Who did what to whom

1 minute read

A confluence of stories, one from the New York Times fashion section, by Henry Alford: “A Web of Answers and Questions”, about Googling people you meet…

Obviously, one is always going to have to be discreet when talking about what youve found, said Ms. [Kate] Fox, a director of the Social Issues Research Center in Oxford, England. But our brains havent changed since the Stone Age, and humans are designed to live in small groups in which everyone knows one another. Googling is an attempt to recreate a primeval, preindustrial pattern of interaction.

…and one from science writer Michael Balter, in Slate, about the evolution of human brain size: “Why Are Our Brains So Ridiculously Big?”:

How did our brains get so big? Researchers have put forward a number of possible explanations over the years, but the one with the most staying power is an idea known as the social brain hypothesis. Its chief proponent, psychologist Robin Dunbar of Oxford University, has argued for the past two decades that the evolution of the human brain was driven by our increasingly complex social relationships. We required greater neural processing power so that we could keep track of who was doing what to whom.

I’m glad I’m not the one who has to write continual “Stone Age mind” stories. Personally I think van Schaik’s idea about cultural intelligence (discussed in the article) has a lot more going for it than Dunbar’s. We are only modestly better at tracking social interactions than other primates, while we are light years better at cultural learning. Googling people is an application of technology to enable us to work effectively in a society in which our economic interactions are mostly with strangers. That doesn’t make the world more like one big hunter-gatherer group, it makes it less so.