Taking ADvantage
Social Basis of Human Behavior


Richard F. Taflinger

This page has been accessed since 28 May 1996.

For further readings, I suggest going to the Media and Communications Studies website.

This chapter examines human social evolution, and how it has altered biological responses to stimuli.

Social alterations to biological stimuli:


Humans can think.

We are the only creatures on earth (as far as we know) that can remember the past as discrete events, then connect those events with present conditions. Then, on the basis of those connections, we can consciously decide what to do, and project possible present actions into the future consequences of those actions. Thus, unlike other animals that react to stimuli as they occur, humans live not only in the present, but in the past and the future. A dog may bristle at a threat, but not at a threat that's long gone or hasn't occurred yet. Humans will do all three. It is this ability to remember the past, relate it to the present, and project into the future that is a special province of humans. This ability allows us to manipulate our environment, communicate across distance and time, and evolve incredibly complex societies and cultures.

The ability to think also means that we have two ways of viewing things, instinctively and intellectually. The instinctive view is instant and uncontrollable: it's the way the mind is wired, unalterable except by evolution. The intellectual view is learned and alterable, based on the culture and society in which the person lives. We can use it to mitigate the effects of the instinctive view (although when instinct comes in conflict with intellect, the conflict can be so great that the result is neurosis or even psychosis).


As I discussed in Chapter Two, staying alive is a personal quest for any animal. It is personal survival that allows it to continue its genetic line.

However, an animal doesn't necessarily have to survive on its own. Another aspect of personal survival is the forming of social groups within a species. When staying alive is not just the responsibility of the individual, but other members of the species help the individual to survive, and vice versa, all members' chances are enhanced.

Social groups come in all levels, from couples to herds, from two to thousands. The purpose of a social group and the level it takes is often dictated by how well it serves to promote the survival of the members. For example, dik dik antelope form pairs, while gnus form herds of thousands. The dik dik lives in heavily forested areas, filled with thickets and underbrush. This provides plenty of hiding places for individuals, but not groups. Thus, the fewer animals there are, the less likely a predator will find one.

Gnus, on the other hand, live on the wide-open African savannahs. In these conditions, there is virtually no place for an individual to hide. However, the individual can hide behind and within a large group, and the larger the group the more individuals that can be protected from predators. Thus, more animals in the group mean fewer are vulnerable to predation.

There are, of course, groups that fall in all levels between these two extremes. Monkeys form bands of thirty or so, depending on their habitat. Generally, the more open the area, the more members in the band, forming a compromise between hiding in the habitat and hiding in the group.

Again, it appears the higher the neural complexity of the animal, the more the social group is used to enhance survival.(1) In addition, the higher the neural complexity of the animal, the higher the complexity of the society. The more complex the society, the more that society devotes its resources to an individual's welfare. For example, alligators will help their own young to survive. They won't help, and may even eat, other alligators and their young. Most herbivores, on the other hand, form herds, where members, related or not, can support each other against predators, or at least provide hiding places. Lions form prides and wolves form packs, helping each other in hunting and raising young. Humans will adopt children, and help complete strangers stay alive.


Humans have the most complex society of any creature on earth, which means we extend self-preservation beyond personal physical survival. We live in extremely complex and interdependent societies, where people band together in groups for mutual aid and protection. Such groups include families, friendships, associations, tribes, clans, states, nations. The members of these groups work together to help each other. Also, since the group enhances the members' chances of survival, group survival means personal survival. The individual benefits by supporting the group, because the group reciprocates by supporting the individual.

This is clear for most animals. Wolf packs and lion prides hunt together, allowing them to get more, and bigger, game. Marmots and prairie dogs post lookouts to see danger and warn the other members of the group. Chimpanzees organize hunting band s. (Attenborough, 1990)

Such cooperation strategies increase the resources necessary to survival that the group can gather. More members can kill more and larger game. More members can take and defend a larger territory, increasing food resources and defensive positions against predators. This helps satisfy the group's immediate survival needs.

Of course, resources don't last forever. Food rots. Weather or fire can destroy shelter such as trees and thickets. Water can dry up or shift course. When this happens, the group hunts again, moves, or dies.

Humans have gone through the same process. During our evolution from primate to person we formed bands, hunting groups, mutual protection societies. Each member contributed to and shared in resources.

However, humans have developed societies that go beyond the needs of the present. The human ability to think makes us consider future needs as well, and how the individual and the group can survive. For example, because we can remember what we've experienced in the past, we realize that food rots. When it does, and if we can't find food in the future, we'll starve. We realize that shelter can burn down, that water can dry up or get polluted. To take care of future needs, we realize there must be a way of transporting present resources into that future in a way that isn't perishable.

Human ingenuity has found such a way of transporting present resources such as food, drink, shelter, mutual protection, etc. into the future. Any effort that a member of a group does that helps that group survive is recompensed in a way that the work is acknowledged later. These resources are converted into a symbolic representation of them: money. For example, farmers grow food and sell it for money. When they in turn need food or any other resource, they reconvert the money into what they need. People use money for all aspects of physical survival: buying food, shelter, clothing, medical services, protection. Whatever the individual or the group needs to survive is converted into and out of its symbolic representation.

Of course, the human ability to think, which provides so many advantages for survival, carries with it a disadvantage. Being able to think about the future means being able to worry about it as well. Most people imagine what their future will be like. They project current conditions into the future, usually based on past experience. It is normal for people to be concerned whether they will have the resources they need. However, worry is when such extrapolations concentrate on negative results. This can have a negative effect on a person's psychological health.

Money is once again the major resource about which people worry -- it's how people can get the other resources they need. The fear of not having enough money for current needs, or thinking there won't be enough for future needs, can create the same physiological effects as any other threat. It can cause the stress of the fight-or-flight syndrome. Sufficient stress, particularly unrelieved stress, can be as dangerous to personal survival as a predator.

However, just as money can relieve the stress of personal survival, it can relieve psychological stress. We can buy insurance that will replace lost resources and relieve the worry about not having enough in the future; we can buy entertainment to relieve mental stress; we can buy counseling when the stress becomes overwhelming. Again, whatever the individual or the group needs to survive is converted into and out of its symbolic representation.

Humans, unlike other animals, also have a conscious awareness of the effects of reproduction, that our progeny is our posterity. We therefore extend self-preservation to our children to an even greater degree than other animals. We care for them not just until self-sufficiency or puberty, but well beyond. This increases their chances of survival, and thus of our genes' survival in the future.

Finally, our ability to remember the past and project into the future means we may help total strangers, those that have no genetic relationship to us at all. We can remember debts for days, months, and years. We can also imagine we or our children might need help in the future. We extend this sense of obligation and return far beyond that of any other creature. We don't expect that a return will necessarily come from the specific person we helped. We just believe that helping will result in help when needed. Thus, by helping others, any others, we help ourselves.


(1) This, of course, does not apply to insects, the simplest of animals, whose survival strategy is often dependent on large numbers and/or complex societies. However, for insects, individual survival is usually subordinated to species survival. In addition, instinct dictates their behavior. They are unable to adapt their society to changing conditions other than through evolution, while higher animals can adapt through learning.
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