191. How We Form Societies feat. Mark Moffett


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When trying to figure out how to understand humans, we tend to look to our nearest neighbors: bonobos, chimps, and monkeys. But our guest Mark Moffett believes that in many ways, we're unlike chimps and more aligned with social insects like wasps and ants.

Mark Moffett is known for documenting new species and behaviors during his exploration of remote places in more than a hundred countries. He is a high school dropout who began doing research in biology in college and went on to complete a PhD at Harvard, studying under the poet-laureate of conservation, Edward O. Wilson.

He is now a research associate at the Smithsonian Institute and an author of books like “The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall Hardcover” and “Adventures Among Ants.”

Mark & Greg discuss the complexity of ant societies, kin selection, the speciation of accents and the pros and cons of war for a society.

Episode Quotes:

What’s the commonality between humans and ants?

14:16 - I came upon this idea when I realized that ants and humans, despite being virtually alien species to each other, have this commonality. Ants use, what is equivalent to their national flag, which is a scent on their body surface and all the ants and the colony have that scent. And as long as you have that scent, you're golden. If you don't, you are attacked, or if you're a colony, that's smaller, you run away. Humans use a lot more signaling, and that's a big part of social psychology, how this signaling works.

Defining social networks

12:49 - Social networks exclude a lot of people within societies and include those outside societies, and that's true in some other animals.

You can save a lot of mental effort in societies by allowing strangers

34:50 - Chimpanzees and most species don't allow for strangers, and allowing for strangers was a big step in our evolution, even though it happened back in a point of time where our societies were quite small by modern standards, that was essential. When the opportunity came along for societies to grow, it had to be there already because you can add individuals to society at no cost, as long as they did the right things, behaved the right way, and so forth. We could be comfortable with societies that could grow to any size. And that's very unique to humans and a few ants.

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243 episodes