February 15, 2017

Local Panel Uses Evolution to Evaluate Impact of Friendship on Survival

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Using archaeological evidence, a group of panelists presented their findings to explain the evolution of human behavior as a way to understand the complex social relationships and hierarchies that exist today.

The Paleontological Research Institution held a panel discussion on “Exploring Human Origins: The Evolution of Social Behavior” at the History Center of Tompkins County on Monday night.

The three panelists, Prof. Tom Volman, anthropology, Prof. Lisa Corewyn, anthropology, Ithaca College, and Prof. Jennifer Muller, anthropology, Ithaca College gave brief presentations on their different approaches to understanding the evolution of human behavior.

While the three panelists examined different pieces of the evolutionary timeline and researched different groups of primates, all shared one key conclusion: friendship and survival are interdependent.

The biological development of care, support and friendship for all of their own kind — even the dead and sick — are, though not exclusive, important components to complex social relationships.

“Where does human weirdness come from?” Volman asked. “When do we stop strictly thinking of ourselves as animals, and start thinking of ourselves as cultural beings?”

Volman explained that he focuses on the fossil record of hominids in Africa to study early humans and to answer these questions, using primarily neanderthal remains found in the Shanidar Cave in Iraq.

For example, neanderthals held burial rituals involving flowers, a behavior seldom found in other species. Volman attributed this discovery to the soil samples containing significant amounts of pollen that surrounded one skeleton.

However, he did propose a recent counter-theory suggesting that perhaps carnivorous, gerbil-like rodents were responsible for the presence of the pollen surrounding the dead body.

Corewyn, on the other hand, presented the audience with an even more basic question: What does it mean to be human?

Corewyn’s research with howler monkeys — one of humankind’s closest evolutionary relatives — has allowed for a better understanding of what drives social relationships between humans.

Focusing on male relationships, and how males’ social and reproductive strategies were interrelated, Corewyn presented Oliver Schülke’s emerging theory on coalitionary strategy.

This theory suggests that survival was related to friendship, because coalition formation leads to greater reproductive success.

Continuing on this theme of the biological impacts of social behavior, Muller described how social relationships could affect levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone.”

Muller cited a study that found that baboons who received the most grooming also had the lowest cortisol levels.

She related this study to the human desire for touch, arguing that touch provided for positive biological and social effects.

Muller also proposed the new, controversial theory of the bioarchaeology of care.

The study of skeletons inflicted with diseases, traumas or other pathologies “indicated to us that they could not have survived in their environment without some sort of social support,” she said.

“Care. Friendships. [They] provide us with opportunities to be successful as individuals and as a member of the homo sapiens species,” Muller said.