The Social Leap | William Von Hippel

Summary of: The Social Leap: The New Evolutionary Science of Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy
By: William Von Hippel


Embark on an evolutionary journey with ‘The Social Leap’ by William Von Hippel to discover the origins of our social behavior and how it has shaped our society. In this book summary, you’ll learn about how our ancestors were forced to adapt to life in the savannah, developing bigger brains and honing their social skills to ensure their survival. You’ll also explore the progression of human society from hunter-gatherers to the agricultural revolution and how these changes brought about hierarchy and inequality. Dive into our cognitive evolution and gain insights into the human condition, as well as learn about the role of happiness and social innovation in our species’ development.

The Evolutionary Pressure for Social Lifestyle

Six to seven million years ago, ape-like ancestors living in central Africa had a comfortable life in the rainforest canopy until climate change and tectonic shifts forced them to the harsh savannah. To adapt to the new environment, pre-humans had to develop new survival strategies, including a more social lifestyle. The ability to work cooperatively became the most important adaptation and required the development of communication skills, emotional intelligence, and other mental capacities. Early hominids had to make a “social leap” by evolving bigger brains and honing their interpersonal abilities to ensure their survival.

The Evolution of Human Brainpower

How did human brains evolve to become larger and more complex than those of chimpanzees? According to the book, “Sapiens,” about six million years of evolution, environmental pressures, and social skills acted as catalysts for the growth in cognitive abilities. From Australopithecus afarensis to Homo erectus, the size of the brain doubled, giving rise to complex social lives, better tools, and hunting techniques. As the Homo erectus evolved into Homo sapiens, a theory of mind developed, allowing for the easy sharing of complex information from one generation to another. This led to more sophisticated survival skills and laid the foundation for the next stage of human society – the agricultural revolution.

The Dark Side of Agriculture

Agriculture sparked inequality, hierarchy, and competition, leading to a shift from communal societies to sedentary civilizations. By enabling storage and accumulation of surplus food, it facilitated the rise of private property, which gave some individuals more power and status, leading to complex hierarchies. This new era of competition also brought about changes in gender relations. Despite these changes, humans’ communal nature persists.

The Power of Human Connections

Humans evolved to rely on social skills for survival, making interpersonal connection a deep-seated desire. Sharing our thoughts and feelings helps us coordinate plans and took on a new level of importance with the advent of civilization. Persuasive storytelling and confidence both evolved as fantastic survival tools. Our tendency to exaggerate and distort reality came about as a way to ensure that others react appropriately to certain threats.

The Power of Social Innovation

Technology is great, but our greatest inventions are social innovations. Humans tend to find solutions through their social connections and leverage them to solve problems in new ways. Social innovations leverage social relationships to solve a problem in a new way while technical innovations usually mean building or modifying a physical tool to accomplish a new purpose. However, most people make small social innovations every day, and studies show that only about 5 percent of people really engage in technical innovation at all. Our technical wonders usually come from a small subset of people who are both technically inclined and socially disinclined. This means that we really only reach for technical solutions once our social network has failed us.

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