Why Have Humans Evolved to Be Social Beings?

Samarth JajooJuly 12, 2021Connection and IsolationFeatures
Why Have Humans Evolved to Be Social Beings?

Because otherwise, we’re essentially monkeys who don’t like bananas as much.

Alright, maybe that’s hyperbole — we’re also self-aware, have big brains, and manage energy consumption and depletion efficiently. However, being social beings is often an overlooked factor in the evolution of humans. Becoming social was essential to our evolution and brought us so many attributes that we now associate with being human. Let’s talk about how socialisation helped with our very survival, how it helped us become the alpha species, but first, let’s explore what socialization actually is and how it came up.

Many other animals are social, but they’re usually communicating about the lion coming their way or broadcasting information about where they found the best fruit. They only talk about things essential to surviving. We Homo sapiens, however, have a much larger than usual neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for language, emotional processing, and other tasks of social importance. With that big neocortex, we became the dominant species of the planet through our ability to socialize beyond the essential or, to go one step further, beyond the natural world. Take nations, for example — countries are made-up ideas; the earth didn’t just naturally get divided and produce different laws for different regions. Still, any two people from the same country can immediately have a shared sense of identity and work together towards some objective to serve the idea they both believe in.

This is a very unusual phenomenon in nature. For all other mammals, there is a cap on the number of social relationships you can maintain. In the 1990s, Robin Dunbar estimated this cap to be around 150 for humans. That would mean every single person is only capable of maintaining 150 social relationships. However, that number becomes much bigger when humans find themselves to have shared beliefs. If two people believe in the same idea, they can work together. Take religion, for example: two people who know nothing about each other but know they believe in the same god will instantly feel a connection and work with each other on their religious duties. People who know nothing about each other and go to a concert led by their favorite artist will dance together. Now, people don’t even have to meet physically to work together — programmers who don’t even know each other’s names work on projects simply because they believe that the free, open-source software they create will benefit the world. We’re faster when building things together. Our products are more robust. Best of all, when we’re working together, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time.

And, of course, there have always been prehistoric benefits to working together! Humans in groups have always been safer and better fed, and it’s no surprise that we evolved to have brains wired to be more social. How did the change in wiring actually happen? The theory is that offspring whose parents had strong social affinity were more likely to be raised better, and hence natural selection occurred over several thousand years to give us the neocortex we have today. Social development started within couples, then loose groups, then tribes, then villages, then cities, and, now, it is international! This allowed the creation of an interdependent society. Every family used to hunt for themselves, clothe themselves, and cook for themselves. Eventually, we realized that not everyone has to do everything for themselves by themselves. You could specialize! There could be people who only focus on doing one task, and our socialization skills allowed us to coordinate this new sort of system where you depended on several different people, beyond your blood, for your livelihood.

Becoming social beings was a big deal, but what took humans to the next level was how we had persistent collective memory. Stories were passed down. Knowledge was passed down. Every generation stood on the shoulders of the previous, and relationships could be built beyond lifetimes. The social progress made several hundred years ago hasn’t just disappeared, and the networks started then continue to exist and, in many cases, even prosper and expand. You don’t have to look far to understand how mindblowing this is — just think about when you read a book. The author could have died a hundred years ago, but they’re still talking to you through their words and, in turn, building a relationship with you. Every physicist today is working with Isaac Newton even though he passed away centuries ago! Thanks to him, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Standing on the shoulders of giants has allowed us to progress rapidly.

Our social evolution has reached the point at which not seeing other people is especially difficult, and this is something all of us have had to go through for the last year. Now that we’re getting back to socialization, let’s appreciate it for all that it brought us and continues to bring!


Dunbar, Robin. “Dunbar's Number: Why My Theory That Humans Can Only Maintain 150 Friendships Has Withstood 30 Years of Scrutiny.” The Conversation, June 23 2021. theconversation.com/dunbars-number-why-my-theory-that-humans-can-only-maintain-150-friendships-has-withstood-30-years-of-scrutiny-160676.

Samarth Jajoo is a seventh grader from Ahmedabad, India. He’s a programming enthusiast and solving problems is his best source of entertainment. When not coding, you’ll probably find him in school playing table tennis, or writing about something that triggers his imagination.