Psychologist Michael Tomasello, who studies comparatively the social behavior of developing children and apes, proposes that collective communication is uniquely human and that it was evolved for collaborative foraging, and so teamwork has been the crucial human advantage. The central facts about our ancestral human species, such as upright posture, large molar teeth, and later, the unchanging nature of their stone tool industry can all be understood as adaptations selected for the productive benefits of coordinating dividing labor into teamwork. The selection of the fittest ape individuals shifted to the selection of the most productive human relationships; and so, my answer as to the importance of community and the origin of rules is that highly developed instincts for justice evolved to permit the intimate engagement required for teamwork. However, to explain why justice has been under siege in recorded history, I need to describe competing motivations that arose to characterize our own 300,000-year-old Homo sapiens species.

Recent studies of ancient genomes reveal that 50,000-year-old Homo sapiens widely mixed and mated throughout the African continent while their Neanderthal contemporaries remained highly inbred. What motivated modern humans to associate so widely? Darwin thought that sexual selection for attractive “displays,” epitomized by the peacock’s tail, were predominant in our Homo sapiens species. Examples of sexual selection are: 1) our skulls are childlike compared to ancestral species, 2) human females are the only primates that retain rounded breasts when not lactating, and, of course, 3) behaviors like singing, dancing, and painting on the walls of caves. But it was not these attractive traits that drove this exotic form of evolution into prominence; but rather it was, and still is, the passionate desire to associate, itself, that was selected for the escalating benefits of drawing together intercommunicating populations with sufficient stability and size to retain practical knowhow across generations such that useful knowledge could begin rapidly evolving in the cultural realm.

During this time, most likely the result of amalgamating populations, there is also archaeological and skeletal evidence that war appeared in our species and gradually increased, becoming chronic about 12,000 years ago. Social instincts can adapt quickly, so there has been ample time for the harsh environments of chronic war to repurpose ancient pack-hunting instincts into war-like us-vs-them mob mentalities for the benefits of winning wars—all of it inflamed by our fatal penchant for the romance of charismatic politicians. Nevertheless, this remains an optimistic view of human nature as these disruptive instincts are recently evolved and superficial, compared to the stability of our instincts for justice having been deeply refined over millions of years in the crucible of natural selection.  

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2 Comments on “How important is community to humans, and where did the rules governing community come from?”

  1. Pithy and heartening take! So many fall prey to utterly dark thoughts and pronouncements about our species, while surrounded by, in essence, evidence to the contrary.

  2. “Our instincts for justice”–a recurrent theme in your work that you manage to present–even in these unsettled times–convincingly.

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