Gossip, Ostracism, And Lies Helped The Human Brain Grow In Prehistoric Times, New Book Claims

early humans
Esteban De Armas / Shutterstock

Idle gossip and rejecting people from cliques may bring about the end of friendships in modern-day society, but a newly published book suggests that those were among the questionable things early humans did to facilitate the evolution of the human brain over time.

According to the New York Post, psychology professor William von Hippel’s book The Social Leap documented how mankind made a series of “social leaps” over millions of years, learning new behaviors that helped the human brain grow and ensure the evolution and survival of the species. This started when chimpanzees were forced to move from the rainforests to the grasslands about 10 million years ago, marking the first time the ancestors of modern humans learned how to forge alliances in order to protect themselves from predators.

Later on, about 3 million years ago, Australopithecus afarensis emerged as the first species of early humans, and developed more flexible body parts that allowed them to easily throw stones as a form of self-defense.

As further noted by the Daily Mail, von Hippel wrote that throwing stones was instrumental in protecting early humans against saber-toothed tigers and other predators. However, Australopithecus soon leveraged this skill when ostracizing weaker members of a group, stoning anyone who ran away from predators instead of fighting them or doing the same to those who didn’t throw stones at the outcasts.

“To be forced out of a group of Australopithecines on the grasslands was a death sentence,” wrote von Hippel, as quoted by the New York Post.

“For this reason, our ancestors rapidly evolved a strong emotional reaction to the threat of being ostracized.”

About 1.8 million years ago, Homo erectus first emerged, as brains grew larger and the “social brain hypothesis” came into play to help early humans cope with the increasing complexities of life, according to von Hippel. He wrote that humans evolved to the point where they knew how to use fire, not only for cooking food but also to “extend our community time past daylight” without having to worry about attacks from predators. This, he said, brought about more opportunities for our ancestors to socialize, also allowing them to gossip much like modern-day humans often do.

“Storytelling allows each generation to build on information gathered by their ancestors, as cultures accumulate knowledge about how to deal with their local environment.”

  Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock
Per von Hippel, the ability to gossip also made humans aware of certain negative feelings, as hunter-gatherers who weren’t able to bring enough meat back to their groups learned how to feel shame for falling short of expectations. Generally, early humans at that time learned how to become self-conscious, becoming aware “of how others are appraising us,” the professor added in his book.

According to the New York Post, von Hippel’s book also illustrated how humanity’s ability to tell lies, a trait not found in our chimp ancestors, evolved over time, with the act of self-deception becoming the “ultimate social weapon.” The New York Post cited a previous article von Hippel wrote for Behavioral Science in 2011, where he described self-deception as a tool that can “eliminate the costly cognitive load” and reduce the chances of retribution if someone discovers the truth.

Although modern-day humans are “nicer” to each other than our ancestors were, as the New York Post wrote, von Hippel’s book also documented how a lot of the aforementioned traits are still present in today’s society, especially since the tendency to form cliques fosters “hostility for outsiders” in modern times.

“Just because we got smarter doesn’t mean we got any wiser. For better or worse, we haven’t been able to shake many of our ancient instincts,” von Hippel lamented.