Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Oct 16, 2019

Good Reads: The Social Leap

by Brett Pelham
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Whether you are an evolutionary scientist or a harsh critic of the theory of evolution, Bill von Hippel’s witty, deep, and engaging book, The Social Leap, is sure to challenge some of your cherished assumptions about human nature. The Social Leap (hereafter Leap) takes readers on a guided tour of human nature that begins when our primate ancestors moved from living in trees to wandering the African savannah. It ends with an analysis of how an appreciation of human evolution can help make us happier, healthier, and less likely to harm one another.    

Leap begins by explaining how human beings evolved. By virtue of many, many lucky accidents, from the climatological to the cultural, we evolved to be the extremely flexible and highly cooperative species that we are today. For example, it is not merely our huge brains, but also our natural willingness to cooperate and share information with other people that really sets us apart from other primates. Likewise, rather than suggesting that evolution always makes us selfish and violent, Leap acknowledges our violent nature but balances these destructive inclinations against our capacity to help and nurture others – and not merely others who share a lot of our genes.  Consider a sample from the chapter on happiness: “Generous people are more popular than stingy or calculating people all over the world. When Hadza hunter-gatherers in Tanzania break camp and go off in different directions, the generous ones have lots of people who want to be with them, while the stingy ones are at constant risk of being left alone.” Likewise, Leap suggests that human beings are cooperators extraordinaire. Human characteristics such as division of labor and a deep desire to remain in good standing in our social groups have allowed us, for better or worse, to dominate the planet.

Along similar lines, Leap explains how some environments naturally facilitate cooperative and inclusive leadership styles (like the matriarchal elephant leaders, who put herd before self). Other environments promote a harsh, self-serving, even destructive, form of leadership, much like that of alpha baboons, who put their own needs ahead of those of the baboon troop.  More specifically, Leap carefully documents how harsh environments – in which resources are scarce and social inequality is rampant – are breeding grounds for authoritarian leadership styles. In contrast, friendlier, more egalitarian environments allow leaders to be more democratic and nurturing.

On topics as diverse as mating, consumerism, parenting, storytelling, identifying one’s talents, and inventing better suitcases, Leap argues that our inherently social nature drives our happiness and our intellectual capacities in ways that are often surprising. In Leap, von Hippel also tackles controversial issues such as social inequality, violence, and gender bias in ways that are both deep and nuanced. Rather than arguing, for example, that all gender differences are the arbitrary constructions of culture, Leap presents evidence that at least a few gender differences evolved (such as male risk-taking) but stresses that such differences are no excuse for unfair treatment.

Finally, Leap is a delight to read. The author’s self-deprecating sense of humor, his personal stories of success and failure, his concern for social justice, and his deep appreciation for how our social nature shapes who we are and what we can become sets Leap apart from many other good reads. If you want to better understand how we can all have more female than male ancestors, why winning the lottery does not guarantee happiness, and why we should all take more vacations, you should leap at the chance to read Leap.               


For Further Reading
Von Hippel, W. (2018).  The social leap: The new evolutionary science of who we are, where we come from, and what makes us happy. New York: Harper Collins.

Brett Pelham studies the self, gender, social cognition, and stereotypes. He is the author of books such as Evolutionary Psychology: Genes, Environments, and Time (2018). He is also an associate editor at Character and Context.  

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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