Thinking about thinking 4. Our social baseline

John Edward Terrell and Gabriel Stowe Terrell

Please note: this commentary, recovered on 9-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 16-April-2015.

“The first thing in a visit is to say ‘How d’ye do?’ and shake hands!” And here the two brothers gave each other a hug, and then they held out the two hands that were free, to shake hands with her.

Alice did not like shaking hands with either of them first, for fear of hurting the other one’s feelings; so, as the best way out of the difficulty, she took hold of both hands at once . . .

Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, 1871

AT THE HANDS OF SOMEONE like William Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf, humans may come off sounding complex, cantankerous, and downright mean at times, but often and also kind, noble, loving, and at least momentarily wise and intelligent. On the other hand, portrayals of our species in the reckonings of science are often far more one-sided and two-dimensional. Thus according to the zoologist Edward O. Wilson (2012) we are a tribal eusocial  species committed to killing outsiders for the good of our home group. The evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker (2011a) maintains that we all have in effect if not in fact violent demons lurking within us that must be tamed by reason, compassion, and good governance. The social scientists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis (2011) have expressed a more favorable view of human nature, but again like Wilson and Pinker, they have described our willingness to cooperate with one another as an evolutionary mystery in need of resolution given that humans are selfish at heart and can be self-serving in their motivations.

The most parsimonious proximal explanation of cooperation, one that is supported by extensive experimental and other evidence, is that people gain pleasure from or feel morally obligated to cooperate with like-minded people. People also enjoy punishing those who exploit the cooperation of others, or feel morally obligated to do so. (Bowles and Gintis 2011: 3)
Dubious assumptions

There are two major assumptions at the ground level of most current scientific analyses of human nature. The first is that selfishness is one of the prime movers of biological evolution. The second is the claim that human cooperation is based on reason, shame, and good gamesmanship. “The most important psychological contributor to the decline of violence over the long term may instead be reason: the cognitive faculties, honed by the exchange of ideas through language, that allow us to understand the world and negotiate social arrangements” (Pinker 2011b: 310). Both of these assumptions are questionable.

Neo-Darwinian determination

The fundamentals of evolutionary thinking as a way of explaining what we are seeing in the world of today and in the past have changed over time since Darwin’s day (Amundson 2014). Tom Clark has shown in his series of commentaries at SCIENCE DIALOGUES on Darwin’s use of “use and disuse” that during the latter half of the 20th century, the neo-Darwinian assumption that genes and environments were sufficient causes of observed behavior “turned natural selection from an animate doing into a physical happening. Attributing behavior to stable causes both inside (molecules) and outside (environment) turned animals into spectators, along for the ride.”

Clark underscores that how we tell our story of what it means to be human and how we have evolved to be the sort of animal we are directly leverages or constrains how well we handle our individual and collective impacts on the earth and our fellow human beings.

As Michael Ruse (2014) has observed, today natural selection is the mechanism seen by most experts on evolution as the chief reason  for organic change. It is perplexing, however, that when it comes to our species, attempts to explain our general willingness to cooperate with one another often take it as self-evident that selfishness, infra-specific competition, and gamesmanship (Potter 1947; Rand et al. 2013) rule the day even when we seem to be acting in kind, considerate, and evidently caring ways towards others (Terrell 2015: 111–117).

Such scientific cynicism may make perfect sense given the ruling assumptions of neo-Darwinian theory today, but the picture looks quite different if it isn’t accepted from the get-go that selfishness has to be a part of every permissible Darwinian explanation for life’s diversity and history on earth.

Social baseline theory

The psychologists Lane Beckes and his colleague James Coan are studying empathy and cooperation based on a radically different view of what it means to be human, a research tactic they call social baseline theory (Beckes and Coan 2011). Their working assumption is one that many would accept with little disagreement: being a social animal gives any species a genuine and practical advantage in the Darwinian struggle for survival and reproduction. And for humans at least, having the capacity to live and work closely with others also gives us a social baseline of emotional support and security. So much so, they say, that our social ties with other people are in effect an extension of the way the human brain interacts with the world. As a consequence, when we are around others we know and trust, we can let down our guard and relax.

From this perspective, the experienced payoffs are more than emotional. When we thus feel safe and secure, we are literally able to devote less energy—and we would add, less time—to staying alert for possible threats and uncertainties. Indeed, they have argued that the human brain has evolved to assume the presence of other people. In their words: “In our view, the human brain is designed to assume that it is embedded within a relatively predictable social network characterized by familiarity, joint attention, shared goals, and interdependence.”

On the other side of the mirror

Beckes and Coan have said a major saving grace of human sociality is the energetic cost benefit of not having to be the only one looking out for number one (Beckes and Coan 2011; Coan and  Maresh 2014; Coan and Sbarra 2015). While we would grant that there may be be such a cost benefit, we are uncertain how decisive this savings has been in shaping human evolution. After all, the probability of survival is determined not only by how much effort you have to put into the struggle. It can be argued that we are such strongly social animals for other reasons, too. First, we critically depend on social learning to know how to survive in the first place. Second, many of us—but admittedly not all—are predisposed socially and emotionally to be caregivers because our offspring wouldn’t survive the first years of their lives if we weren’t (Terrell 2015: 190–191).

To survive and reproduce, organisms must take in more energy than they expend, a principle of behavioral ecology called economy of action. Social baseline theory (SBT), a framework based on this principle, organizes decades of observed links between social relationships, health, and well-being, in order to understand how humans utilize each other as resources to optimize individual energy expenditures. (Coan and Maresh 2014: 221).

Furthermore, there is the matter of time. It may be true that time is money, but we humans are pretty good at wasting time for apparently no good reason, energetic or otherwise. And certainly there is no denying that when we feel safe and secure, many of us are willing to invest both time and energy in seemingly unproductive ways.

Consider, for example, the metabolic cost of the continuing mental activity in what has been dubbed the brain’s default mode network (DMN) when we are not task-engaged. The reward of not having to attend closely to the practicalities of the world around us when we feel safely embedded in nurturing social networks may be the excitement Alice must have felt in Lewis Carroll’s story after she had slipped through the looking-glass to explore the hidden wonders to be found therein (although judging by his singular account, Alice evidently did not find doing so as addictive as some today find the similar cognitive experience of playing online computer games). Just as those incarcerated in our penal system may be given time off for good behavior, so too, sharing the demands and burdens of life with others gives us time off to play with whatever takes our fancy on that landscape between our ears.

Previously in this series:
"Thinking about thinking 1. Cognitive niche construction"
"Thinking about thinking 2. Through the looking-glass"
"Thinking about thinking 3. Free will"

Amundson,  Ron (2014). Charles Darwin’s reputation: How it changed during the twentieth-century and how it may change again. Endeavour 38: 257–267.

Beckes, Lane and James A. Coan (2011).  Social baseline theory: The role of social proximity in emotion and economy of action.  Social and Personality Psychology Compass 5: 976–988.

Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis (2011). A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Coan, James A. and Erin L. Maresh (2014). Social baseline theory and the social regulation of emotion, pages 221–236. In J. Gross, ed., The Handbook of Emotion Regulation, 2nd. ed., pp. 221–236. New York: Guilford Press.

Coan, James A. and David A. Sbarra (2015). Social baseline theory: The social regulation of risk and effort. Current Opinion in Psychology   1: 87–91.

Pinker, Steven (2011a). The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes. New York: Viking.

Pinker, Steven (2011b). Taming the devil within us. Nature  478: 309–311,

Potter, Stephen (1947). Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship. New York: Henry Holt & Company.

Rand, David G., Corina E. Tarnita, Hisashi Ohtsuki, and Martin A. Nowak (2013). Evolution of fairness in the one-shot anonymous Ultimatum Game.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A. 110:  2581–2586.

Ruse, Michael (2014). Was there a Darwinian revolution? Yes, no, and maybe! Endeavour 38: 159–168.

Terrell, John Edward (2015). A Talent for Friendship: Rediscovery of a Remarkable Trait. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, Edward O. (2012). The Social Conquest of the Earth. New York: Liveright (a division of W. W. Norton).

John Edward Terrell is Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at The Field Museum, Chicago, IL 60605. His latest book A Talent for Friendship: Rediscovery of a Remarkable Trait was published on December 1, 2014 by Oxford University Press. Email address: terrell[at]

Gabriel Stowe Terrell is a freelance writer living in Madison, Wisconsin.




© 2015 John Edward Terrell and Gabriel Stowe Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Leave a Reply