How can something so complex and far-reaching as marriage could be invented and so widely adopted? To begin to answer that question, Peter McGraw speaks to Bill Von Hippel, the author of The Social Leap: The New Evolutionary Science of Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy.
Listen to Episode #155 here
The Social Leap
I have been doing a deep dive into the invention of marriage, reading books, and talking to various experts, but to understand how something so complex and far-reaching could be invented and so widely adopted, it’s important to understand what allows humans to invent anything in the first place. In this episode, I speak to Bill Von Hippel about that very question. To do so, we look back more than 3 million years to see what makes humans unique and able to invent the wheel, electricity, and marriage. His excellent book, The Social Leap, traces our evolutionary history in order to help us understand our psychology now. I have known Bill for many years and I appreciate his enthusiasm for ideas, which will be on display here. I hope you enjoyed the episode. Let’s get started.
It’s great to see you.
I’m very happy you are here. I loved your book, The Social Leap, and I want to explore the book. The first half of the book is what I want to focus on. What I want to explore with you. and I’m going to let you be Bill Von Hippel. My readers who don’t know who you are will get it. They are going to figure it out. They will see why I’m so fond of you.
I want to look at contemporary marriage, this thing that I will call the relationship escalator and my readers will refer to it that way, too. How that came to be and what is it about humans, psychologically, evolutionarily, culturally, and sociologically that allows us to invent marriage? We are going to go way back. This is going to be a deep cut. To Lucy. Who is Lucy and why is she important to this conversation?
Lucy is the lovely name for our ancestors. That particular name was chosen because, at the time, the best and most intact skeleton was ever discovered, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds was a big hit on the radios and such. They were out there listening. They are working in this terrible and lovely baking hot sun and trying to find every little tiny bit they can, and then try to find a way to piece it together. They are listening to that song over and over again, and so the skeleton became Lucy. We don’t know if it’s even male or female with any certainty. There’s a whole bunch of different Australopithecines. They are in different subspecies, and they were around for several million years.
This is when the first missing link was ever discovered. It was Ray Dart in their early-1900s, somebody gave him a skull that they had found that they were pretty confident wasn’t a chimpanzee and was clearly not a person. This particular one was from South Africa and he was clever enough to realize that he had found something super important, an intermediate species between chimpanzees and us.
That was the first time archeologists had ever found convincing evidence that we may well have evolved from apes because now we are looking at something that’s pretty ape-like, but it also walks upright. You can tell that by the angle at which the neck connects to the skull. That was a skull at the time, but once they get the entire body, you can tell by virtual of all sorts of features.
This is in 1974 when Lucy was discovered in the Rift Valley.
These particular Australopithecines would have been from the early-’70s, and where she was from East Africa. I’m embarrassed to admit, I can’t remember if she’s from Kenya, Tanzania, or Ethiopia, because there are so many of them that have come out of those places, but it’s very complete Australopithecines.
What is that word referring to?
We are Homo sapiens and she was Australopithecus afarensis. Her genus is Australopithecus and her species is afarensis. They are very bushy branch of our family tree and our family tree is a very bushy thing. Now, it’s not anymore. We don’t know exactly why and perhaps we played a role in this process, but now we have got us Homo sapiens and chimpanzees, our nearest relatives.
There were countless connections between there that have all gone extinct. Now, we don’t know a certainty that Lucy was our direct ancestor. She could have been a great auntie. We can’t do the DNA from a skeleton that’s that old. We can’t track it in the same way we can with Neanderthals who we know are our cousins and that type of thing.
What you are describing is this evolutionary process in which Homo sapiens eventually became Homo sapiens. We share characteristics with Lucy and our cousins walking upright, for example, with bigger brains. This is one of the things I thought was fascinating, the ability to plan.
That comes way later. A chimpanzee has a brain of about 380 grams. If you look at Lucy, she’s around 450, so she’s clearly a lot smarter, but that’s only 70 grams of brain. We are looking at 1,350.
That’s the difference between you and me.
Your head is larger than mine, so I will give you that 70 grams, but you are trying to run a much bigger body. You are busy wasting your energy on other things. Here’s the thing. Lucy was certainly much smarter than chimpanzees but we are now million years into the process and she’s only gained 70 grams of brain power.
What’s so interesting is that 3 million years gained us 70 grams, but then the next 3 million years to get to us, gained us over about 900 grams. It’s a way bigger advantage since then than before then. What we think is that most of the evolutionary work took place after Lucy, and in fact, it was her walking upright that set the process in motion. If you look at chimpanzees, the males do very little to provision the offspring if anything at all.
We don’t know what the family life of Australopithecines was like, but in all probability, it was a similar mating system. We see that female chimps, for example, leave the group in which they are born in order to avoid breeding. Not that they think, “I better avoid breeding and leave,” but that’s an evolved tendency and it varies by sex in different species. In Australopithecines, it was the same that females appear to be the ones who leave the group. We don’t know what that arrangement would have been like when she got there, but it’s probably not too different from chimpanzees.
This is fascinating about this having read your book, I have read Yuval Harari’s book Sapiens. Matt Ridley’s book, The Rational Optimist. Those are the three books that I’m pulling my account from. This might help a little bit of context for the reader, but essentially is this larger brain and the ability to walk upright. Those two things become tremendously important in terms of survival, moving from being prey to predator, and then also this development of coordination that’s helped set us apart from other animals and even other primates.
We can take a deeper dive into that part of the story that you as you want, but the basic notion behind it is that once she evolved to walk upright, all sorts of other changes in the body took place. Those changes in the body facilitated throwing because the chimpanzee can’t throw very well. Its body is coordinated more vertically than laterally.
Once you are walking upright, you are aimed at the world laterally rather than vertically and muscles in your joints and all that. That facilitated throwing. Throwing facilitates the most important invention in military history, which is the capacity to kill at a distance. Once you can do that, a larger force of weaker individuals can defeat a smaller force of stronger individuals.
David and Goliath.
Exactly, but if you and I have to kill a lion, and all we have are knives, neither of us is going to go first because whoever gets there first is going to die. Once you are stuck in the throat, I might be able to knife the thing to death, but I don’t want to be the guy stuck in the throat.
I’m not that hungry.
If we can throw rocks at the lion, everything changes. Now, we can drive it away from a position of relative safety, but that requires that we work together. Once Australopithecines could walk upright, now they could benefit by working together because they have the capacity to kill at a distance. Previously when a lion, leopard, or even a sabretooth cat came along, the only prudent thing would be for every one of them to run for the trees. Now, we can kill at a distance if we can cooperate and work together. It won’t do any good throwing rocks by myself. I’m going to be dinner in a slightly bruised beast. If we can cooperate, we can drive it away, and then it benefits everybody to not run away, but to stand our ground and throw stones.
That changes everything psychologically. It creates pressure on us to benefit from working together. That then starts to lead to a bigger brain because bigger brains allow you to do more things like you were saying to plan. It’s this process where it ratchets upon itself. The reason it never ratcheted prior to that is that you have to pay the rent on a bigger brain.
If your bigger brain makes you capable of doing interesting things and thinking interesting things, you’ll never develop it because you have to bring in the calories somehow to run that machine. If you can now work together and hunt more effectively, you can bring in more calories to pay the cost in that bigger brain. You get all sorts of benefits, but there’s a super important cost and that is if you look at our brain, we have got billions of neurons and at least a trillion synaptic connections.
If you look at our DNA, we have a few billion base pairs in the entire genome. Now you’ve got a few billion base pairs trying to drive 1 trillion synaptic connections. It’s not possible. Even if our entire genome were dedicated to wiring our brain, it couldn’t do it because there’s not enough information there to tell the brain what to do.
The only choice that our body had and our entire genome is not dedicated to that. It has to do lots of other things. The only choice that our evolving system could make was to create a baby that’s half-baked. We often talk about babies being born too early because otherwise, the head wouldn’t get out of the female vagina, which is admittedly a very difficult thing to do even with the size of the head we have now.
That matters, but what matters as much is that you need to then put a half-baked brain into an environment to allow the regularities in the environment to allow the teaching that takes place to help that brain further develop because they can’t do it based on genetic information. Now you’ve got a situation where you need to be birthing a helpless creature, and you need that creature to remain helpless for a very long period of time because it’s not something that’s born knowing what to do. It has to be something that is born and then learns what to do.
We have got a system where you’ve gained all sorts of great things like planning. As you said, by being super smart, you’ve created a slow developmental process that’s effortful. You don’t have a baby wildebeest that can run away straight away. You’ve got a mum who’s got to carry you around and she could use some help.
That’s super fascinating. I never knew that before.
It’s quite remarkable. Sapolsky opened my eyes to this. He’s a brilliant neuroscientist. He talks about how necessary it is for us to rely on the external world in order to wire our cortex. Now our subcortical regions can wire very regular patterns and can be driven by the basic underlying rules. Our cortical regions need environmental stimulation in order to figure out what’s going on and in order to make orderly connections.
I’m going to do a quick PSA for his memoir, A Primate’s Memoir. It’s a fabulous book. It’s fascinating. It’s beautifully written. He manages to make the lives of baboons interesting.
It’s a great book. I loved it. He’s got a whole bunch of books since then. He has a book called Behave, which is a lovely book as well, and it talks about these exact things that you and I are chatting about now.
It’s a little thick.
It’s a dense book.
This is from a PhD. It’s like, “Let’s write some more memoirs.” Thank you for that aside, in terms of why that’s the case. I had no idea that glitch existed. I’m going to chalk it up to a glitch. We have got this biological glitch and it means that we need to develop Homo sapiens outside the womb more so than many other mammals. It also gives you a chance to teach a lot of things. Suddenly, norms, rules, and ideas end up mattering a lot more because it’s not baked into your DNA.
If you look at, for example, Joe Henrich’s book, The Secret of Our Success, he talks about how we evolved to use culture. It’s not the teaching between mom and child. Other animals don’t teach very well because they don’t understand what their infants don’t know because they don’t have that theory of mind. Even if you set that problem aside, it’s not among the child teaching, but it’s the entire cultural set of knowledge.
We become generalist-specialists. We move into a new region on this planet. In those days, we move slowly. You don’t hop on a plane. It takes generations to change your environment. In those new environments, a whole new set of rules become created about how youth survive and thrive in that environment. The best example of how important that is that every single continent that’s been explored by European adventures has the same story to tell, with the exception of Antarctica, which had no humans in it prior to exploration. That story is very well-equipped and very technologically advanced.
Europeans arrive on the shores, they decide to go exploring, and they end up dying of starvation. At some point or other, where a twelve-year-old kid could survive fine who happens to already live there because he knows the local rules and what can be eaten and how it can be eaten. That kind of teaching is super important because it enabled us to match ourselves to every environment on this planet, and the only way that works is if you are born knowing nothing so that you can then fill your brain with culturally relevant and locally relevant knowledge.
I want to step back because a smart reader is going, “I see where this is headed.” We can create something like marriage but it would suggest then that marriage wasn’t built into us, that it arrived because it was going to be good for society. It was going to be good for Homo sapiens as a species.
Don’t forget that it has to be good for the individual. Nothing evolves because it benefits the species. If it doesn’t benefit the individual, it won’t happen. It would always be great if, for example, all Homo sapiens were kind to all other Homo sapiens and only killed other animals because then that would benefit the species the most.
Once we became Homo sapiens and therefore capable of working so effectively in groups division of labor, planning, and all the stuff that other animals can’t do, the biggest threat to us was other groups of Homo sapiens. Marriage evolved not to protect the species so much to enhance, facilitate, and increase the reproductive success of the individuals involved.
That’s a preview. That’s foreshadowing. I want to step back to something that you said. You talked about we can coordinate. We can coordinate to kill a larger animal, for example. We can plan and imagine a future world. The weather is changing. We should head in this direction, whatever that may be, and then this notion of division of labor. Now you have people who do certain jobs. Rather than one person creating a meal, you have several different people in a production where they do the thing that they are best at doing. It which might be some people might be better at cooking and some people may be better at hunting and others might be better at transporting.
That’s one form of division of labor. It’s a super important form and we do see that. For example, in every hunter-gatherer society, we see the sex-based division of labor based on the proclivities of both sexes. Females who are going to be nursing need to have the infants with them. It’s therefore hard to go on long-distance hunts. Men tend to be bigger and stronger. It’s easier to go on long-distance hunts. They are not nursing anyway.
Let’s not forget that at the same time, division of labor can also be momentary. For example, chimpanzees hunt colobus monkeys which they do a lot, because colobus monkeys eat leaves and they are not nearly as quick as chimps. Chimps will see them in the trees and then they will go after them. There’s no division of labor whatsoever. You can predict how many colobus monkeys they are going to catch by how many chimps are catching. If every chimp has a 10% chance of doing it and you have 5 chimps, you have 10% times 5.
If humans do that, they don’t multiply. It’s exponential and the reason is they will say, “You wait over there. I’m going to chase the monkey in your direction. You grab it when it gets near you.” A division of labor can also be the momentary execution of plans. That’s where I suspect it was most important for our ancestors. They could devise a hunt whereby some people are doing X, others are doing Y, and that way, they can kill an animal as big as a mastodon by scaring it over a cliff and it falls to its death or whatever they are trying to achieve.
That’s why there are no more mastodons.
That’s part of it. There are still lots of elephants. Humans have killed megafauna on every single continent we have arrived at, but mastodons themselves probably lost it more because of the receding Ice Age. They lost it because we killed them off. If we could have killed them off, we’d have killed off all the elephants, too.
Elephants are hard to kill.
Mastodons are big hairy elephants.
This transition to Homo sapiens, scholars say about 200,000 years ago. Give or take what, 10,000 years?
Give or take a 100,000. The issue is that when we see a skull that’s 300,000 years old, it’s different from a skull that’s 200,000 years old, but barely. We call that an archaic Homo sapiens. It wasn’t one day we were a Homo erectus and the next day we were Homo sapiens. It was this very slow transition such that every offspring looks like the mother, but over a long enough period of time, you’ve shifted from one species to another.
I didn’t know the timing of this, but you wrote something and this is fairly agreed upon in academic circles that a meteor smoothed the path for us. Living in a world with T. rexes, we might not be king of the jungle.
We probably wouldn’t exist at all. We could rise to the top of the food chain because there was no extraordinary megafauna. The biggest thing that we had to confront was when we were forced out of the trees onto the Savannah. We had problems with lions, leopards, sabretooth cats, and hyenas, too. They’re big cats and big dogs.
A big cat and a big dog can be driven away by throwing rocks. You could imagine 50 people throwing rocks at a T. rex as hard as they could and every one of them becoming dinner. It’s not going to happen. That meteor that hit the Gulf of Mexico killed off all the dinosaurs. If that had not happened, we would assuredly not be here.
NASA is celebrating knocking off an asteroid.
Sometimes an asteroid could be useful.
We can imagine a couple of very smart mice in 10 million years having this conversation about how they never could have got here if that next asteroid hadn’t wiped out.
I love the idea. Like there are a couple of cockroaches going, “We got to wait this out eventually.”
The invention of fire is also critical.
It’s critical for a couple of key reasons. One is that there’s pretty good evidence that we are controlling fire back about 1 million years. We don’t know if we could light it in those days and that’s Homo erectus. We know that we probably could carry a burning stick and then keep it burning because we have got fire in caves and we have got repeated use of fire in caves and it wouldn’t get there otherwise.
Fire releases by cooking your meal. You release a lot more nutrients from it and you make it a lot easier to digest. Secondarily, once you understand how to use fire and how to not be hurt by it, you can use fire to protect yourself from other animals. Once we could control fire, rather than going at night when we can’t see, hear, and smell as well as other animals, we are prey at night, even though we are predators during the day. All we could do pre-fire was huddle in the cave and hope for the best. Post-fire, you can have a nice fire going. People around it and animals are going to leave you alone. You are warm and protected at the same time, and then you have greater access to the nutrients from the food.
I have two quick questions. This notion of Homo sapien sitting around the fire, is it true that it helped facilitate the domestication of dogs?
The thing is domestication of dogs is relatively recent.
6,000 or 9,000 years or something.
That number. Whereas, fire is predates Homo sapiens. Fire might have been something that helped us do a lot of things. One of which could well have been the domestication of dogs. The role that it might have played in that process. Once our ancestors had killed a wolf, they kept the baby around. If the baby happened to be an easy-going one as it grew up, they didn’t have to kill it. You can imagine a process where fire may or may not play any meaningful role.
I only asked that because I did a deep dive into singles and their pets. I was curious about the special status of dogs and how dogs became dogs. I teach marketing and innovation. I talk about adoption. Imagine if we had a world with no fire and then someone discovered fire. Within about three days, the entire world would know about fire because it’d be on Twitter. The invention, discovery, and adoption of fire around the globe, is there a sense of how long that took?
It would have moved with the owners of it. We know that Homo erectus left Africa in waves and that they already were all over Europe and Asia by 1.7 million years ago. We don’t know that that’s probably pre-fire.
How does the Homo erectus discover fire in Asia?
The best oldest evidence we have is in Africa. It is the case that when Homo erectus left Africa, they are using old wand tools. By 1.7 million years ago, they are using Acheulean tools and then that ends up being all across Europe and Asia as well. The only reasonable assumption is that there are enough back and forth migration and contact with each other that ideas spread not at the speed of Twitter, but and in the speed of generations. The same tools end up being everywhere and so once they understand fire, that ends up being everywhere as well.
I have to imagine there’s some independent discovery.
It’s so handy. We got birds that spread fires here in Australia and in other places as well in order to drive animals out in the burning forest and they nab them. If the bird can figure it out, so can Homo erectus.
You have the fire. Now you have your ability to cook. You have this light and protection, and that further facilitates brain development.
It facilitates it as you don’t need such a big gut anymore to digest raw food. Now you get more nutrients so you can spend your energy making a bigger brain instead of a bigger gut. That’s rule number one. Rule number two is an interesting finding that we assume has always been the case, but we don’t know. That is that one of the things that’s so remarkable about humans is our capacity to share information.
We can do it way better than any other animal via language. They can communicate, but they don’t have a language. They can’t communicate an infinite number of ideas. When we look at the conversations that hunter-gathers have around the fire versus that they have during the day, they shift. The fire becomes a way of telling important cultural stories that explain how you live your life and how you do things in this environment.
In other words, I get the opportunity to learn from your hard-fought experience. If you imagine you get attacked by a lion on a hunt and you somehow survive and you come back this chewed up mess, you can tell us what happened. We are all going to be fascinated by this story because A) It’s interesting, but B) It’s evolutionarily important. Now I know that I don’t have to get chewed on to learn that if I stab it in the eyeball with my stick, I have got a better chance of surviving.
It’s that third-hand experience that makes human cultures different from every other culture on the planet because it’s cumulative. It ratchets forward every generation and it does so by us talking to each other and sharing information. Sitting around the fire appears to be a key place where that happened because it makes sense. During the day I’m hunting, you are gathering, or whatever, but at night, all of us want to be close to the fire so we stay warm and don’t get eaten. That’s a chance where we sit around and chat.
It’s the town square of old times. This is about 100,000 years ago. You are starting to see this.
We have a controlled fire for 1 million years or use of fire and some level of control in these caves. We have got lots of evidence of fire as long as we have been Homo sapiens, but it’s like everything else. Lots of evidence is still very little when you go back that far. The explosion of culture that we see in humans on cave drawings and all that is the numbers 40,000 to 60,000 years ago, and then you start to have tons of evidence of everything. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t there before. It means it’s harder to find.
This time, this theory of mind emerged, which you already mentioned earlier. This thing is unique to Homo sapiens, which is I can recognize that you have different thoughts, tastes, and experiences like I got attacked by a lion. I know that you weren’t there and so you didn’t experience that. That becomes important for teaching, which we as professors can struggle with. You don’t realize how little your students know about something because you know so much, but at least we can recognize it.
We know that. We know full well how much that small child knows, which is nearly nothing and so we do a way better job than any other species. If you look at chimps, they rarely even try to teach their young and when they do, it’s pretty ineffective. It takes their young forever to learn tasks that we could easily teach. A standard animal trainer could teach it in a couple of days.
Our capacity to do that via theory mind is massively important. My complete guess is that both language and theory of mind evolved with Homo erectus. Language would have been good evolutionary pressure for it to evolve with Homo erectus. From Homo erectus, we can see division of labor, for example, making their tools and we can see division of labor in their hunting.
That division of labor would be facilitated by theory of mind. If I know what I’m doing and I know what you are doing, and vice versa, we can all work together on a project so much better. Secondarily, Homo erectus is the first time we ever see any of our ancestors carrying the tools that they made at a great distance. That suggests that they understood that they are going to need them again someday.
That planning is evidence of being able to think beyond the moment. Other animals can think about beyond the moment if in the context of their current needs. “I’m hungry. I better hunt.” They can’t think beyond the moment, “It’s going to be cold. I better have a place to stay.” They can’t do that. The carrying of tools shows that we could do that. Once you can do that, you can imagine a world that’s both temporally and spatially distant from yourself. Once you can do that, it’s no longer that useful to use hand symbols and say, “You go there. I will go here and we’ll kill that thing,” which I could easily do by pointing.
Every military show you’ve ever watched, they are doing this stuff while they are keeping quiet, but you can’t do that when we are talking about tomorrow. You can’t do that when we are talking about something over the rise that you can’t see. The evolutionary pressure would have exerted itself almost immediately with these new cognitive abilities.
There’s a cost to that. Humans can choke by virtue of the location of our voice box and the way we swallow and breathe. All that facilitates talking and we pay the prices. Sometimes we choke to death. There would be no reason to pay that price until you need to go beyond pointing and gesturing, and that need would have emerged with Homo erectus. It’s my complete guess that they now have theory in mind at least a rudimentary form that’s stronger than that of chimpanzees, and they also starting to have language.
Homo sapiens took it to the next level.
We have Excel spreadsheets now. We have been talking about hunter-gatherer societies and tribes. It is possible. It’s hard to now undo it because it seems like such a logical choice at the time that hunter-gatherer societies could have continued. There are still some on the planet now. However, many years ago, we invent agriculture.
You are right in the sense that many years ago and even earlier, we start to rely more heavily on cereals like the natural growing wheats like spelt and stuff like that exists in the Middle East, China, Europe, and other places as well. We see evidence of 20,000 years ago that we are starting to eat those a lot more. For example, old grindstones from that era are heavy and have no other use. We have even some evidence that we used to grind these cereals, but we weren’t planting them ourselves until about 12,000 years ago. It’s the first science. By 10,000 years ago, it started to take off.
Especially in the Middle East, China is where agriculture took root, and then onto the Americas.
Randomly everywhere afterward, Africa and America. It’s being invented simultaneously all over the place. One argument for that is that it takes a long time to shift from a hunter-gatherer psychology to an agricultural one. That could have delayed the process. The fact that it started in so many places at about the same time suggests another force was at play, and we think that the other force was climate regularity. Prior to about 12,000 years ago, the climate was much more irregular on a year-to-year basis, and therefore it would be a risky and low probability proposition to plant seeds that it may not rain or it may rain more or too much. Once things get more regular, you know when to plant and when to harvest.
I don’t want to say destined, but it seems like such an obvious invention given where Homo sapiens are in terms of their ability to cooperate and understand novel concepts. Also, there’s a lot of pressure on hunter-gatherers and that is to continually hunt and gather because you can’t store food. You can’t even store that much fat and so on. At the time, this seems like such a great invention and positive thing, which it has been in many ways. However, it changed culture and behavior in profound ways.
Even though it was an obvious invention and an important one, it led to a reduced quality diet in our ancestors who had first adopted it. The only reason that it took over the world is that it created people who lived less long, who had more diseases, who were shorter in stature, and who had a less well-rounded diet, but it had way greater caring capacity for the land.
Hunter-gatherers need an enormous number of acres per human to capture and dig up what they need¸ whereas agriculturalists need very small amount of acres per human. What you ended up with is the agricultural centers on earth developed lots of people even if they weren’t as healthy and strong than the hunter-gatherers. They lived cheek by jowl for thousands of years, because a lot of hunter-gatherers were like, “That lifestyle doesn’t look very appealing to me.” Eventually, the agricultural societies took over because they could simply produce lots more humans.
Even though there may be a degradation in the quality of life, you still get to reproductive ages and you are still having sex and you are still doing these things. The first time I came across this idea was in Harari’s book Sapiens, but I know other people have written about this and it’s a little counterintuitive. People are like, “These hunter-gatherers were savages. There are all these pejoratives. They think that we are progressing and yes, on balance we are, but the lifestyle of a hunter-gatherer in some ways, especially compared to early agriculturalists. You had a diversity of diet and movement. You had a lot of leisure. There were things there that we are trying to recreate now in an industrial age.
In my mind, If I had a choice to be a hunter-gatherer or an agriculturalist, I would go with hunter-gatherer until 1,000 years ago, and maybe even until a few hundred years ago. They both had very hard lives in the sense of the probability of dying in childhood was very high. They have very hard lives in the sense that even if your risk of starvation goes down if you are an agriculturalist, it certainly doesn’t go to zero. It also is made worse by the fact that agricultural societies tend to become very hierarchical. I’m probably going to end up being a peasant/serf, and you are the overlord and you are taxing me at the level that I can barely withstand in order to help me and my family survive.
An agriculturalist, therefore, ends up being almost chattel, whereas a hunter-gatherer is a free person. Nobody’s overlording and telling them what to do. They can come and go from their groups anytime they want. It’s not until the invention of modern medicine and modern science that you start to say, “We are finally clearly reaping the awards of agriculture.”
You and I are reaping them in a huge way. We are talking from thousands of miles apart with all sorts of fancy technology. We are well-fed. We have leisure time. We know how to read. We have all these wonderful things that have come about, but every one of those wonderful things is within the last 150 years.
The reason I’m so methodically going through this is we jumped from millions to hundreds of thousands of years and now we are at 12,000, 1,000, 150 years, and a lot has happened In this very short time period. Homo sapiens from a genetic sense hasn’t changed very much at all. There are some things like people are bigger. They are taller. There are some things that have happened.
That’s not a genetic change. That’s the quality of diet. We are back to the height of a hunter-gatherer.
Those Dutch hunter-gatherers were also 6’5”.
The African ones. The Maasai are very tall.
That’s true. You and I have both interacted with the Maasai. They are long and lean. That’s right. Now we have a whole bunch of lifestyle attitude value changes that are happening because Homo sapiens are living differently and they are working differently, and now there are structures. You had already mentioned an overlord of sorts and so on. We have this move away from communal sharing, which is more or less the norm within a hunter-gatherer society.
You would see some of these movements when hunter-gatherers started to leave the tropics and move into areas where you could store food, especially if they found areas where there were regular sources of protein. For example, a salmon run in the Pacific Northwest. You could easily catch far more salmon in the day than you could possibly eat.
You can dry them out and turn them into fish leather and you could eat them all winter long. Once that thing was discovered, even in a pre-agricultural society, hierarchy started to develop there as well. We see movement in that direction as soon as humans could store food. Agriculture and horticulture massively increased the capacity that we had to create surplus food and store it, and so all that hierarchy develops then, but it’s also when communal sharing ends.
Every single immediate return hunter-gather, which means you eat that day what you killed that today. Every single one of them in all the different groups that exist has communal sharing of the meat. That was the hunt that was killed that day. Usually, not of what the women dig up, but always of what the men kill. The reason for that is the kill is a low-probability event. Most hunts fail, whereas the digging up is a high probability event.
The effort you put in yields the number of two brews or berries or whatever you are after. The insurance policy is so necessary with hunting because even the best hunters are going to come home empty-handed a lot. That if we all share every day, then, until there are bad times, everybody will have enough to eat.
Give as you can and take as you need is the mantra around it. Now you have the quality matching, market pricing, and authority ranking. This is a shout-out to Alan Fiske, who I was lucky enough to meet through one of my mentors, Phil Tetlock. His work had a big effect on me as a graduate student in terms of understanding morality, social relationships, and so on.
Market pricing is this idea about the stuff you learn in microeconomics more or less supply and demand and being able to put a price on things, time, goods, and services. That demands the invention of money. I use the term fiction. I borrowed this from Harari. Our ability to believe in made-up things allows us to then exist in a world beyond our biology. Money is one of the most amazing fictions and we now create a token that allows us to exchange things. Instead of bartering, I give you a spear and you give me a fish, I can now give you some dockets and you give me a fish.
The universality, transportation ability, and temporal value of it all make it. No society has ever un-invented money. They have never said, “Money is a pain in the butt. Let’s get rid of it.” It hasn’t happened.
We keep inventing different types. We have crypto to solve the problems of previous money. This notion of equality matching, you do something nice for me, I do something nice for you. We keep track of those things. I take you to the airport. You take me to the airport or whatever that stuff. Maybe I help you hoe your land. You help me hoe mine, whatever that might be. This notion which is fascinating is authority ranking. Suddenly now, you have status differences, which may be based on prestige, expertise, knowledge, and so on. You look up to people or you look down to people and sometimes those distances between people can be extraordinary.
Hunter-gatherers have big differences in status, but they center around abilities and knowledge. We all defer to you, Pete, because you always can find the hunt, but you are not in charge. We want to hear what you think and we want to go in the direction you want to go. Once you get to agricultural societies, we defer to people based on resources.
Now, you might be an idiot and we all know you are an idiot, but you are the strongest guy in the group and you’ve got the most male kin you got. You’ve hoarded all the fish because your team is in charge of their capture and we have a choice. We can be on your team, get a little bit, help protect you, and do what you tell us to, or we cannot be on your team and maybe get left out entirely. The nature status changes from abilities and knowledge to resources because anyone who holds the resources, especially in a post-money society, can buy whatever assistance they want.
This is the notion of resources especially this notion of private property. I own land, a home, a castle, or whatever I own. I own something that is of value or resource. Suddenly it matters very much because we are staying here. We are not moving away. It’s not getting cold and we are heading South. You then have this notion of, “How do I maintain this resource? How do I keep it in the family?” It is true. This notion of communal sharing doesn’t go away totally. It changes.
The rules change a lot. I’m looking at your closet and I can see you have several t-shirts. If we are hunter-gatherers, you don’t need more than one. I’m like, “You see that t-shirt over your right shoulder? Could you give that to me?” Even though we are not family, you have no choice but to say yes. Anything extra, you own the basics. If you made it, you milled that, and you wove that t-shirt, it’s the only one you got, it’s yours. You could choose to give it to me, but I can’t ask for it. Once you have an extra one, I can ask for it and you’ve got no choice but to give it to me because the worst thing you could possibly be in any hunter-gatherer society is stingy.
Now I say it’s for sale for $28.
If you want it, pay for it, sucker. Here’s the thing. We created all sorts of different rules and norms to allow that thing to happen.
If my imaginary son whom I will never have asked for the t-shirt, it’s very difficult for me to say that’s $20. Communal sharing still exists.
It becomes kin-based and close friends and you think, “Bill helped me go to the airport. He seems to like this T-shirt. I should give it to him.”
That’s more of an equality-matching situation. What we end up seeing now is this rise in inequality and competition. We are not all on the same team that we might be competing for resources and so on. Some people are smarter, work harder, and luckier. They are born into the right clan and so on, and now you are starting to see. This has been exacerbated now by technology even the ability to store wealth, for example. Generational wealth alone creates inequality.
If I were smart and I did all the hard work, so I have all the things going for me that we all agree, it’s a meritocracy. Bill gathered all sorts of stuff. I’m now super wealthy. I can give it to my lazy and stupid kids, and nobody would disagree with my prerogative that I should be allowed to do that because that’s why I worked so hard in the first place. If I did have lazy and stupid kids, I want to support them. Now you’ve got generations of lazy and stupid people who have a lot of stuff because of an original deal that we all agreed was an appropriate one, but the outcomes people start to become a little less fond of.
Now we are on the doorstep to talking about the relationship escalator. It’s about marriage and this is going to cause us to step all the way back Lucy. I know that, but I want to set the stage and you to fix my fallacious thinking. We have these resources. We want to keep those resources. We want to pass them on to our kin. We want to develop more resources. As a result of this, you invent this thing called marriage, which has several benefits.
For example, it is an alliance between two families that was arranged. It was a pragmatic decision. We are not talking about love marriages. They are even more recent than this. The first documented marriage was like 3,000 BC or something like that, but it got going. Marriage got going in a few thousand years ago, essentially.
It’s a very new invention and in some ways, very similar to the one that exists now, and in some ways, it’s obviously much better, especially for women. It’s this arrangement. We are going to create this alliance and this man and woman. That’s important. They are supposed to live together. There’s typically a division of labor associated with that relationship, especially if it is a farming one and it is meant to be a high-status relationship. The highest adult-to-adult relationship, the most important one, in which long-term monogamy is expected.
I would agree with all that, but I would say that you have to look at all that within the context of what would have been the marriage equivalent all the way back to our hunter-gatherer, ancestors, and probably even Homo erectus.
That’s what I’m especially curious about, but I want to say first, for example, this notion of making lifelong monogamy explicit and punishable ends up becoming important because it helps make sure that the children are those two people’s children, for example.
It’s a deal. It’s a contract that people are striking and both sides are giving something into that contract. Let us we back up a little bit and look at us versus chimps. Remember we talked earlier about how human young are so helpless that they take an enormous amount of effort to raise to adulthood. If we look at hunter-gathers societies where the father either disappears because he leaves or where he dies. He gets eaten by a lion.
We see that the offspring are less likely to survive. We know that paternal provisioning is super important because it increases the probability that the offspring will live, and that’s because offspring are so hard to raise. Fathers are the only ones who contribute. The collection of friends and family play an important role in alloparenting, the sharing of these kinds of duties.
It takes a village.
The key is that we also know the father’s manner very much. What that tells you is that even though I’m a hunter-gatherer, and even though when I get home at the end of the day and I have killed a whatever, I have got to share it out to everybody. As long as I’m a good hunter, my family is guaranteed to be on that list and whatever group we decide to break off to. If she chooses me and I’m generous and I’m a good hunter, then she’s got the best guarantee possible that her kids are going to survive. Bill will bring in food whenever he can, and some of that will always end up with our family.
What that also means is because Bill is a good hunter and he is generous, other people value Bill, and they go, “I want him in my group.” One of the ways they show me that is they are kind to my children. They look out for them. They see them about to wander into the hyena’s den. “No. Come back little one. Don’t become hyena food.” They do the things that show the world that they value me. My children have a better chance of survival. If she can get me to pair bond with her. She can increase the probability that her kids are going to survive. If I can get her to pair bond with me, I can increase the probability that the kids that I’m now helping out by virtue of my good hunting and all that is probably mine and not yours.
You don’t need monogamy to make that work.
It works a lot better with monogamy. There are lots of cultures where we don’t have monogamy. The one thing wonderful about human beings is they have so much plasticity in their behaviors. Every culture that we know of shows some people engaging in these monogamous serial marriage-like arrangements where they pair bond for at least a while, and they are relatively exclusive.
We know that there are exceptions to that rule where that pair bonding is rare and not as common where there are lots of inter-polyamory or whatever you might want to call it in that culture. We know that happens. That tends to be in places where food is a lot more available. Where the environment’s not very harsh, you have less of a need for a father who knows he is a father and is committed. We see these cultures don’t develop randomly. They may develop randomly, but they don’t survive randomly. It works in places where food is easier to come by. It doesn’t work in places where it’s not.
We should be careful as we talk about this notion of monogamy. There’s this idea that when you talk about pair bonding, there’s a time course oftentimes with regard to this. When we are contrasting thousands of years in the future to these farmers essentially and religious influence on marriage where this stuff gets bestowed. You make public vows and all these kinds of things. Lifelong monogamy is different than what you are describing.
The other thing to remember in this regard is that you can see human habits by looking at our current anatomy, and that tells you something about the environment in which we evolved. If you look, for example, at chimpanzees where when she becomes fertile, lots of males have access to her. None of them end up knowing who the father is and none of them help at all in any offspring that is then that’s born. Now the higher-ranking chimps have better access by fighting for it, but that doesn’t prevent the fact that they can’t always be watching and other chimps have access, too.
What they develop is very large testicles because they basically want to wash out whoever was there before. They rely on what we call sperm competition. If you look at gorillas, they have a system whereby the silverback gorilla defeats all of the gorillas by their virtuous physical strength. Now he’s got a harem of females and he’s the only one who is there available to have sex with them because he’s chased all the other adult males away.
They are his family unit and he’ll protect them, and protect them from other males who might want to be with them, but he now has very tiny testicles. He doesn’t need large ones because he’s not competing at his sperm level. He’s competing at a body level. Human beings have testicles that are between the size of a chimpanzee and a gorilla.
If we were purely monogamous, if once we got together into a pair-bonding relationship, at least until it ended, we didn’t ever have sex with anybody else and nobody had sex with our partner, we would have tiny gorilla testicles. If we were completely polyamorous, and all we did was whenever any female was available and no one else is around, we would partner up and etc, we would have massive chimp testicles, and ours are in between.
I would correct you and say non-monogamous.
Sorry. It’s not the right term. Non-monogamous relationship, but our testicles are closer to a gorilla than a chimp, but they are bigger than a gorilla. What that suggests is a long history of pair-bonding and a fair bit of noodling around on the sides throughout our evolutionary history.
Dan Savage would call this a monogamish relationship. You have some primary partner and occasionally you’ll have a dalliance that’s there. Let’s keep talking about this rise in marriage. Monogamy in some form has been part of Homo sapiens’ existence since they became Homo sapiens. It gets codified in this particular way with contemporary marriage, including a vow of until death do you part.
It’s a very public vow. It would do you no good to sneak off and do that privately. It’s letting the world know that you’ve now created this bond that is designed to keep others from disrupting that bond. It protects both parties. The bigger the deal it becomes, the more lifelong it’s meant to be. The more it protects both parties to set up what you call a contract.
Whereby now that the more stuff we own, the more rules have to be put in place to handle how that stuff is divided up. If we can protect our relationship as much as possible by keeping other people out of it, then we have more confidence that our offspring are our own. We have more confidence in our willingness and desire to provision them, to give them the excess things that we own both property and status.
Which is very interesting because we have been talking about kin, giving your child special treatment. As you were talking about from an evolutionary sense, that’s important and adaptive. Both the mother and father are vested in getting this half-baked organism fully baked. Now you have a situation where you are not kin. You don’t want this person to be your kin, the husband, the wife, and whatever the partner is. That you are also equally invested in them. What’s mine is yours. What’s yours is mine.
Here’s a lovely experiment that gives you a way to think about it. If you look at fruit flies, the females will meet with multiple males. When the males copulate with her, not only do they insert their sperm, but they also insert a little bit of poison into her. The reason the males do that is that prevents her from copulating with too many other males because every round of poison decreases her viability and therefore, is a risk that she’s taking.
On the one hand, she’d like to not put all of her eggs in one basket. On the other hand, she doesn’t want to be poisoned to death, so she’s going to limit the number of males she copulates with. That’s not a very friendly system, where he is damaging her and decreasing his own reproductive success in order to prevent her from being with too many other males and thereby even decreasing it even more.
When biologists first ran the experiment where they said, “Let’s take these fruit flies and enforce monogamy. You put the two together in a bottle and nobody else, then you know you got monogamous fruit flies because, for their whole life, they are only together. You do that for many generations, and these habits disappear. His tendency to poison her when they copulate completely disappears.
As a consequence, she becomes more fertile and lays more eggs. The two of them become more successful in this monogamous relationship than they were when they were in a non-monogamous relationship. With the exception that she gained by copulating with multiple males, she gained more variability in her offspring.
That would therefore potentially protect her against whatever environmental changes might favor variability that might go against the limited variability she gets from one male. We have very clear evidence here that enforced monogamy puts both parties’ interests 100% on the same page, and the lack of monogamy takes their interest and makes them not quite on the same page. We know humans have that lack of constant monogamy through a variety of mechanisms.
One of which was pointed out by Robert Trivers in his parent-offspring conflict work where he showed that the idea is that because we are not 100% related to our own offspring, we have some conflicts between them and we have different goals for them. One of the interesting ways that those goals manifest is that males want every offspring that they create with a female to pull as many resources from her as they possibly can.
Whereas the females, “I want to give you enough resources so you can survive, but I want to make more offspring so I can’t give you too many.” Male genes in the fetus drive up her blood pressure. Male genes in the fetus drive up her blood sugar. They do things to cause her to give more nutrients to the fetus than she would prefer to do otherwise, and then she fights against that by releasing counter hormones so that she prevents herself from getting gestational diabetes and from getting preeclampsia. There’s this battle being fought between mom and dad by the fetus itself and these genomically imprinted genes that wrestle with the mother.
I was talking to Martie Haselton and she was saying that fetuses are technically.
This wouldn’t happen if there was perfect monogamy. I would say that I will let the mother decide exactly how many resources to give to every baby because that way, she will create as a pair the most babies we possibly can, the most healthy ones. If I don’t trust that I will still be with her or if I don’t trust that the next offspring is going to be mine, now I get in that fight with her.
Before I make a comment about that, I want to do a call back and I wanted to know when the first fruit fly divorce lawyer was invented.
They can’t afford lawyers. They have to do it privately. It’s terrible. It’s not right.
I want to be clear as we talk about monogamy and we are going to talk about some other elements of marriage. This is the argument very good for evolution. It’s very good for creating offspring and for having offspring succeed. However, we are no longer Lucy. We are now Peter McGraw, who has no interest in offspring and understands how offspring are created and understands the tax that it places on him and gets in the way of his other cultural pursuits and so on. One of the things that start to blossom with this rise of culture, it’s the ability to believe in fiction. The nature of our psychology and our biology is that there are other things that are good for us.
The thing is that our ancestors never evolved to want to have children. They evolved to want to have sex because they didn’t understand the link between sex and children at any rate when they first evolved that tendency. It would have done them no good to want to have kids when they don’t know how to execute that. The desire to have sex has always done the trick. All you need is an organism that wants to have sex and then as nurturing to the babies they come along and feel some sense of care for them. That’s what mammals do.
The consequence of that is that once we invented the technology to disconnect sex from offspring, now we have got the opportunity to have as much sex as we want without creating any offspring at all if that’s what we want. Human beings for the first time, have sex have removed themselves from this evolutionary process and said, “I will evolve desires to have sex, but I won’t necessarily have any desire or I won’t let that connect to the proclivity that I will have to produce offspring.”
Choose enough as in the case of the Von Hippel family.
If we look at like Charles Darwin’s wife, and we look at some of the letters she wrote, she was dismayed by some of her later pregnancies. She’s like, “I can’t believe this happened again.” Clearly, they enjoyed having sex, but at the same time, they were probably trying their hardest to be careful unsuccessfully.
As a quick aside, Charles Darwin probably shouldn’t have gotten married. He famously created a pros and cons list. If you look at the list, it’s a very entertaining list. I feel like the cons win, but I’m a little biased.
He had no choice in the times that he lived. It was very rare and unusual to be a bachelor for your life in those days. It happened, but it was very uncommon. My guess is that most lifelong bachelors back then were probably gay.
I had a call back to a very fascinating episode. I have an episode about the Bachelor in Colonial America, in which I talked to a historian about how important bachelors were with regard to the development of rights for non-married people, for women, and even for people of color. I want to flip this, too. The nice thing about birth control, a total game changer, completely changes the course of human history. Let’s step back because we have this ability to cooperate. We have the ability to plan, articulate our plans, communicate our cooperation, and to believe in made-up things and things that are beyond the biology that this tastes good and that this will hurt you and so on.
Now what we have people’s emotional and cognitive lives blossom, because now you can think through ideas and those ideas can be pleasurable. You can make things. You start doing cave drawings which may have a utilitarian effect but also are fun to do and suddenly, there’s someone who they think you are cool. It’s a status-based thing.
The original cave dwellers who drew on the walls are like the rock stars or Instagram influencers of nowadays. They are highly appealing and people follow them. This is very hard when you are working hours in a field and so on, but as we start to have the industrialization of the world, now food production goes down to a small number of people and you have greater leisure.
Some people have wealth and time. They can start to pursue other things beyond survival and mouth pleasures and pleasures of the flesh. You start to learn about reproduction. We shouldn’t have sex this time of the month. A terrible birth control strategy as that may be, but it certainly helps. Now you get something which is, “I do things because they agree with me.”
They agree with the way I’m wired. They agree with my values and lifestyle based on my culture, my own development, my experiences, and so on. You start to have a further specialization that’s there which is like, “I would never try to start a rock band or be the guy who’s drawing on the cave walls because I don’t have any artistic abilities. I might be the guy telling the stories around the fire.”
Wasn’t that funny when Bill almost got eaten alive? I find that enjoyable. I’m rewarded for it and so on. A lot of this stuff gets baked into the culture and gets baked into the rules that were taught as half-baked organisms. Now you have something that’s super fascinating. You have people who say, “I want to have children.”
They don’t say, “I want to have sex.” They say, “I want to have children.” They plan to have children. They look for the right partner to have children. Moreover, there’s now technology that you don’t have to have sex to have children anymore. People who don’t even have a partner, they don’t have that “the one,” their soulmate, or whatever, can still have a child.
I do believe that marriage is a very useful thing from an evolutionary standpoint because it’s amplifying what we were doing already and codifying it. It needs to stay forever ideally because it’s so messy from a resource standpoint. What might not have been forever before ought to be forever now for other reasons, not necessarily for the happiness of those two people. The original marriages weren’t about happiness, to begin with. That’s a much more recent thing.
Hunter-gather pseudo-marriages, these pairing up. Depending on the society, we are often about love and they are often about what mom and dad want or the rules, or whatever. They would have varied those pre-marriage relationships.
I’m talking about agricultural eras. Now we have the rise of beloved marriage which is very recent. It’s not universal even now. There are places in the world where arranged marriages still happen.
Love marriages and the coexistence of love and arranged marriages are identical to the marriage version of what our hunter-gatherer ancestors were doing all along. Some of them were doing love relationships and some were doing arranged relationships.
We have to talk about the gender dynamics of all of this. You’ve talked about them a little bit about how they got worse and now are getting better is the way I would describe it.
I would agree and I would say that all the things that you are talking about are a byproduct of wealth. Now, if I want to have a child and I don’t want to partner and I’m female, I can arrange it technologically or with a willing participant who can then never see me again because I have got enough wealth or my society has enough wealth that my kid’s not at risk of dying. That no longer is that relationship necessary.
It was a great way of protecting people when they are poor enough that it took two people struggling full-time to keep everybody fed. In the blessed world we live in now where that’s not necessary anymore, people can start to say, “Why should I get married? What’s going to gain me?” It suddenly becomes a luxury rather than a necessity.
That is why this show exist. Many years ago, there is no show like this. It’s not culturally appropriate. There are so few solos out there and so on.
All they are trying to do is find a partner.
Who would read it are the people who can’t find partners, and that would depend. It’s mostly young men. Let’s be honest. These involuntary celibates because they don’t have any resources. In some cases, some men with lots of partners.
That’s always happened. You could have serial monogamy. You would still have men that are wealthy or high-status men exploiting women during the most fertile period. Exploited is the wrong word, but monopolizing them. If you’ve got polygamy, you’ve got the same exact thing where you’ve got wealthier or high-resource men monopolizing large numbers of women which leave low-resource men out of the game.
One of the things that I found fascinating is the rise of the love marriage was good for women because now they are no longer property. They have a say in who their partner is, and then that advantage has continued to blossom in terms of educational and economic opportunities. You were talking about e two people who need each other to survive.
What ended up happening is we had rules against women being able to work, for example. A woman needed a man to survive even though the man might not have needed the woman as much, and now we are seeing a leveling of that. We have talked about this. I’m not anti-marriage, I think it’s over-prescribed.
In a world where you don’t need to pair up with this one other person to survive, in a world where people understand how kids are made and don’t want them because they want to be in a rock band. Suddenly, the norms and the rules of lifelong monogamy, high status merging your living situation, your lifestyle, and your money is like, “No, thank you.”
It may be a no thank you for men and women for different reasons, perhaps. Nonetheless, it is a very liberating thing. You called it a luxury. It’s a very liberating place to be where you get to opt into it. If your partner is bad and beats and rapes you, you can leave that relationship. Marital rape laws are several years old, which is sounds crazy when you say it out loud. We have this emergence of choice and then also customization of relationships.
In a funny way, we are returning to where our hunter-gatherer ancestors were. There’s never been perfect equality between the sexes largely because males are bigger and stronger and therefore, can exert more power and authority even if it’s unwanted by the other party. They didn’t become bigger in order to dominate females. They became bigger.
You and I could compete with each other to try to get the female, but the end result is the same. They weren’t perfectly equal, but in these direct return hunter-gatherer societies, they are often pretty close and there was often a female choice and she could decide when to marry and when to divorce. Not that those terms were used and not that they had an official process.
You can’t ghost people in hunter-gatherer societies either.
There’s one way to ghost in which is you take a right, I take a left and we didn’t see each other anymore.
You still need a tribe. You are not lone-wolfing it as a hunter-gatherer.
What we finally got to is now our hunter-gatherer ancestors had all these freedoms because they own nothing, and now we have all these freedoms because we own so much. It’s an ironic way to return to the same place.
I like to talk about how innovation has been a boon for us, solos. It’s been good for everyone that you can store food in a refrigerator and that you don’t have to go to the river and bang rocks against your clothing and so on. Also, even the invention of birth control and progressive inventions such as the ability to vote, for example, and so on suddenly create more individual freedoms, too, for people.
I’d like to ask you to reflect on this conversation and take the perspective of my reader. My readers are a pretty broad group. A few of them are married. Most of them have not been, want to, or have been. They are in various places in life to help them understand how their humanity may allow them to diverge from something that almost everybody did. The rates of marriage even in the ’60s are 86% of people married. It’s a very high percentage. If you are of marrying age in 1960, you were more likely to marry than to finish high school, for example. It’s that universal type of thing.
The thing is if we rewind the tape all the way back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors who had considered them in the same basket, that universality was always a compromise. The reason it was a compromise was that it was the only way to find a partner to whom you could then have any commitment so that you could assure that partner doesn’t immediately leave you for somebody else.
That commitment enabled you to have kids and raise them together. It enabled you to work together to survive, but it always was a compromise. It was an enormous compromise back in the day when there were maybe 6 females available that were in my age bracket and maybe only 1 of them even liked me anyway. You had so little choice that you may end up deciding, “I would rather spend my life with somebody and the benefits that come with it even if I’m not that fond of her, even though my mom thinks she’s a good fit and I don’t,” or whatever the rule might be in your culture, and that would have played forward all the way until now.
The big difference about now is that we are still faced with those exact same compromises and some people are going to say, “I don’t want it. The benefits are now a lot less because I can do fine without it. The costs are exactly the same as they always were and I’m not willing to pay those costs for those benefits.” That was something that our ancestors and our direct ancestors couldn’t make that deal because with it was too expensive.
Even now, not to get too prurient but if you wanted to have sex, you got married for the most part.
The thing is either that or you are wealthy enough to be able to afford sex workers who are the people that you want on a regular basis, and most humans don’t have those assets.
That was a very small percentage of the population. Now you can buy a sex doll to have sex with. I was reading an article. It was an article about the article, but a survey of people who have sex dolls consider the sex doll the perfect partner.
It’s not sex dolls. The reality is that because changing social norms along with wealth, people start to say, “I don’t necessarily need to be married.” If they don’t necessarily need to be married, but they still want to have sex, then they don’t necessarily need to be married in order to have sex. Religion starts to disappear. All those things happen. It’s not the availability of what I might call fake sex with a doll, but it’s also the availability of real sex that is human beings who no longer want to tie that to commitment.
I didn’t mean to jump all the way to the sex doll thing, but I wanted to be hyperbolic because I wanted to say that you can take the other person out totally in a sense.
You can remove them from the equation or you can go with their much greater availability.
Bill, thank you so much. I had several a-ha moments during this which I was anticipating. I appreciate you writing such a wonderful book.
You go on to talk about innovation in this book. I’m going to tease people with that. It solves some puzzles around some sociability and technical abilities that people have some improper thoughts about, and so that’s a very fun thing. You are working on a new project. There’s a tease in this book about the tension between the individual and the collective, and I’m wondering if you could finish by saying something about that.
We solos live in that world. This is not a community of asocial people. This is not a community of misanthropes. These are people who have rich connections, have friends, involved with family and the community and so on, even though many of them lack a lifelong partner and may see that as optional.
My next book is about that exact tension between autonomy and connection. In order to have autonomy, in order to be able to do what you want and be self-directed, you have to sacrifice some aspects of some relationships because relationships always involve roles and responsibilities, which mean you have to give up some autonomy. It goes the other way as well in order to get connection.
You have to give up autonomy to get the connection. You have to give up a connection to get autonomy. People have to find that balance wherever they want. That what we have been talking about is evidence that in the past you had no choice. The connection was necessary to survive, so you are going to going to give up on autonomy.
We don’t face that difficult decision anymore because there are huge individual differences in where people land on this continuum. People who end up more on the autonomy end don’t need to sacrifice that anymore, particularly if they don’t find the relationship that they are after. You can imagine somebody who’s very about connection, who would love to be married, but they only would love to be married if they find the right person. That was not a luxury our ancestors could afford, but it is now. That’s a lot of people’s situations.
I call them just mays. The average single person is, “Someday I will find my person.” It’s a matter of time, amount of effort, search, and so on. The just mays are like, “I’d like to find a person, but if it doesn’t happen, I have this fulfilling life.”
In both cases, what you can see from the behavioral evidence is that they are happier being by themselves than being with the wrong person. In the past, that wasn’t an option. We live in a blessed world where people are allowed to make those decisions for themselves, and we are society now supports that. Whereas you were some weird pariah if you did not join this process, particularly if you are a female. You almost relegate yourself to starvation if you didn’t join this process and make a lifelong bond.
Now, people who decide to opt-out, they still get fed at Thanksgiving dinner. They get awkward questions like, “You are so great. Why are you single?” Thank you so much, Bill.
It’s my pleasure. It’s great to talk to you.
- Bill Von Hippel
- The Social Leap
- The Rational Optimist
- A Primate’s Memoir
- The Secret of Our Success
About Bill Von Hippel
William von Hippel, Ph.D., grew up in Alaska, got his B.A. at Yale and his PhD at the University of Michigan, and then taught for a dozen years at Ohio State University before finding his way to Australia. He has published more than a hundred articles, chapters, and edited books in social psychology, and his research has been featured in The New York Times, USA Today, The Economist, the BBC, Le Monde, El Mundo, Der Spiegel, and The Australian. He is the author of The Social Leap: The New Evolutionary Science of Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy.