Sunday, 23 January 2011

Facebook is 98% Chimpanzee!

The impact of social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter upon our lives, and upon society in general, is an incredibly hot topic right now, with the recent announcement that Facebook alone has five hundred million registered users, that's half a billion people, clearly highlighting how quickly online social networking has taken hold on a global level. If you live in the developed world, the chances are that even if you don't use a social networking site yourself, then you know plenty of people who do, you might even be in photographs they have posted on them. Even my grandmother, whose grasp of Information Technology pretty much ends with the landline telephone, is vaguely aware that there is this thing called Twitter out there.

A debate ignited with the advent of social networking sites (SNS's), and has only been getting hotter as their proliferation through mainstream society accelerates: are they a valuable new tool that is revolutionising human communication for the better, or are they transforming us into a tribe of isolated, dumbed down, social incompetents with split-second attention spans capable of communicating only through the medium of a back-lit touch screen? News bulletins are filled with stories inspired by social networking sites, whether it be a scandal over something contentious tweeted by some politician or celebrity, panic over sexual predators finding and grooming their victims online, alarm at the US government demanding twitter hand over the details of everyone involved with WikiLeaks, outrage at the latest controversial group promoting its cause with a Facebook page or just amusement in an "and finally..." kind of a way at some silly picture or video that is spreading virally through the web. Stand up comedians have quickly incorporated them into their routines, books have been written about how they are revolutionising this or fundamentally altering that, chart topping movies have been made about their creators, advertisers have found a whole new market place for selling their goods and services, political groups of every stripe are enthusiastically finding exciting new ways of communicating with, and organising, their members while the security services discover new ways of keeping tabs on everyone with equal enthusiasm.

Barack Obama is the first Black(berry) President of the USA and, according to some commentators, we have already seen the first wave of Twitter "revolutions" in Iran and Tunisia.

Well, I'm here to argue that this is not really a new revolution, its just the latest turn of a debate that was already ancient when one prehistoric ape-man daubed a painting of a woolly mammoth on a cave wall, and another prehistoric ape-man made his own little mark to say he liked it, then a more cynical third ape-man commented that "It isn't the same as sitting around the camp fire and just talking about the hunt, I don't like this pictographic representation malarkey, what's wrong with hooting and grunting like everyone else?"

If you will follow my reasoning, I will argue that whether you like it or not, social networking sites serve a need that dates back to the very beginnings of human intelligence, and that their invention, although they surely will bring about marked changes in how we interact with each other, is really an adaptation to social and economic changes that were already well underway, before anyone started blogging about them on the Internet.

Facebook is 98% chimpanzee, and is just the latest step of a transformation that began 2 million years ago, with the birth of our species.

According to evolutionary science, for a new physical characteristic to evolve there must be some kind of evolutionary pressure selecting it as advantageous. So a mutated gene will randomly manifest itself as, say, a new colouration of a moth's wing. The selection pressure is the need to need to not be noticed by predators, and if the new mutated wing colour means you are more likely to be seen and eaten by a bird, then those genes are less likely to be passed on to the next generation. If on the other hand the new colouration means you are a better camouflaged moth as a result, the genes are more likely to be selected for by the pressure of needing to not get eaten, you will have more offspring than your non-mutated siblings, you pass on the selected-for characteristic to your offspring, and the process of evolving into a brand new species of moth is underway.

The defining characteristic of humanity is clearly our intelligence, which has given us the adaptability to spread into and dominate every extreme of environment on the planet, and ultimately to being the only animal that has ever managed to leave the planet and travel into space, of its own free will anyway. Which, despite our many and obvious failings, is still a pretty amazing thing for us to have done, I'm sure you will agree. So what was it that selected for our intelligence in the first place, what was it that molded us into smarter apes rather than, say, bigger, stronger, armour plated killer apes? Some have argued that a climate shift thinned out Africa's dense forests and replaced them with vast, open grasslands, forcing our ancestors to come down from the trees and begin walking upright, and that it was this raising of our horizons and expansion of our mental map which stimulated our intellectual development. Others say it was the evolution of the opposable thumb, which allowed for much greater use of tools that encouraged the evolution of human tool using intelligence.

The argument which I favour, however, is that human intelligence is essentially social in origin.

Human beings are a social ape, and our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom, the bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas, are also social apes. Millions of years ago our common ancestor struck upon the idea of living together in groups as a way of surviving. You have someone around to watch your back, you help each other when gathering food, you keep an eye on each others kids, you have a larger range of past experiences to base future actions upon and by working together you can secure a much bigger territory than you ever would on your own. It makes perfect sense and it was an excellent strategy, but from that point onwards one of the key evolutionary selectors driving the development of our intelligence was "how do we live together in such close proximity without killing each other?" The group is made up of individuals, we tend to fall out, we fight, we compete over food and mates, we have differences of opinion, we have our own agenda, we tend to get pissed off at each other quite a lot of the time in fact, but if the group breaks down, the survival chances of all the individuals within the group is greatly diminished. It was the necessity to be able to maintain group cohesion that selected for the rise of intelligence, and primate politics was born.

In the vast majority of animal species that live together in large groups, the group leader, the dominant animal, is almost always the biggest strongest animal. In packs, herds, flocks and schoals - might is generally right and any differences of opinion within the group are settled with a good old fashioned head-butting contest, but the great apes are different. The lead or "alpha" animal within a troop of chimpanzees is not the biggest chimp, but rather the chimp who manages to keep more of the other chimps "on side" than any of the others.

Or to put it another way, the chimp with the most friends!

Chimps build and maintain friendships primarily by sharing food with each other, and by grooming each other, that is by sitting together and going through each others fur, picking out things that have become tangled, knots of fur and of course fleas. They respond to changes in each others moods and can recognise when a friend needs cheering up, they always act in accordance with quite a strict social hierarchy, meaning it would be something of a faux pas to groom an inferior member of the group before the alpha has had his turn, they spend the most time grooming the chimps they like the best and they will snub each other if one chimp does something to piss the other chimp off. It is an interesting fact that the upper size limit of a group of chimpanzees also appears to revolve around grooming, once a group gets so large that it is no longer possible for each chimp to spend enough quality grooming time on a regular enough basis with each of the other chimps in the group, the group will split in two and go their separate ways.

So chimps who build the best social relationships within the group become leaders, and leaders who make bad decisions can quickly find themselves on the outside of the group with a flea in their ear. Group dominance brings breeding rights, and the alpha male of a group will always father the majority of the groups babies, meaning the most socially intelligent chimp will be the one to pass his genes on to the next generation, providing a clear mechanism for the evolution of more intelligent apes - and basically, that's us!

To be able to think socially like this is much more complicated than it actually sounds. First it requires that an animal be able to recognise itself as a distinct individual, to have a sense of self, and to-date only humans, chimpanzees and dolphins have been demonstrated to have this ability. Secondly the animal must be able to recognise that other animals are also distinct individuals who are like you, but different, and what is going on inside their head, is not necessarily the same as what is going on inside your own. Those of you with young children will probably recognise the point at which "peekaboo" stops being a fun game, well that's the point where a babies brain has developed enough to figure out that "just because I cant see you, doesn't mean that you cant see me." We develop a mental model of the people we know, a simulation of others inside of our brain, that is based on what we know about them, and allows us to to predict how they will respond in various hypothetical situations. Try and think about the psychological processes you go through in the act of telling someone a joke, that process of figuring out if this joke is appropriate for them, and if it will make the other person laugh, is actually rather sophisticated, even if the joke is not. Once again those of you with little kids will probably recognise the fits and starts that a child goes through, before they can successfully ask you what you get if you cross a sheep with a kangaroo.

It has been suggested that it is this faculty of "mind sightedness", the ability to figure out what is going on inside someone elses head, that is faulty in people who suffer from autistic spectrum disorders. Interestingly, those who are best at science, and particularly mathematics, often test very highly for autistic spectrum disorders themselves, and enough of us are familiar with the stereotype of someone who is a total genius in many respects, but is otherwise completely socially inept, for me to suppose that perhaps one comes at the expense of the other, because they both stem from exactly the same faculty within the human mind.

So human intelligence evolved in order for us to be better at dealing with the complex relationships within a social group, but once it had evolved, we found we were suddenly better able to figure out complex relationships between all kinds of different things, and allowed for the development of language, art, music, writing, mathematics, science, engineering, technology, the printing press, the telegraph, the radio, the telephone, the television, computers and eventually, the Internet.

Which brings me back to Facebook.

It is my opinion that 98% of what goes on on Facebook, is directly equivalent to chimpanzees sitting around and picking fleas out of each others fur, and although it may sound like it, I do not mean that in a disparaging way.

It would appear that being able to tell a joke, and for our friends to laugh at it, or to put up pictures of your holidays or your kids so your friends can go "Ooooh!" and "Awwwww!", being able to play a song and say "I like that", and for your friends to say "I like that too!" is actually of immense psychological importance to us. It makes us happy, and these small interactions are the glue that binds our social groups together. All that Facebook is, is a new way of doing it.

I think it is fair to say that our society has changed more in the last two hundred years or so, than it did in the thousand years before that, and more in the last ten years than in the whole of the past century. We have gone from living in extended family groups clustered together in small villages and rarely, if ever, travelling more than twenty miles away from home, to living in a genuinely global culture where we may have friends on every continent. Due to the need for economic mobility we may not live anywhere near our parents or our oldest friends, maybe not even in the same country, and due to the way our economy is organised we often spend far more of our time with people that we never chose as our friends, than we do with the ones that we actually love. Our family groups are also smaller than ever before, the extended family gave way to the nuclear family which has now gone positively sub-atomic, and our kinship networks are much more likely to contain good friends rather than blood relatives.

We also live together in cities, in much greater numbers and population densities than at any other time in human history, but it appears that there is still an upper limit to how many social relationships we can keep track of at one time, this figure is estimated to be about 150 - 200 which, coincidentally or not as the case may be, is the same as the average number of friends that a facebook user has on their account. One final interesting fact to report here is the recent study, published in Nature Neuroscience, which reveals that people with busier social networks than others have an enlarged amygdala, the part of the brain linked to the retrieval of memories of emotional responses - suggesting that the amygdala may have evolved to help deal with human beings increasingly complex social lives.

In short, human society has changed radically, but the basic social needs of the human animal have not, and social networking websites have emerged and grown as quickly as they have to compensate for this. I do not believe that a technology which gives us virtually unlimited access to information, and allows real time communication with people on the other side of the planet just as easily as with someone who only lives next door, can be held responsible for "dumbing" us down or for making us more isolated - modern western society was already doing that to us and online social networking is simply an attempt at reconnecting us in a "data rich" but "time poor" world.
With thanks to Guy Heaton for the Cartoon, and my apologies to Professors Richard Byrne and Simon Baron Cohen for (probably) grossly misrepresenting their theories.

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