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Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity by [Brian Hare, Vanessa Woods]
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Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity Kindle Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 36 ratings

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Editorial Reviews


“Please read this beautiful, riveting, and uplifting book. You will learn the astonishing story of how and why humans evolved a deep impulse to help total strangers but also sometimes act with unspeakable cruelty. Just as important, you’ll learn how these insights can help all of us become more compassionate and more cooperative.”—Daniel E. Lieberman, author The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease, and Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding
“Very few books even attempt to do what this book succeeds in doing. It begins in basic behavioral science, proceeds to an analysis of cooperation (or lack thereof) in contemporary society, and ends with implications for public policy. Everyone should read this book.”—Michael Tomasello, author of Origins of Human Communication, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University

Survival of the Friendliest is a fascinating counterpoint to the popular [mis]conception of Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest.’ Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods offer a convincing case that it was not brute strength, raw intelligence, or ruthlessness that allowed modern humans to thrive while our hominin relatives died out. Instead, they argue that friendliness was the key to our flourishing—and that the same kind of cooperative communication is the key to freeing us from the tribalism currently threatening democratic governance around the world. Powerful, insightful, accessible—this book gives me hope.”—Megan Phelps-Roper, author of Unfollow

“How can a top predator like the wolf have evolved to become ‘man’s best friend’? Finally, a book that explains in the clearest terms how friendliness and cooperation shaped dogs and humans. This book left me with a happy and optimistic view of nature.”—Isabella Rossellini, actress and activist

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


Thinking About Thinking

When you were around nine months old, before you could walk or talk, you began to point. Of course, you could point soon after you were born, but at nine months, it started to mean something. It is a curious gesture. No other animal does it, even if they have hands.

Understanding the meaning of a point requires sophisticated mind reading. It generally means “If you look over there, you’ll know what I mean.” But if I see you point to your head, there are many possible meanings. Are you referring to yourself? Are you saying I’m crazy? Did I forget my hat? A point can refer to something in the future or to something that used to be but is no longer.

Before you were nine months old, if your mom pointed, you likely looked at her finger. After nine months, you started to follow an imaginary line extending from her finger. By sixteen months, you would check that your mom was looking before you pointed, because you knew you needed her attention. By two years old, you knew what others saw and what they believed. You knew whether their actions were by accident or design. By age four, you could guess someone’s thoughts so cleverly that for the first time, you could lie. You could also help someone if they had been deceived.

Pointing is the gateway to reading other people’s minds, to what psychologists call “theory of mind.” You will spend the rest of your life wondering what other people are thinking. The meaning of a hand brushed against yours in the dark. A raised eyebrow when you walk into a room. It will always be a theory, because you can never really know someone else’s mind. Other people have the same abilities you do and can feint, fake, and lie.

Theory of mind allows us to engage in the most sophisticated cooperation and communication on the planet. It is crucial to almost every problem you will ever face. It allows you to time-travel and learn from people who lived hundreds and even thousands of years before you. Language is important but fairly useless if you do not know what your audience knows. You can teach only if you can remember what it is like not to know. The political party you vote for, the religion you follow, the sports you play, and every other experience that involves other people, living or dead, real or imagined, all rely on your theory of mind.

It is also the soul of your existence. Without it, love would be a cardboard cutout of itself, because what is love without the magic of knowing someone else feels the way you do? Theory of mind is the delight of moments when you both see something, then turn to each other and laugh. It is the comfort of finishing each other’s sentences, and the peace in holding hands and saying nothing at all. Happiness is sweeter if you think the people you love are happy too. Grief is more bearable if you believe someone you lost would be proud of who you are.

Theory of mind is also the source of suffering. Hatred burns brighter if you are convinced someone intends you harm. Betrayal is more bitter when you can sift through a hundred memories for every subtle gesture that should have been a warning.

Every emotion we have enriches the lens through which we see the world. And though we “feel” these emotions in our chest, our gut, and the tips of our fingers, they live in our mind and are largely created from our theories about the minds of others.

Dog Days

My closest childhood friend was my dog Oreo. My parents gave him to me when I was eight years old, and he quickly grew from a puppy I could hold in my hands to a 70-pound Labrador with a wolfish appetite and a joy for life.

On warm nights, we would sit together on the front steps, his head on my lap. It never bothered me that he could not talk. I just enjoyed being with him, wondering what the world looked like through his eyes.

When I went to college at Emory, I discovered that exploring the animal mind was a serious scientific endeavor. I began working with Mike Tomasello, a psychologist who was an expert on theory of mind in children. Mike’s experiments with babies connected their earliest theory of mind abilities with their ability to acquire all forms of culture—including language.

Mike and I worked together for ten years, testing the theory of mind abilities of one of our two closest living relatives, chimpanzees. Before our experiments, there was no experimental evidence that any animal had theory of mind. But our research showed that the answer was more complicated.

Chimpanzees had some ability to map the minds of others. In our experiments, we found that not only did chimpanzees know what someone else saw, they knew what someone else knew, could guess what someone else might remember, and understood the goals and intentions of others. They even knew when someone else had been lied to.

The fact that chimpanzees could do all these things put what they could not do into sharp resolution. Chimpanzees can cooperate. They can communicate. But they struggle to do both at the same time. Mike told me to hide a piece of food under one of two cups so that a chimpanzee would know that I had hidden the food, but not where. Then I would try to tell them which was the correct cup by pointing to it. Almost unbelievably, the chimpanzees, trial after trial, ignored my helpful gesture and could only guess. They became successful only after dozens of trials. And if we changed the gesture even slightly, they fell apart again.

At first, we thought chimpanzees had trouble using our gestures because there was something wrong with our tests. But because chimpanzees seemed to understand our intentions when they were competitive, but not when they were cooperative, we realized their failure might be meaningful.

In human babies, this is the spark that suddenly ignites, always early, always around the same age, and always before we can speak or use simple tools. The simple gesture of extending an arm and index finger that we start to use at nine months old, or our ability to follow along when our mothers point to a lost toy, or a bird flying overhead, is something chimpanzees do not do and do not understand.

This star of cooperative communication, missing from the constellation of abilities that comprise chimpanzee theory of mind, is the first to appear in humans. It shows up before we speak our first words or learn our names; before we understand that others can feel sad even while we are happy, and the other way around; before we can do something bad and lie about it, or understand that we might love someone and they might not love us back.

This ability allows us to communicate with the minds of others. It is the door into a new social and cultural world where we inherit the knowledge of generations. Everything we are as Homo sapiens begins with this star. And like many powerful phenomena, it begins in an ordinary way, with a baby understanding the intentions behind her parents’ gestures.

If understanding these cooperative intentions is fundamental to the development of everything human, figuring out how that ability evolved could help us solve a major part of the puzzle of human evolution.

As Mike and I were discussing this one day, I blurted, “I think my dog can do that.”

“Sure.” Mike leaned back in his chair, amused. “Everybody’s dog can do calculus.”

It was reasonable for Mike to be skeptical. It was hard to be impressed with animals who drank out of the toilet and tangled their leashes around lampposts. Psychologists did not think dogs were interesting, so there was almost no research on their cognition. From 1950 to 1998, there were only two major experiments on dog intelligence, and both found that dogs were unremarkable. “Strangely enough,” wrote one of the authors, “domestication does not seem to have produced anything new in dog behavior.” Everyone’s attention was on primates. It made sense to study our primate relatives, who looked more like us and whose minds were presumably more like ours too.

Because people tended to assume that domestication made animals unintelligent, researchers looking for cognitive flexibility in nonhuman animals thought it best to look in the wild, where their survival depended on solving problems. How cognitively flexible could you be if you never had to think for yourself—if your food, shelter, and reproduction were all taken care of? But I knew my Oreo.

“No, really, I bet he could pass the gesture tests.”

“Okay,” said Mike, humoring me. “Why don’t you pilot an experiment?”

Product details

  • File Size : 19546 KB
  • Publication Date : July 14, 2020
  • Word Wise : Enabled
  • Print Length : 274 pages
  • Publisher : Random House (July 14, 2020)
  • Language: : English
  • Text-to-Speech : Not enabled
  • X-Ray : Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting : Enabled
  • Lending : Not Enabled
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.4 out of 5 stars 36 ratings