Summary review


Survival of the friendliest by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods examines the question about how humans became the dominating hominid species over the last 300000 years or so. This is an interesting question since there were other hominids around during that time (eg Neanderthals), and most of them were physically stronger and had larger brains. It puts forward the idea that this is due to domestication, essentially selection by friendliness, leading to skills of cooperative communication among humans, and then also dogs, and bonobos. Cooperative communication made the decisive difference between humans and the other hominids, which were just not as good at it. It makes sense that working together as a group allows the species to perform better overall, as a population. But how did domestication come about if there was no one around that would domesticate us? The center bit in this is self-domestication, which occured in humans, and also dogs and bonobos, as is suggested and explained in the book. And I am not a dog lover.

Putting friendliness on the test stand, the text includes a section on the psychology of groups and identity that outlines an analysis and approach at how to bridge the mindset divide we experience as a global society. It connects quite well incidentally with Braving the wilderness by Brene Brown which I recently reviewed here. Also, there was a very good post by Cory Doctorow just very timely about “how minds really change” with an interesting book review of The Persuaders in there.

I think this is all very hot and interesting, despite some criticism of the self-domestication hypothesis which hinges on the fact that Belyaev’s foxes were preselected and had seen previous breeding as they were imported from a Canadian fox farm, back at the time.

To see why this is so, let’s look at some of the details involved in this bit of evolutionary trajectory, starting with eyes 👀. It is only humans and their domesticated animals which have white sclera. White what?!! Sclera is the name for what is white in your eyes. If the white stuff wouldn’t be white, we wouldn’t see the color of our irises. Cool, no? Anyway, the white sclerae also allows us to see where fellow humans are actually looking at. This is super essential for intention recognition and thus cooperation, seeing what someone else is going to do just by looking at their face. This ability cannot be underestimated and can be tested for its presence in animals by hiding treats under one of two cups and giving a hint to where the treat is hidden just by the animal trainer looking at it. If the animal can use this cue, it will find the treat more often on first trial rather than not. Most other animals’s sclera have the some color as their irises, and the reason is strategic. Most other animals don’t want you to be aware of where they are looking and what they’re going to do next. That’s true even for their own social life with their own kin. Not so much friendliness there, really.

There is a hallmark experiment started by Dimitri Belyaev in the former Soviet Union. It consisted in breeding foxes by selecting foxes that are allowed to have offspring entirely by their friendliness. Friendliness there is defined by having no fear of interacting with humans. Turns out, that 1/ this works really well and 2/ that by selecting for friendliness we also get a number of interesting side effects, like nice & splotchy variations in fur patterns (which provide less camouflage), curled up tails, smaller muzzles, smaller brains, and voila, white sclerae.

Now the question arises of how this got bootstrapped. Even for dogs it is most likely that some kind of self-domestication took place with wild wolves before humans took up on breeding dogs. It happened simply by the fact, that wolves who were more friendly, that is, less afraid of getting close to humans, would start to seek out human settlements foraging for food more often than those wolves who were more afraid. This is the self-domestication hypothesis in action for wolves and dogs.

Dogs for example also coevolved the enzyme which allows humans to digest and break down starch, which is a predicament to leverage the benefits of agriculture, one of the underpinnings of current human civilization. Either way, self-domestication hypothetically also took place for humans starting something like 80000 years back approximately, leading to the domesticated and friendly version of our predecessors that we are.

A corner stone of our rich social life is theory of mind. Theory of mind is a functional lump of brain activity which allows you to reason about the activity of the other mind in the other person and what they are up to, by thinking about them in terms of their mental state. This is realized by the theory of mind circuit, a set of functionally connected brain areas. Check up on the concept as it is really exciting. My favorite feature of theory of mind is so-called “false belief”. This skill comes up in infant humans around the age of four (check) and allows them (us) to understand that someone else is mistaken. :shrug:

A lot more interesting things can be said about the theory of mind circuit in our brain but here, let’s take it to one particularly relevant point. Where does our ability to afflict mindless and utter industrialized violence to other people come from if we are so friendly? It all starts with the process of dehumanization. If we don’t perceive the other as human but rather as subhuman, none of our friendliness criteria, empathy, and so forth apply. Dehumanization can easily be identified in all populist rethoric, essentially along the lines of “these animals on the other side …”. In-group / out-group thinking. The thing is, if we perceive someone, anyone, else, another fellow human, an animal or anything alive, as inferior, our theory of mind circuit goes blank (that can be measured), and then this is really bad. Because it remove all the empathic barriers to our applied ethics and that makes us as cruel as it gets.

Here the story also connects with Kate Darling’s New breed and our relation with animals and whether we dehumanize them or not and then what we are able to do to them.

Good and wild stuff, thanks.

Selected and annotated quotes

pg 3-4 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.

You will spend the rest of your life wondering what other people are thinking.

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.

This is the last part on the schedule with which we acquire theory of mind as a baby and small child. The last sentence nicely emphasizes the importance of that function and concept.

pg4 You can teach only if you can remember what it is like not to know.

A more general one but a gem at putting the focus on the part that does not know. It is such an important state of mind and we look back on ourselves, there was always a time when we did not yet know something that we now know. We learned everything that we know at some point since being born (or since shortly before that).

pg189 If there is an essential lesson to be learned from psychology research, it is that we are not always aware of what shapes our attitudes and behavior.

I just love psychology and how it does just that, tell weird and funny stories about how behavior is shaped in ways that we would not know from pure introspection, aka the introspection fallacy.

More to come, check back.



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