This story was originally published on May 7, 2012:
Our highly social species has been behaving strangely of late, and this has been noted in a flurry of recent hand-wringing articles wondering whether technology is changing our nature. The cover of the Atlantic asks whether Facebook is making us lonely, and the New York Times bemoans "The Flight From Conversation."
The authors observe what many of us have experienced: Friends invite us to get together only to spend the time texting other friends or tweeting. Everywhere, people are ignoring those in their physical vicinity so they can hold court with acquaintances farther away.
One unlikely source of insight into this bizarre situation comes from our cousins the monkeys. In his new book Games Primates Play, evolutionary biologist Dario Maestripieri makes the case that people are using technology to do what comes naturally to the human species — not to converse but to compete for status.
Maestripieri, a professor at the University of Chicago, was inspired to write his book after years of studying rhesus macaques on a reserve in Puerto Rico, and also observing humans in his everyday life. Both primate species are highly social — which does not in any way mean we are nice. "Monkeys are obsessed with power and dominance," Maestripieri said. Their survival and ability to reproduce hinge on their clawing their way to the highest possible rung on the ladder.
Conversation is a relatively recent invention, but our instinct for social climbing, backstabbing, and shunning goes back at least 20 million years — predating the time we shared a common ancestor with monkeys. Some of our fellow primates claw at each other's genitalia or lovingly eat bugs from each other's fur, while we friend and unfriend, follow and unfollow, invite and leave out.
Technology often makes life more wonderful, but sometimes inventions can seem to send us backward by easing our ability to engage in primitive behavior. Now we can bounce signals off a satellite and back so that one human can say to another, "Eat my nits."
Dominance hierarchies can cut down on the amount of fighting an animal has to do. Without it, monkeys might fight over every banana, every potential mate, every desirable tree, and who gets to eat the bugs out of whose fur first. With dominance there's only one thing to fight about and the winner gets all.
"Essentially being high status or low status makes the difference between living a good life and a bad life," Maestripieri said. And even though we adults often judge young people for being self-centered, somewhere inside we know that the status and connections forged in youth will seal their fates — determining whether they get into a solid company or a prestigious graduate school, whether or not they can find satisfying marriages or be left out in the cold.
And so it's not surprising that people will grasp at new technology to better play the status game. In his book, Maestripieri argues that we make statements about our primate status every time we exchange an e-mail. As an example, he describes how a grad student who needs his help writes him a long, careful note. Since he, the professor, is of superior status, he can let it sit in his inbox for several days without worrying about it, and can type a terse and hasty reply if he likes. She will respond quickly with another relatively long, carefully worded note.
When the student becomes a professor and they have another exchange, her style will be lazier and less careful, and his will become more respectful.
Thinking about ourselves as hierarchical primates adds a new twist to other stories and books about the way technology is resculpting human behavior. In a recent New York Times article, MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle noted that "executives text at meetings." This is clearly a primate dominance display.
"I've noticed that the little devices we carry around are so powerful that they change not only what we do, but also who we are," Turkle wrote in a New York Times piece based on her new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.
She quotes a teenager saying, "Someday, someday but certainly not now, I'd like to learn how to have a conversation." She fears that a conversation-free society deprives people of something that's wonderfully human, and may rob us of the ability to reflect when we're alone. She makes a strong point.
Conversation can help us to transcend our nature as status-hungry little monkeys. With conversation we can share new and intriguing ideas in science, books, art, and music. We can enchant each other with stories, encourage curiosity, and take a break from clawing our way around the social hierarchy. No matter how sophisticated our technology becomes, we retain the power to decide whether our tools will help us become better human beings or just make monkeys out of us.