You didn’t build that, homo heidelbergensis

Lou, the hero of Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark, lives independently in ways that make him a very successful autistic person: he certainly prefers living alone to living in a group home, and he likes being able to arrange everything in his apartment just so and know that no-one will move things around.  He also has a job that allows him to earn his own living.  But lou also lives independently in ways that are more problematic: he has no family or partner or close friends, no-one he can trust when the world gets confusing, no-one he can stay with when he needs to lie low for a few days.  In this resembles many, many “normal” characters in our culture’s stories; how often does a regular Joe or Jane in a movie or novel meet a con artist or take a wrong turn and suddenly find that they are completely alone and isolated?

Of course this is a useful narrative strategy, heightening the urgency of the drama and raising what I guess are interesting issues of epistemology.  But there is something creepy in the way we are expected not even to ask “Why doesn’t Joe go to his wife for a reality check?” or “Why doesn’t Jane call her brother to come bail her out and take her home?”  Radical isolation is presented as a basic aspect of the human condition rather than a pathological state of society.  A natural corollary of this is that “living independently” is the standard measure of whether marginal members of our society, whether disabled or just old, are to be considered functioning adults.

I’ve been questioning this standard recently because I’ve been reading about societies where the concept of independent living would have been utterly meaningless, that is, all human cultures for most of our history.  Rather, our story is to a remarkable degree a story of interdependence and community.  When our ancestors first ventured out from the forest and decided to look for tasty protein in competition with the big predators of the savannah, they were about as intimidating as Ewoks.  They needed teamwork if they were going to hunt anything more challenging than a tuber, or if they were going to engage in ‘power scavenging,’ in which they would try to harass the lions into abandoning a carcass while there were still bits to eat.  They also needed groups, large groups, for protection.  Later models were somewhat more butch, but I don’t think that bringing down a mammoth or rhino was a one-person job even for anatomically modern humans (AMH).

It’s not clear how easy Australopithecus or homo erectus found it to digest raw meat, but at some point (just when is debated) they figured out about cooking, which greatly expands the universe of stuff you can eat.  The only problem is, you’ve got to keep the fire going, and this , again, is not a one-person job.  Fire maintenance may have been one of the key triggers of our species’ intense sociability.  Whatever the trigger, one current theory is that as we evolved, we developed intense relationships with an ever larger network of people, culminating in the 100 to 200 people that is a typical size for both hunter-gatherer bands and social networks in technologically-advanced cultures.  Such complex networks require lots of cognitive capacity to keep track of, and this drove us to develop larger and more sophisticated brains.

If there is a single feature that defines our peculiar way of being in the world, it is language.  Language is clearly a social phenomenon at  its core; this is especially clear if you remember that writing is a recent innovation, so every use of language was a face-to-face interaction.  All theories of the origin of language are speculative, but one currently-popular theory that appeals to me is that it was initially a substitute for the grooming behavior that sustains and defines social bonds in other apes.  According to this theory, the seed of language was not imitation of natural sounds or warning of danger or trying to impress girls/boys, but gossip.  I’m not sure how often we live up to homo sapiens, but homo loquax?  That’s us.

So I’m not seeing much emphasis on independent living even in our relatively recent ancestors, but it has to start somewhere.  When would that be?  My guess (only a guess, of course) is that it was when people started herding and farming, and it became possible for a high-status person to live off the surplus of others’ labor, not through their generosity but by right.  It would then have become useful for the boss to conceal the real situation by declaring himself independent—after all, he didn’t need to ask for anyone’s help; he was the first self-made man.

As a substitute for independence, of which I am deeply suspicious, I would offer reciprocity.  Very few of us want to be parasites (except in its original sense, ‘dinner guest’); those of us who rely on help from others (which is all of us) need to have something to offer in return, whether it be a marketable skill or just a life-enhancing talent like making people glad you’re there or having done them a good turn in the past.  1.8 million years ago, some people were living in a cave in  Georgia (the Old World Georgia), and one older dude had lost all but one of his teeth.  We know from his jaw that he lived on for a number of years, and given the diet in those days, there’s no way he do that without someone chewing his food for him.  I don’t know why they thought this was worth the effort, what he contributed to the group.  But I’m sure they knew.

PS It is a bit odd that I should be writing this piece, since I am more or less an introvert.  I have spent a lot of time by myself in my life, never much liked group assignments in class, and I think I’m more willing than most to think things that other people don’t agree with.  But I suppose I never thought that being alone was an achievement to be proud of.


PPS a couple of good books about human evolution, despite the video-game titles, are Lone Survivors by Chris Stringer and Masters of the Planet by Ian Tattersall.  The Neanderthal’s Necklace, by a guy named Arsuaga, is also interesting except for way TMI about ice-age Spain.

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One Response to You didn’t build that, homo heidelbergensis

  1. Jane White says:

    I think you gave a pretty good description of how the Romneys of the world got to where they are today (a high-status person living off the surplus of others’ labor, not through their generosity but by “right”).

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