Nature vs. nurture – set 3
Goal: describe the Social organ
There is no other way to start describing the parts of the brain shaping our social behavior than to admit in the outset that it is probably among the most complex structures our brain possesses! If you think our eye with the accompanying brain organs responsible for our vision are a masterpiece of engineering think again — vision has been “invented” and “re-invented” in many branches of the tree of life and is almost ubiquitous among most animals. The “social” (or “group”) function, on the other hand, is possessed by only a limited number of species – with social insects like termites, beehives and alike being rather more like single super-organisms instead of groups of unique individuals working in a group. Not only that, the social behavior of humans is very distinct from most other species that expose it — we don’t group only by kin, sex, tribe born into and similar, we also do so by totally abstract attributes like being Star Trek aficionados or believing in different gods!
Kin selection and group selection theories aside, the ability of distinct individuals from particular species like ours to co-operate together with other distinct individuals from the same species is pretty amazing. The most amazing part, in my opinion, is that this ability is made most difficult in our species by our super-sensitive Relationship organ that can pick-out even the smallest differences between two individuals and use them to identify those individuals as unique persons. Though this makes the choice of people to socialize with daunting, our Social organ is happily (and often without conscious thought) choosing only certain individuals by using some (suspicious, if you ask the parents of teenage kids) criteria and drives us to prefer hanging out with them, while avoiding others not selected by the same criteria.
Most social animals are limited to choosing kin when it comes to choosing their groups. This is visible in many species that form families to support raising children — most mammals and even birds do it. However, this behavior is not socializing in the true sense that the individuals joining in a group accept certain “norms” and “customs” that define the behavior of the group . Families get together to nurture their offspring. Social groups in humans seem to come together to nurture those norms and customs!
But how do the norms and customs get born in the first place? It’s not like the early hunter-gatherers had something akin to the Qur’an or the Bible or the Torah that spelled the norms for them — you need reading and writing skills for that and those skills are too modern to consider them as enabling complex social behavior. Language or some means of communication that may have predated language is likely the skill that enabled people to join in groups and nurture norms and customs. The interesting bit is that the same evolutionary processes that have caused something as profoundly complex as life to flourish on this planet from nothing but simple chemistry are working at the level of customs and norms and can cause complex group behavior to emerge from simple individual acts.
Richard Dawkins coined the term meme to describe the units of replication involved in such cultural evolution and defined this evolution as a parallel (or maybe even orthogonal) process to the biological evolution and its replicators — the genes. Some researchers see the memes as sort of parasites that jump on the host and drive them to act in ways that suit the memes and not necessarily enhance the biological fitness of the host. This is an interesting metaphor I would like to get back to again, but before that I want to clear something.
The theory of cultural evolution and memes as replicators has various pro- and op-ponents and there’s a raging debate around questions if the theory holds at all on one end to whether it can be used to explain all of culture and human behavior on the other end. Similarly, memes are being pinned down to everything — that delicious pork-chop recipe your grandmother learned from her mother, who in turn learned it from her mother all the way down to some “inventive” ancestor who decided to put three instead of two chilies in the sauce; — the way your teachers in grade school taught you to write the letter O and caused your parents to yell so much at you because you’re left-handed and couldn’t do it the way it was supposed to be no matter how hard you tried; — even that jump rope rhyme about first grade kids being babies and eight grade kids dirty bums that everyone seem to have sung differently and no one knows for sure how old it is.
Debates aside, I accept that some evolution-like mechanism is responsible for shaping not only the culture at large, but also the group behavior this article is about. Even further, I would suggest that our brain contains the systems necessary to enable that mechanism — those are the three organs (Relationship, Social and Status) I’ve introduced in set 1 and I’m trying to explain in set 2, set 3 (this article) and set 4 (yet to be written). And the Social organ is probably the one which is the main vehicle the memes are using to drive our behavior as their hosts!
I am suggesting that the Social organ and the memes taking advantage of it have co-evolved in some kind of a symbiotic (as opposed to parasitic) relationship — maybe not too different from the relationship the bacteria that lives in our gut and helps us digest our food while in turn enjoying the nutrients they need for their survival. If I let my imagination go free I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole thing started as an error in the Relationship organ, it starting to catalog individuals or characteristics that were blends of the characteristics stored for the individuals our ancestors have met in their life, thus leading to “virtual” or “model” individuals that could not be found among the tribesmen with which they hunted for food and fought other tribes together, but were still alike them in behavior.
Regardless of the mechanism involved in producing the Social organ, one key function of this organ is more important than any other — the ability to supply answers to the Relationship organ for questions like “Should I trust this person? Is he a threat to me? Should I share my meat with her?” when the Individuals table maintained by the Relationship organ didn’t have enough information to go about, but (and this is key) contained some details that were shared with the “models” managed by the Social organ, like is he a male or female, is he from your tribe, is he from a tribe you never had fights in the past, etc.
With this ability in place, it is a short leap to introducing group behavior and more importantly group identification. The models maintained by the Social organ could be used to keep an updated list of behaviors that would be expected from an individual matching the model, later turning into group norms and customs by way of matching ones behavior with that of the model. If I am part of tribe A and the model for a tribe A individual contains a behavior ”make loud noises when returning back with a catch” then I should make loud noises in such a case too. If you are part of tribe B and the model for a tribe B individual contains a behavior “steal the catch from tribe A” than I should hate you and start fighting with you even before you try to get my catch.
The last example is interesting from a biological fitness perspective too, as if the hostility of tribe A towards tribe B causes tribe A to flourish, than a group norm of hostility towards any other tribe may emerge over the generations, which could further boost the chances for tribe A to survive. Of course, the example could go the opposite way too, leading to an altruistic instead of hostile culture, and the chances for one outcome winning over the other could depend on the environment — altruistic behavior is more likely where food is abundant and vice versa, the emergence of hostile culture is a probable outcome where food is scarce.
The final step towards a full-fledged social grouping and the emergence of group norms and customs is the need to identify one as belonging to a particular group. Evolution endowed us already with one such ID card and that is called kin. In the old hunter-gatherer setting, the people closer around us were more likely to be our relatives (and share a significant portion of genes with us) than the rest of the tribe. Furthermore, the tribe as a whole was more likely to share some genes than the other tribes around — plus the Individuals table likely was densely populated with information about each member of the tribe.
However, our ability to communicate provided us with another opportunity to ID ourselves as part of a certain group, by signaling our belonging to it! Even though evolution helped us identify when someone is part of our tribe when they live closer to us, that didn’t work when the tribe size reached a certain threshold and we couldn’t know everyone in person — it would be helpful to know if you’re meeting an enemy or a tribes-folk when encountering someone as you’re dragging back your catch from afar. While language helps in this situation, other means of signaling group belonging likely emerged a lot earlier, like painting certain shapes on ones body or even piercing the body with wood and stone implements.
Why all this is relevant to how personality is shaped in humans? How does it tie to the Social organ as part of the system I describe at the end of set 1? Before addressing these questions, there is one more thing that is important to understand.
If the Social organ is capable of storing and working with data for a “model” individual, there is no reason why it could not store a lot of different models with slightly different behaviors associated to them. This is especially true if the Social organ was forked from the Relationship organ, which is clearly capable of storing an almost infinite number of entries into the Individuals table, so the Models table should probably be no different. The key here is not the availability of many models, it is our ability to identify with different models at a time, i.e. that is to say that we don’t carry a single group passport in our pocket, but we’re rather like residents in several countries that allow multiple citizenship and we choose which passport we want to use when traveling to some other country.
The above is called context-switching and is very apparent with people that speak multiple languages — I speak Macedonian at home with my wife (unfortunately less and less with my kids), while I use English exclusively at work. The language example is probably bad because the context-switching is forced — no one speaks Macedonian at my work, but there are other examples which come naturally to all of us. Just think of the pressure your parents applied to you ever since you joined preschool not to use various rude words or phrases when outside, but you still used them nonetheless! What happened here was that you quickly learned that the model you should use for your behavior at home should be different than the model with your friends at preschool – practically, you’ve decided to ID yourself in the “kid in the family” group in one context and “a preschool kid” group in another — and all came on its head for that Christmas party in your classroom when your parents came in and you got confused what you were or were not supposed to say when one of the kids pushed you.
The power of context switching is so great in us humans (and possibly in other animals with complex social behavior like gorillas, dolphins and others) that we often don’t carry the behaviors we learned in one context to the next. A cute example is when older kids avoid using some words with their friends that they would regularly use at home (like belly) and replace them with more socially acceptable terms in their group (like stomach) as home words could be seen as babyish and baby is a model they don’t like to identify with when playing outside. As a matter of fact, this is probably one of the reasons why immigrant kids can learn the language of the country they’re in as they readily discriminating between home words and outside words and don’t use the home words with their friends.
I hope you are not sceptically thinking that all of the things I said about the emergence of group behavior with accepted norms and customs, about the emergence of group identification and about context-switching are hard to believe and likely not proven. While my simplistic theorizing about the evolution of group behavior and identification is far from being solidly proven, significant research in the area of evolutionary psychology is finding that various social behaviors are impacted by if not product of evolution. As for the context-switching part, Harris has several examples and discusses related research in her book The Nurture Assumption. My goal is not in proving the theories I’m discussing above, that is the job of the evolutionary researchers, but to give you a flavor how those theories can explain certain aspects of our behavior.
To put it all together, the Social organ is capable of two key functions:
- managing a set of models of behaviors for various groups of individuals and use those models to predict individual behavior when the Relationship organ doesn’t enough information for that, and
- select a model that most suitably represents a group we identify with (or belong to) and compare our own behavior with that of the selected model
The later is key as that comparison is fed back into the feedback loops I was discussing in set 1, causing new input to be meshed with the input from the environment and ultimately impacting the end result, i.e. our own behavior. This feedback loop is nicely solving the problem of group identification as using symbols or communicating our belonging to a certain group is very limited ( though quite powerful — see my article about Olympics, religion and symbols — likely because it is older in evolutionary terms before the behavior adjusting feedback loop emerged, thus more circuits in the brain are wired to it). Behaving in a similar way with the other members of the group is much more flexible and helps the individuals in the group to predict the behavior of the others, thus increasing the sense of belonging to the group.
I will discuss further how these behavior-adjusting feedback loops impact our behavior and make the individuals identifying with a group more alike — thus leading to group norms and customs shared by most members — in one of my future articles, but before that I want to cover the final organ of the trio responsible for shaping who we become from babies to adults — the Status organ — in my next set in the series.