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We humans are a social species, at our best when living and working within small teams; we may be gregarious but larger groups can make us feel uncomfortable, and crowds often frighten us. Our sociability enables us to solve problems collaboratively in ways which, as competitive individuals, we couldn’t do on our own. The work of the world gets done in teams.
From the beginning it seems we humans needed company. “It’s not good that man should be alone”, God is reputed to have thought whilst observing Adam in the Garden of Eden. The poet, John Donne claimed in 1624 that “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”. The more complex the neo-cortex ─ that part of the mammalian brain that deals mainly with social skills ─ the more complex the relationships that species can handle. We humans are at the top of that particular scale of ability. An alpha male chimpanzee may lord it over its extended harem and associated hangers-on, but is not in the same league as a social manipulator as is a prime minister at Question Time in the House of Commons.
Fascinating clues as to how humans first learnt to collaborate were discovered by archaeologists in the Sterkfontein caves north of Johannesburg1 in South Africa. Until one and a half million years ago the calcified bones of the humans all appeared to have been chewed up, while the bones of the big cats were almost all intact. Quite simply we humans were the hunted. But then the sequence changed. The bones of the wild animals appeared to have had the meat cut off them with flint knives, while the human bones remained largely intact. Humans ceased being the hunted and became the hunters. How? It was not through any ability to use formal language, for that only came about a hundred and fifty thousand years ago. It seems that it was to do with empathy.
The ability to empathise enables us to read our neighbours’ faces and note their body language; so making it possible to understand what they are thinking, and what they intend to do next. An increase in the brain’s cognitive complexity also made it possible for our ancestors to think so ‘intentionally’ that they were able to organize themselves into groups of very superior hunters. Empathy is the core of our social skills. Something else follows; we humans think better in terms of stories and pictures, than we do in terms of words and abstract concepts.
There is a tension within our ‘social brain’ between deep friendships, and wide-ranging relationships. We find it pleasant and rewarding to work with groups of about a dozen people ─ there are eleven people on a football team, fifteen in a rugby team, twelve people on a jury, and there were twelve disciples. Psychologists report that none of us is ever likely to grieve deeply for more than about that number of people, for it seems that the well of human sympathy is not bottomless. Management consultants are quick to suggest that we work most effectively when we have no more than ten or twelve people answering to us. Once comfortable within the smaller group, it seems we can form working relationships in groups of up to about one hundred and fifty people. In the forests ofBraziltribal groups reaching this number tend to break down into two separate groups, or virtually disintegrate due to internal feuds. This is the flip side of our sociability. Frustrated with each other we can be extremely vicious; remember, Cain killed his brother Abel. The most dangerous challenge to our prehistoric ancestors, as to ourselves today, comes from our fellow humans.
It is learning and sociability that make us human. It is through the work we do that we slowly build up ‘Social Capital’, namely those tangible substances of goodwill, fellowship and social intercourse that count most in our daily lives2.It is through what we actually do that we come to be appreciated by our colleagues. It is also why unemployment, or perhaps even worse, being employed far below our capabilities, is so demoralising, and potentially life-threatening. In a study of Whitehall civil servants, those with the highest responsibilities had the best health, while those in the lowest ranks had the highest mortality ratings3. Work is not just about getting paid, it is about making a contribution to improve the general well-being of the community to which the individual belongs, or wishes to belong. The community as a whole benefits from the cooperation of all its parts, and consequently the individual will be enormously strengthened by the reciprocal bonds of sociability.
Thesis 5: 24th August 2006