“Survival of the Friendliest”

“When selection is relaxed, the fitness landscape itself changes, such that thin precipices broaden out to plateaus. Once a selective constraint is lifted off a trait, the population is able to explore a wider array of possibilities in related traits, and evolution may improvise more freely…
In the researchers’ model, huddling for warmth served to relax selection on the animal’s insulation, allowing genes controlling their metabolism to vary more without compromising their ability to maintain an optimal temperature… The authors argue that by huddling, mice effectively form a “super organism” — sharing heat to behaviorally approximate the benefits inherent to larger organisms without having to evolve a larger body, allowing their metabolism more freedom to change…
By analyzing the historical migrations of birds, the researchers discovered that species that had already evolved cooperative behaviors in a benign environment were twice as likely to have moved into a harsh one than non-cooperative breeders. The researchers speculate that cooperation buffers against unpredictable breeding seasons, allowing already social populations to be more successful in invading new niches…
If an organism can modify its niche — by altering itself or its relationships with other species — it has the chance to build the world in which its future progeny will evolve, reshaping it to better ensure their survival… There are doubtless many reasons bacteria resist lab life, but chief among them is the fact that, in the wild, bacteria are not self-sufficient: They’ve co-evolved to depend on each other. It may seem precarious, from the vantage point of natural selection, for species to require each other to survive, but the overwhelming ubiquity of interdependence suggest it must have serious advantages…
Humans have created a unique global niche where we are largely shielded from selective forces: Agriculture staves off starvation, medicine protects us from disease, cultural norms promote group harmony. Our evolution has been profoundly influenced by our selection-buffering behaviors.”

There is an overwhelming number of reasons why this interpretation is important and should be widely integrated into science curricula.

From just a scientific perspective, thinking about genetics/evolution at the community level reveals the answers to a slew of questions — for example, fascinating suggestions about the way autism provides advantages to the group that autistic individuals belong to, or the observation that a diversity in cognitive skills and behavioral habits and food preferences means that a community will always have someone around to do the task no one else wants to do and will be able to take advantage of all their food options without exhausting their supplies (imagine if 1000 people loved corn and hated beans). These explain why we have so much behavioral variation even though some of these variations might be less adaptive for an individual alone in the wilderness.

And then from a social perspective, the “survival of the fittest” philosophy has been the underpinning of some of the most toxic aspects of Western culture. It was used to catalyze widespread support for theories of white/male supremacy and later eugenics, wrapping them up with faux-scientific evidence. It created a society that perceives humans as individual units who must each prove their worth to be allowed to survive, and who are meant to care primarily about themselves and secondarily about their progeny and that is it. The individual must strive for total self-reliance and fear dependence on others. Individuals who fail to meet our society’s criteria for such self-reliance are lesser beings, and deserve to be used by the self-reliant individuals who deign to provide support.

Human evolutionary study tells us that our species evolved becauseof our need for social groups and community. We were able to achieve higher survival rates because we worked together, and that gave our genomes the opportunity to change in new ways. There is clear positive selection for neural genes related to communication and decreased aggression (some scientists describe it as a process of humans “taming themselves”). We could tolerate genetic changes that increased the time it took for us to mature to adults, because it gave our brains more time to develop and that made our communities stronger and more capable of protecting defenseless children. And these communities also meant that individual humans could take risks and try out strange new foods and spend time developing better ways to hunt and better technologies for survival like clothes and that smaller groups could splinter off and explore the world beyond the environments that we had particularly adapted to.

It’s also clear that human beings actually need each other if we want to stay healthy. Loneliness, a product of our unnatural obsession with self-reliance, is worse for your health than smoking. The past decade has seen more and more research on this topic and some of the findings are incredible and beautiful — like the discovery of sensory neurons in the skin that respond specifically to social touch and project to the emotion-regulation centers of the brain.

Related: “The Strange Inevitability of Evolution”; “In an age of rampant narcissism and social cheating — the importance of teaching social evolutionary mechanisms.”; “The self-reliant individual is a myth that needs updating”; “Our Ancestors Were Babysitters”; “The Profound Emptiness of ‘Resilience’

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.