Social Behavior: Making the Best of the Human Condition

By Grinde, Bjorn | Mankind Quarterly, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Social Behavior: Making the Best of the Human Condition


Grinde, Bjorn, Mankind Quarterly


Human social behavior is driven by emotions that involve agreeable and punishing sensations. We are inclined to be nice because kindness feels good while misconduct is disturbing. This evolutionary strategy laid down in humans is forceful and flexible, and it can be exploited to the benefit of mankind. Thus biological restraints do not necessarily block the creation of a more gregarious society. One problem, however, is that we live under conditions different from those to which our genes are adapted. The situation causes a deterioration in social behavior because it involves stress and because it is suboptimal for our innate cooperative inclinations. Key Words: evolution, environment, genes, kin selection, group selection, behavioral fitness, altruism, social behavior, Darwinian happiness, discontent.

In an attempt to optimize behavioral fitness, evolution balances the advantages of solitary living against the advantages of interacting with others. In typical social species there is also a balance between selfish and altruistic traits. The behavioral adaptation, however, is specific to a particular environment. It is generally assumed that forcing animals to live under conditions different from those for which their genes are designed causes stress and aberrant behavior (Moberg, 1985).

The human species presumably adapted to a rare mixture of pair-bonding within small bands or tribes and to a stone age way of life. Our genes are not designed for modern society. This mismatch, between the environment of evolutionary adaptation and present conditions, may help explain why aggressive and anti-social conduct is such a severe problem.

Our intellect, and the concomitant measure of free will, has made humans the most versatile animal on earth, but survival does not necessarily mean that we thrive under any and all circumstances.

There is a price to be paid for stretching the limits. Habituation and culture can divert behavior in many directions, but all paths are not equally serviceable. Present conditions of living is a source of stress, a more optimal environment might reduce the stress and thereby alleviate various behavioral problems.

I shall use the acronym DEG (Discord between Environment and Genes) for the negative aspects of the mismatch between what the genes are adjusted to and the actual conditions of living for a species. The population density of the cities is one example of human DEG. The density affects the number of people with whom we are forced to interact, the way society is organized, as well as several other features of life that contribute to the DEG situation. In the stone age tribe, members had lifelong companionship with a small group of individuals. In the age of the nuclear family, many people seem to lack a sense of belonging. The presence of friends and affiliates does not offer complete compensation for the social security of the tribe.

A Social Species

Dawkins (1976) has stated: "Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature". I disagree, we have powerful innate social tendencies, and the human mind is designed with a fair amount of generosity. For recent treaties supporting this claim see: Wilson (1993), Wright (1994), Waal (1996) and Ridley (1996). Yet, social behavior may very well be an Achilles heel for modern society.

As pointed out by Damon (1999), feelings such as empathy and companionship are present from a very early age. Newborns cry when they hear others cry and show signs of pleasure at happy sounds such as cooing and laughter. By the second year of life, children commonly console peers or parents in distress. Although the emotional disposition to help appears to be present, the means of helping others effectively must be learned and refined through social experience. But while our circle as children tends to be limited to small numbers, historically our kin, in more complex modern societies as we grow up we are increasingly in contact with strangers, and more wary attitudes develop. …

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Social Behavior: Making the Best of the Human Condition
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