The Social Brain

Intellectually speaking, my life is very exciting at the moment. I’m exposing myself to a lot of things I wouldn’t have wanted to think about in the past. One of these is the concept of man as a fundamentally social animal. This is an idea I rejected because, in as much as I can still be classified as a Randian or an Objectivist, I maintain that man is a fundamentally rational animal. I’ve always subscribed to the Randian definition of man:

“Man’s distinctive characteristic is his type of consciousness—a consciousness able to abstract, to form concepts, to apprehend reality by a process of reason . . . [The] valid definition of man, within the context of his knowledge and of all of mankind’s knowledge to-date [is]: “A rational animal.”

(“Rational,” in this context, does not mean “acting invariably in accordance with reason”; it means “possessing the faculty of reason.” A full biological definition of man would include many subcategories of “animal,” but the general category and the ultimate definition remain the same.)”

I’m not abandoning this entirely, but recent advances in evolutionary theory are making me reconsider this stuff. I mean, I was aware of Dunbar’s number, but I wasn’t aware that it was Dunbar himself that came up with the Social Brain hypothesis: the hypothesis that we developed our brains to manage complex social arrangements. And I wasn’t aware of why the number itself is crucial to this theory.

A quick illustration of this complexity:

A group of 2 People = 1 relationship (A to B)

A group of 3 People = 3 relationships (A-B, A-C, and B-C)

A group of 4 People = 6 relationships (A-B, A-C, A-D, B-C, B-D, C-D)

A group of 5 People = 10 relationships (A-B, A-C, A-D, A-E, B-C, B-D, B-E, C-D, C-E, D-E)

As you can see, an explosive increase happens the more people you add. One of Dunbar’s observations was that chimps can cognitively handle groups of 50 people, and humans can handle 150 (hence Dunbar’s number). The significance of this is that while 150 is only 3x bigger than 50, given the illustration above, you can see how it doesn’t require merely a 3x greater cognitive ability (and we are, after all, more than merely 3x smarter than a chimp).

And that’s not even getting into how a single person in that group stacks different relationships, or any sub-groups they create within that larger group, with its own complexities, or how it relates different sub-groups.

I have to dig deeper into this topic to understand the truth and limits of it. As far as I’m aware, it’s still a hypothesis, but one I keep hearing more and more legitimate sources talking about, which makes me think there’s something to it. And it’s also a hypothesis that’s used to underpin other more complex models which do seem to be correct themselves, so it makes me think this underpinning has some firmness (if you’ll allow me a bit of bootstrapping).

The crucial thing here is how it rubs up against the theory that we developed our brains primarily for “problem solving”, which is what we traditionally think of the evolution of intelligence as being about. Of course, the increased cognitive ability allowed us to use it for abstract problems outside the social realm, and it doesn’t really upset the notion of man as having a crucially rational faculty but… it does make me think we need to take more seriously man’s social nature where.

In Objectivism at least, and a lot of rationalist philosophies, the social element is described as something that comes after the rational element in man – e.g. “Man uses rationality in order to make sense of the world, to fulfil his values, to live a happy life, primarily by acquiring resources in creative ways – friendship is an important part of happiness, and well-managed social groups are better than trying to go-it-alone, and so man uses rationality to organise this aspect of his life”, or “Man is fundamentally rational, and his life is structured fundamentally around the selfish pursuit of his values and the gathering of resources – friendship and socialisation are important values in man’s life, and he uses rationality to navigate and acquire these values”.

The idea is that man evolved as a fundamentally rational creature, and used that rationality to improve upon his social needs. The Social Brain hypothesis would alter this, to something more like: Man uses rationality in order to make sense of the world, and his primary mode of understanding the world is in a social context – tools, problems solving, complex rational reasoning… these are all important things, and he extends his cognitive ability beyond the social, to the abstract world of Pure Reason, and then applies this to the natural world in order to pursue values, gain resources, etc… but… they are later developments. Man fundamentally uses rationality in a social context, and he has fundamental social requirements as part of his being.

The crucial shift here is in appreciating the mode in which man approaches the world: does he approach from a problem solving standpoint, where what he sees (so long as he “focuses”, as Rand puts it) is potential math problems and engineering solutions, so as to achieve simply his eudaimonia, or does he think about the world in terms of his social purpose, his ability to climb the social hierarchy (if he’s a man) or find the best mate to produce children (if she’s a woman) – which, yeah, brings in this whole gendered element once we think about man and his metaphysical understanding of his place in the world as fundamentally social.

And I mean, that’s what’s so crucially interesting here. It’s about metaphysics. Metaphysics is about who we are, what our potential is, what our “soul” is, why we have it, what it does, what it could do, what it needs to do, and what our fundamental understanding of the world consists of. Obviously some of this spills into metaethics and epistemology too, and I don’t care what you label it – my point is that this creates a lot to think about for crucial philosophical questions about who man is and how he understands his purpsoe in the world.

Now, I’m not saying that the Randian model excludes man’s social nature in any way. But, well, let’s quote Rand again:

“Man gains enormous values from dealing with other men; living in a human society is his proper way of life—but only on certain conditions. Man is not a lone wolf and he is not a social animal. He is a contractual animal. He has to plan his life long-range, make his own choices, and deal with other men by voluntary agreement (and he has to be able to rely on their observance of the agreements they entered).”

The point of what she’s saying is that we’re capable of socialisation, of course we are. And we gain great benefit from it. But it’s about using our rational faculty for our own benefit (and, if done without force, mutual benefit). Social interaction as an application of our core rational faculty, rather than rationality as an application/extension of our social faculty. And it’s about social values as a class of values within life – even if they’re a vital, important, crucial part of life, they are still objects of pursuit, and not an essential feature of man’s metaphysical nature.

To quote again:

“Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character. “

In a sense, I’m not contradicting any of this. I believe that is how friendship and love work. I think there’s a sense in which this is true, when we step back and start analysing our friendships and being judicious.

However, Rand’s understanding of social interaction seems to consist solely of this view above: that we approach people in a fundamentally rational way, where we apply our reason to understand them, evaluate them, and place them, and with judicious virtue we treat them how they ought to be treated.

And where I’m finding a very interesting difference is in considering that we don’t apply our rational faculty towards social situations, as one option among many for reason’s application, like a Swiss Army knife with “Friendship” and “Love” arms. We don’t use rationality to acquire social values out there in the world, as part of our purpose of our life (eudaimonia); we use rationality in a peculiarly and fundamentally social way in order to understand our purpose in life.

Of course, we then use this cognitive faculty in a more abstract way to understand the world itself, and to analyse it, and ourselves, more deeply and blah de blah – but that bit, the abstract use, is not the purpose of the rational animal’s life. The rational animal’s purpose is social, because its rationality evolved and developed in a social context.

That’s where these ideas have taken me. I’m not 100% committed to them, and I may find evidence that undermines what I’m driving at here. There’s a lot more to consider. But these are some very fertile, very exciting developments I’m having, and I’m psyched to analyse them deeper. They help make sense of how different types of humans develop different social orders appropriate to them, depending on how well or poorly their rational faculties develop – as well as what sort of philosophy and/or ethics is possible to them.

What is crucially interesting about all this is the notion that we understand the world using a certain framework. I don’t mean this in a Kantian sense necessarily, but our thinking has a structure, and that structure fundamentally shapes the world. It makes some things more important and other things less important; it brings some into sharp focus and others more blurry.

And as Objectivists we think of it as a purely rational framework, of pure logic, and we also don’t buy into the Kantian absurdity that we are blind because have eyes – that our brain doesn’t understand “real” reality because it is constrained by logic. And none of what I’m saying contradicts any of that…

But… the idea here is that when it comes to the fundamental questions of human nature and human purpose, of the type of creature we are and the type of world we inhabit, we have to think using a social framework. It’s not that it’s impossible for us to do it purely rationally – it’s just that a purely rational framework is inappropriate, and when actually put into practice, will lead to a nihilistic, empty, cold,  fruitless life. It can be done; you just won’t be happy.

And the consequences of all this are far stronger than saying, “Hey! Friendship and love are really important you guys, not just important“. Rather, it is to say that fulfilling one’s social role, as the particular kind of human one is, in the particular kind of social environment one finds oneself, is a vital aspect of living a proper human life. This means understanding one’s gender roles, one’s place in the hierarchy, and how one both succeeds in these roles, and in this hierarchy, and how one also contributes to the maintenance of the social order, to the harmony and stability of one’s community. These aren’t just values, they are crucial part’s of one’s purpose.

This also leads to very interesting avenues with regard to the place of religion and mythology in our lives. After all, if rationality developed as a social tool, which we then applied to the world, it makes sense that we would naturally try to make sense of the world by applying not merely by applying intention to it (placing gods, with a consciousness and intention within it), but applying a social dimension to it, where the world is fundamentally composed of forces who relate to one another, as a reflection of the way we relate to one another.

And then this leads to another consequence: politics would reflect religion, and religion would reflect politics – if my brain developed to create a complex political arrangement amongst people, then my religious, metaphysical framework for the world would also have a fundamentally political/social element to it,  where the metaphysical shape of the world and the place of myself within it has an inescapable socio-political essence. Religion is crucially politicial as well as personal. And vice versa… our socio-political frameworks are fundamentally tied to a… mythological… religious view of the world.

It also leads me to the conclusion that Plato and Aristotle and all the ancient (and medieval) thinkers weren’t somehow hamstrung by their focus on philosophy as fundamentally political and religious venture. It wasn’t that they were incapable of thinking of the individual and his purely rationally defined purpose in life – it’s rather that they implicitly accepted this view of the world, that man is fundamentally social, and his rational faculty exists for a social purpose.

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