Of Naked Mole Rats and Men — and Ants

I’ve been reading E. O. Wilson’s latest book “The Social Conquest of Earth” and if you’ve ever been curious about what makes us human, you might be interested in what Wilson has to say.  He’s an evolutionary biologist and he loves to find the roots of who we are in the distant path.  The very distant past, as in 1.8 million years ago when homo erectus was walking the earth.

At the risk of doing Wilson a severe injustice, here’s a snapshot of the ingredients that had to come together to make us.

First, you needed a special sort of group living that he calls eusocial. It’s actually a very rare blend of four conditions: 1. Adults live in groups. 2. Cooperative care of the young. 3. Not everyone gets to reproduce, at least not whenever they like. 4. Multiple generations share the same  place.

You find this in ants, humans and naked mole rats.  I’m not kidding.  And getting across this threshold is a big deal because it sets you up to have a complex social system with specialized roles, lots of moving parts, and lots of dependencies.  Some individuals give up what they need in order for the group to be stronger. Note: Big brains are not required.

Us and the naked mole rat – in a pretty exclusive eusocial club
Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Zoo

Second, you needed groups with nests.  Nests, as in early campsites as well as anthills, give some members of the group a safe place to raise the kids while others headed out to get food and others still kept an eye on the nest.  One million years ago, homo erectus had their hangouts with defensible perimeters. Note: Brains help but again, are not required.

Third, you needed group members who will work on the same project and more than that, have the ability to figure out what others plan to do that might involve them.  Wilson calls this intentionality.  We read each other and expect others to read us. Note:  Lots and lots of brain power is required.

When all three pieces came together, they set us up to develop language of the most flexible, symbol manipulating sort.  Wilson thinks that happened some time before 60,000 years ago.  That was a long stretch from one million years back and those home erectus campsites.  Nothing big happens fast.

At any rate, once you had language, we were off to the races. 60,000 years ago, homo sapiens moved out of Africa and spread everywhere.

Just something to think about.

~Jon

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3 thoughts on “Of Naked Mole Rats and Men — and Ants

  1. Jon, this got all KINDS of thoughts started, in my brain. I’m now pondering which are useful and what trajectories of intentionality we might benefit by having me follow. So, to you I say, mission accomplished. ~ Margaret

  2. I am reminded of a story I heard about Margaret Mead stating that the first sign of civilized society is when she finds a healed femur bone because it means someone had to care for you when you were unable to care for yourself.

  3. It’s a beautiful and humbling thing to ponder how we and all the other species on our planet are interconnected.

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