; moreover, language wouldn't be useful for an individual on his own. In fact, I would argue, he would know surprisingly little. While he might intuitively know some basic arithmetic as most animals do, he would most likely not know algebraic concepts and certainly wouldn't know anything approaching calculus. While he probably understands basic causality and temporality, he certainly wouldn't understand science or critical thinking. What this exercise demonstrates is how much of our supposed intelligence as individuals is really part of our social experience. None of us has had to reinvent the wheel. We inherit knowledge from those who have come before us. As it has been said, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Indeed, there has been the occasional Einstein in human history, and they have expanded so extremely on their inherited knowledge as to shift the paradigm of understanding. However, how many Einsteins have there really been? I would guess on the order of a few thousand, but for the sake of argument, let's be safe and say that there could have been as many as a billion (yes, a one with nine zeros after it). If that is true and we accept most estimations of there having been somewhere around 100 billion human beings to have ever lived, that means that only 1% of our species could have potentially become independently intelligent if they had been chosen for our little thought-experiment. Average Joes and Janes like you and me wouldn't have fared a chance. The only thing that sets us apart as a species, then, is the fact that we are able to culturally retain the minor advances of the typical person and the infinitesimally rare major leaps of the geniuses. It is not that we are exceptional as individuals but that we are exceptionally able to organize in groups that has made us unprecedentedly successful as a species. Think back to the one caveat of our thought-experiment: social interaction is a biological requirement of human survival. That alone should point toward the conclusion that human beings are unique in that we are Homo socialis.

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