Friday, May 1, 2015

Darwin at a Class Reunion

Happy May Day! Workers of the World Unite—not for communism, but to make the world better in whatever way we can.

I have just posted a video in which I, in the persona of Charles Darwin, am briefly addressing the 40th reunion of our high school class. Lindsay (California) High School, Class of ’75! I made the video expressly for people who were not there and who might be wondering why I would post what seems to be a personal video on my science YouTube channel. I explain the reasoning in the video, but the sound quality leaves something to be desired (echoes from the walls) so I will write a brief essay on the same subject (not a word-for-word transcript; I want to improve on my words).

I begin by asking the question, What adaptation makes humans unique? There are many adaptations that are very highly developed in humans, compared to other animals. The one that first comes to mind is intelligence. We are clearly the most intelligent animal species on the planet (sorry to those of you who still think dolphins are smarter). But what kind of intelligence? Our brains have evolved a particular kind of intelligence. We do have logical intelligence; we can apply our brains to figure out problems logically, but we have to work at it. But the kind of intelligence that comes intuitively and easily to our brains is social intelligence. In high school, I had the reputation of being very intelligent, in the logical sense, but I was surrounded by a lot of peers who had tremendous social intelligence. And I here claim that social intelligence, in which my classmates were at least as good as I was, is humankind’s greatest adaptation.

One kind of social intelligence is what I call horizontal culture: a network of interconnections among animals in which they can help each other out. You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us! This takes a lot of brain power, in order to keep track of each individual and what kind of person each one is. Humans are really, really good at this kind of intelligence. But then, so are dogs and wolves and meerkats and prairie dogs. Ever been in a wolf pack? Neither have I, but we can imagine what it is like. You mess with one of them, you mess with all of them. Humans are really good, but not unique, at having highly-developed horizontal culture.

Another kind of social intelligence is what I call vertical culture, and this is the thing that humans do perhaps better than any other animal species. We can remember—for decades—what our friends are like. Forty years can pass, and we can practically take up where we left off as if no time has passed at all! When I went to my class reunion, I had literally not seen any of those old friends for four decades. (The only ones I had contacted in the meantime were not at the reunion.) Yet there we were, filling each other in on the news of our lives, with cultural bonds undiminished over time. The memories of the time we spent in band, or in Japan during sister-city exchanges, or in Jim Kliegl’s plays, were still fresh.

Perhaps the most unique feature of human vertical culture is we remember our friends and loved ones who have died. Carolyn, who organized the reunion (thanks forever for that!), set up a little memorial for our friends who had died. Does any other species of animal do this? I have read that elephants remember their dead. If you play back a recording of a beloved elephant that has died, the other members of the herd will display actions and sounds that seem, to us, like grief. But we humans are much better at this than elephants. Our social intelligence allows us to not just remember those who have gone before but lots of things about them. And to love them forever.

Our old Spanish teacher, Jesse Guerrero, told us, regarding the invitation to join our reunion, “I needed this.” Social bonds over time are as necessary to our brains as is food and oxygen. All of us at the reunion, not just Jesse, need this. And all of the rest of the readers of this blog.

My reunion was not just enjoyable but it gave me a deep satisfaction to participate in this deeply satisfying and uniquely human experience.


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