We human beings seek to connect with other human beings even before we are born, as demonstrated by the synchronization of mother-baby biorhythms that occurs during gestation. When we grow up, our personal and professional achievements are largely motivated by the approval and recognition of others, and –as a species– our colonizing and adaptive success is based on our capacity to cooperate with one other. It is important to highlight how knowledge in human society is accumulated and transmitted from one generation to the next; this transmission –which we could call cultural– means that each generation starts from a higher knowledge base than the previous one, and can therefore afford to take on greater challenges than those faced by their forebears.
Socializing and learning to evolve
If, for example, we think of the possibility of inhabiting other planets and establishing permanent colonies on them –say, on Mars–, we can see the importance of accumulated knowledge. Without the discoveries of scientists and thinkers such as Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton it is very unlikely that Einstein would have come up with his theory of relativity, and it is also unlikely that Man would ever have walked on the Moon. That is, the possibility of launching a rocket into space in the present day is thanks to our capacity to store and transmit knowledge. The achievements of today’s scientists can be attributed not only to their individual genius, but also to the genius of the scientists who came before them, and who chose to share their findings and knowledge altruistically. It is interesting to note that the intergenerational transmission of knowledge is typical and exclusive to human beings, at least in terms of intentionality and dimension. The question begging to be asked is then why or how are we humans capable of sharing that information?
The answer may lie in our innate tendency to socialize, and in our extraordinary capacity to coordinate and cooperate with others. This sociability can be associated to automatic and unconscious behavioral mechanisms, and to specific hormonal and neurotransmitter systems in our brain. To understand the complex social web we have woven, we need to look at both our actual social conduct and the biology on which it is maintained. There is an interesting phenomenon in the field of behavior that is known to play a role in making us feel well-disposed toward others.
“Mimesis”: why we imitate each other
This is known as “mimesis”, and consists of the involuntary and automatic imitation of other people’s gestures. When humans are together, they tend to unconsciously imitate other people’s gestures and facial expressions. The most interesting aspect is that when someone is being imitated by another person, they have a more positive perception of their mimic, even when they are unaware they are being imitated. This phenomenon of mimesis is exploited by advertisers to “seduce” possible consumers, but it has more far-reaching implications in evolutionary terms, as it points to the importance of establishing connections with other human beings. This unconscious and automatic imitation is thought to act as a social glue, fostering links between cohabiting people (belonging to the same group) and increasing the likelihood of their interacting and cooperating with each other.
A matter of hormones
A look at human biology reveals that certain substances are released in social contexts that fuel our interest in interacting with others and in spending more time with them, thus enabling us to cooperate to achieve goals that would be impossible to undertake individually. These substances that encourage social contact include the hormones vasopressin and oxytocin, which are released into the bloodstream and perform several biological functions such as triggering childbirth, establishing bonds between mother and child, or stimulating the secretion of milk when a baby is born. They also play a role in making us like other people. In fact, it is known that the release of oxytocin in the brain causes a person to become more trusting, and therefore more likely to cooperate with others. So the evidence shows that human beings have both behavioral and biological mechanisms that guarantee our natural tendency to maintain close ties with others, and to trust them and cooperate with them, which is unquestionably a key ingredient in the adaptive capacity of our species and its successful survival .
Héctor Marín Manrique
University of Zaragoza
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