I’ve been asking myself this since I was in high school in the 1960s.
That’s when I read the chapters in H.G. Wells’s Outline of History, where he introduced me to the evolution of early humans. Inspired, I read everything I could find on human origins. Over the years I noticed that most writers assumed that humanity has been social from the beginning. Again and again I read references to our early life as tribal life.
There’s something intuitively wrong with that. Other apes live only in small groups. Orangutans and gibbons are solitary most of the time. Gorillas live only in small families, and even chimps only get together in larger groups seasonally.
If we all developed from a common ancestor, then it seems more likely that we began in small families too, not in tribes.
I also think early people probably spent a lot of time alone. The Australian Aborigine people had, and hopefully still have, their lone walkabouts, and many North American native people included a similar lone wandering rite for entry into adulthood. For centuries Europeans have admired loners in their stories and poems.
Yes, I know, most of our behavior is tribal now. That’s what politics are about. That’s what wars are about. That’s what sports stadiums and rock concerts are about. There are still loners, but they’re regarded now as irrelevant, sometimes even as dangerous to society.
But how effective is this social behavior that is so much admired?
In classrooms when I was a boy, I watched other kids misbehaving, showing off, disrupting the process while teachers struggled to maintain control. The amount of real teaching, or learning, that got done wasn’t much. I learned most of what I learned reading alone in libraries, or wandering alone in forests and fields.
Adults didn’t impress me either. When I entered the workforce, I saw selfishness everywhere. There was a lot of talk about teamwork, but within the teams people secretly, and sometimes not so secretly, did their best to undermine each other.
Yes, humanity rolls on, civilization surviving from century to century, our numbers constantly growing, almost everyone believing that we are this benign social animal, but I still don’t buy it.
We did survive World War II (aptly described by Kurt Vonnegut as “humanity’s second unsuccessful attempt at suicide”), but afterward we quickly divided into separate camps again and began to stockpile nuclear weapons as fast as possible.
I don’t consider that to be the behavior of a truly social animal.