The Human Brain Evolved to Form Complex Social Groups

The more advanced the primate, the bigger its social network

Douglas Rushkoff
Nov 20 · 2 min read
A chimpanzee holds up a piece of fruit for two other chimps to examine.
A chimpanzee holds up a piece of fruit for two other chimps to examine.
Photo: curioustiger/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Evolution may have less to do with rising above one’s peers than learning to get along with more of them.

We used to believe that human beings developed larger brains than chimpanzees in order to do better spatial mapping of our environment or to make more advanced tools and weapons. From a simplistic survival-of-the-fittest perspective, this makes sense. Primates with better tools and mental maps would hunt and fight better, too. But it turns out there are only slight genetic variations between hominids and chimpanzees, and they relate almost exclusively to the number of neurons that our brains are allowed to make. It’s not a qualitative difference but a quantitative one. The most direct benefit of more neurons and connections in our brains is an increase in the size of the social networks we can form. Complicated brains make for more complex societies.

Think of it this way: a quarterback, point guard, or midfielder, no matter their skills, is only as valuable as their ability to coordinate with the other players; a great athlete is one who can predict the movements of the most players at the same time. Similarly, developing primates were held back less by their size or skills than by their social intelligence. Bigger groups of primates survived better, but required an increase in their ability to remember everyone, manage relationships, and coordinate activities. Developing bigger brains allowed human beings to maintain a whopping 150 stable relationships at a time.

The more advanced the primate, the bigger its social groups. That’s the easiest and most accurate way to understand evolution’s trajectory, and the relationship of humans to it. Even if we don’t agree that social organization is evolution’s master plan, we must accept that it is — at the very least — a large part of what makes humans human.


This is section 10 of the new book Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff, which is being serialized weekly on Medium.

From Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff. Copyright © 2019 by Douglas Rushkoff. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Team Human is a manifesto — a fiery distillation of preeminent digital theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s most urgent thoughts on civilization and human nature.

Douglas Rushkoff

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Team Human
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