Human culture is about survival of the friendliest, says John Edward Terrell, the curator of oceanic archaeology and ethnology at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and an expert on the biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity of modern Pacific Islanders. His new book is A Talent for Friendship: Rediscovery of a Remarkable Trait.
You say that friendliness, rather than savageness, is what marks us out as a species …
People often have a grim view of what it means to be human. There’s this conception that inside each of us is a Mr. Hyde—an evilness that’s dying to get out—and also that we can’t trust strangers. This resonates with the view that at the beginning of human time we were able to survive pretty much alone or in small family groups. Supposedly we’ve been trying ever since then to overcome this dubious primal heritage by devising state-like organizations to control our nasty inner selves.
Yet it’s pretty clear that we cannot survive on our own. Our personalities and our knowledge are so tied up in our relationships with others. As a species we are remarkably talented, not just at thinking up new ways to kill other people, but also at turning strangers into friends.
How could this innate friendliness have evolved, and how has it helped us succeed as a species?
I am not alone in thinking there’s another dimension to evolution, besides mutation and natural selection, that can kick in under the right circumstances—namely cooperation and collaboration. The payoffs for living socially are many, including avoidance of predators, finding resources, and caring for young. But in order to succeed you need effective ways of communicating between the individuals involved.
Evolving the capacity to read the behavior of others and to develop trusting relationships, as humans have, opens the door to the world beyond the confines of immediate kin and nearby neighbors.
Is friendliness unique to humans?
I think humans have probably always had, to some degree, the ability to judge the intentions of other people, to be friendly, and to take risks with strangers. As well as these evolved biological talents, we have also added cultural ways of taking the measure of others, such as how they behave when they enter a room.
However, I do not believe that we are doing something that no other species can do. For example, while we are talented at dealing with the uncertainties, risks, and fears associated with meeting strangers, dogs can certainly be friendly, too, and let’s not forget that bonobos are famous for forging relationships with strangers—they use sex.
Your ideas largely stem from observations of communities in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. What were your expectations when you first landed there in the 1960s?
I was scared. When I started working in the north Solomons in 1969, things were tense. There were rumors that a major copper mine would be dug in the middle of the island, and many people there were not happy about that. And I was an archaeologist getting ready to dig in the ground looking for things. Doesn’t that seem a lot like looking for copper?
So what did these communities teach you about the role of friendship in human history?
We think of New Guinea as a land of cannibals, headhunters, and constant tribal warfare. This huge island is also famous for the diversity of its languages—it is popularly said to have about 1,000. The explanation invariably favored is that people there must live isolated lives, perhaps because of the ruggedness of the mountains, or because of long-standing warfare. Yet my colleague Rob Welsch and I were astonished to learn from one man that he had “inherited friendships” with other families in 15 different communities. These were spread out over a geographical distance of 250 kilometers where 10 languages different from his own mother tongue are spoken.
Are these friendships in the way we might define them in the West?
These friendships do serve a practical purpose. If you were planning a voyage down the coast, you’d need to be sure that in your canoe was at least one person who could claim a friend in every one of the villages you’d pass. When you arrived at one of these villages, the person on board immediately connects with that friend. Even so, these relationships are not simply economic or strategic propositions: The trips are also a way of getting away from home for a spell and having some fun. We have been told on many occasions that these inherited friends are people who would be there at your funeral. The word for such friends in some local languages is the same as the word used for your spouse—I think this really signals the depth of the emotional ties often involved.
How do your ideas differ from evolutionary theories about kin or group selection?
I’m not going to say that group selection—the idea that we’re social because my group has been able to outcompete your group—is never an appropriate way to account for the evolution of social cooperation in the biological world. But I don’t think we need to explain the evolution of human social behavior this way. Natural selection isn’t just about individuals or groups competing with one another in the struggle for existence. Humans have to cope with a world that can rain down disease, floods, famine, and other natural afflictions. Our friendships and social networks have the potential to extend the range of people we can call upon and learn from, and this can buffer us against the trials and tribulations of life.
What can more traditional societies teach those in the West about negotiating the balance between hostility and friendship?
I think we need to be aware of how easily we can be misunderstood by others. The Maori of New Zealand recognized this problem long ago and invented a ritual that I like to call a “marae encounter.” This enables different communities to meet one another over a ritual battleground—rather than a real one—and take the measure of one another before getting down to business. Such encounters involve a blend of talk, performance, ceremony, and hospitality. By the end, the people on both “sides” have had a chance to move emotionally from being potentially dangerous to becoming, as the Maori say, noa—“ordinary, safe, unrestricted.” In other words, those on the other side have stopped being frightening strangers. They have become “just folks.” There are lessons we can learn from this: for example, I’d love to see two Chicago gangs meet in this way on our marae at the Field Museum.
Have you applied anything you’ve learned about relationships in these societies to your own life?
One of the things I learned, both as an anthropologist and as the father of an adopted child, is that blood ties and genetic relatedness are only as meaningful as we care to make them. When I adopted my son, Gabriel, I wanted some way for him to be able to refer to his ties to us without needlessly labeling him an adopted child. I looked for words resonating with what the Samoans call a child’s aiga—family in the broad sense of all of those supporting a child’s nurturance and well-being. Then I realized we already have these great words to describe such relationships: mother, father, aunt, uncle, sister, brother. As a result, Gabriel has adopted for himself four fathers, four mothers, a much older sister, a number of aunts and uncles, and even a great-grandmother.
Is modern technology ushering in a new era of human friendship?
I think it is, although it’s an open question how emotionally satisfying this will be. However, I think the Internet and social networking sites have tremendous potential to make the foreign not seem so foreign any more. Even a simple thing like clicking “Like” on someone’s Facebook post is sending a friendly signal to someone you may never have met.
This article originally appeared in New Scientist.