Being social can be understood on two levels. On the superficial level, it evokes the image of being pleasant at a cocktail party or going out with friends on the weekend. But on a more profound level, it means a sense of belonging to a widening circle of community, from family to tribe, and nation, and humanity, in general. Which leads us to next question: Where is this sense of sociality coming from? Is it biologically ingrained, or is it a cultural artifact, a mere veneer over our innate selfish nature?
In his delightful book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” the eminent psychologist and founder of the field of behavioral economics, Daniel Kahneman, describes two systems that shape our thinking. System 1 is intuitive, fast, comprising impressions, emotions, and pattern recognition. System 2 is laborious, analytical, and is recruited only when System 1 is inadequate for the task.
Repeatedly encountering a word, a name, a face, or a situation, gives us a sense of familiarity, of feeling comfortable with it. This has deep evolutionary roots. Even mice have it. If you put a mouse in a cage with an opening to a dark tunnel and put a dummy of a cat at the end of the tunnel, on the first encounter, the mouse will not come out of his tunnel even though morsels of cheese are beckoning. On subsequent encounters, however, he will become bolder, until he finally ignores the cat. The implications of this simple observation are profound. Repeatedly seeing your parents, your extended family, your friends, your tribe, gives you a sense of familiarity, something psychologists call cognitive ease.
Here is how the famed psychologist, Zajonc, quoted in Kahneman’s book, put it:
“The consequences of repeated exposures benefit the organism in its relations to the immediate animate and inanimate environments. They allow the organism to distinguish objects and habitats that are safe from those that are not. They are the most primitive basis of social attachments. Therefore, they form the basis for social organization and cohesion – the basic source of psychological and social stability.”
What about the biological evidence?
What a breathtaking leap from psychological observations to the basis of our sociality. But if, indeed, such a behavioral trait is ingrained, or shall we say hard-wired, where is the biological evidence?
It turns out that an interesting paper published in the journal Nature, titled “Social reward requires coordinated activity of nucleus accumbens oxytocin and serotonin,” provides the necessary evidence. The Nucleus accumbens is the part of the brain reward system that has evolved to motivate behaviors that are important for survival and reproduction (e.g., food and water seeking and copulation). As the title suggests, this paper demonstrated that the rewarding properties of social interaction in mice require the coordinated activity of two neurotransmitters in the nucleus accumbens: oxytocin and serotonin (also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine or 5–HT) in the nucleus accumbens.
In addition to being a neurotransmitter in the brain, oxytocin is also a hormone. Sometimes called the “love hormone,” it has long been associated with mother-child bonding. But the shift to social living preceded the emergence of pair-living by 35 million years. In other words, sociality and its associated traits of vocal communication, imitation, and empathy must have been imperative for our survival.
And what about serotonin? Don’t we usually think of dopamine as the neurotransmitter associated with reward? Here we tread into terra incognito. Are there two systems of reward? Is there an interaction between the two? Further experiments will undoubtedly clarify this point. The paper is complicated, highly technical, but the bottom line is: We are hard-wired for sociality, for empathy, for loving our fellow human beings.
Related content: What Makes Humans Different from the Rest of the Animals?
If being social has survival value, does libertarianism mesh with our biology?
In her well-known book, Atlas Shrugged, Rand describes objectivism as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute“.
In The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (Ayn Rand Library), she said the individual should “exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.” She referred to egoism as “the virtue of selfishness” in her book of that title. Never mind that the biology of our species is antithetical to these assertions.
Critical reading of her writing reveals a shallow mind and a philosophy that would have earned her an “F” grade in an introductory philosophy course. Her “intellectual” heirs, Rand Paul and his quirky father Ron, don’t merit much discussion either. In my opinion, they are shallower than her and they don’t even pretend to have a coherent social philosophy.
In these days of rejuvenated libertarianism, and its less pretentious cousins of “rugged individualism” and the coarse “you are on own, buddy” mentality, we are witnessing the very falseness, and philosophical vacuity, of this ideology. When the chips are down in Texas, in this state of individualists and small government, the people realized that they need each other, that they are a community. And who is clamoring for government help? The very same people who want to “starve the beast”. With Florida under water, does its governor still think climate change is too expensive deal with, and a liberal hoax to begin with? Reality is proving their ideology bankrupt.
So what does biology tell us about the future of Libertarianism? Here the message is hopeful. Like all other human-invented “-isms“, if they don’t have a basis in our evolutionary imperatives, our brain wiring—our very existence as living organisms—are doomed to extinction. The unmistakable trend toward communitarianism in our country, the sense that we are all in it together, is nothing but our biology asserting itself.
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, M.D., Ph.D. (now retired) was a professor and basic science researcher at the University of California San Francisco. In addition to his clinical and research responsibilities, he also taught biochemistry to first-year medical students for many years.
During this time he was also the Editor of Lange Medical Publications, a company that developed and produced medical texts that were widely used by health professionals around the world.
He loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate knowledge and complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us.
He eventually left academia to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early-stage biotech company that developed products to improve post-surgical pain control.
Now that he is retired, he enjoys working out for two hours every day. He also follows the stock market, travels the world, and, of course, writes for TDWI.