On the Social Lives of Cavemen

Tribal Living in the Modern World

May 2011

Introduction: The Gustatory Lives of Cavemen

We may be the pinnacle of millions of years of evolution, but we’re throwing our birthright straight out the window of our comfortable suburban homes. In this essay, we’re going to discuss walking across our family-sized lawn, climbing over our questionably large picket fence, and retrieving that birthright.

Let’s start with evolution.

First of all, evolution is a very slow process.  When a species undergoes an environmental change fast enough, it can take a long time for their genes to catch up.  For example, we’ve been driving cars for about a century now, but are we any more evolved to drive them at 80 MPH?  Maybe a better reaction time?  Or improved concentration?  What about a third hand to work the clutch easier.  Doubtful, doubtful, and no.  And not only do we fail to adapt quickly, but we shed our outdated adaptations at a sub-glacial rate as well.  Consider goosebumps.  It’s been millions of years since we’ve had enough hair to warm ourselves by trapping air under it, yet a gust of cold can still cause our skin’s topography to go berserk.

This faster-than-evolution phenomenon is also apparent in our diet.  Back when everything we ate was hunted or gathered, our guts sucked up whatever calories they could get and our metabolisms desperately sifted our systems for enough sugar to stick onto our upper thighs to make it through winter.

Now we have a little bit more sugar to spare, and Exhibit B is the American epidemics in obesity, diabetes and heart disease[i].  With bodies adapted so well for near-starvation, the question on everyone’s mind (or mine, at least) is if there’s anything we can do to handle a breakfast of two plump sticky buns.

It turns out there is.  We should wait ten million years.  But in the mean time, it might be best to pass on the cinnamon rolls.  And here’s another stumper—if my body hasn’t evolved to handle two miniature cakes of empty carbohydrates topped with 90 grams of liquefied sugar all before noon, is there anything else I shouldn’t be eating?

Some people say yes, and ditch everything that wasn’t consumed before the advent of farming.  That puts us somewhere around 12,000 BC, when the human race got all of its food from bushes or animals they had speared.  That’s what we were evolved to eat.  And just as we haven’t gotten any better at driving cars that go five times faster than sprinters, we haven’t made much progress in healthily digesting everything we’ve started putting in our mouths in the last 15,000 years.

To make a long story short, eating like a caveman is now in style.  Going without grains, dairy, and processed sugar is called the paleo diet (after our friends from the Paleolithic Era), and I’m sure you can google up some good info on it.  You’ll also learn that there’s an analogous exercise philosophy—one that espouses barefoot running and “dragging and lifting heavy objects” as more natural ways of staying fit.  Bench reps and treadmills are out, to my great delight.  I’m not sure if this philosophy has a name, but I’ll call it paleo exercise.

The paleo diet and exercise regimen are very interesting concepts.  I think they deserve a good deal more research than they’re currently getting.  But diet and exercise are not the only components to a healthy lifestyle.

For that reason, I want to introduce the concept of “paleo social”.  I’ve never heard this term, but the notion is overdue for christening.  Paleo social is a name for a bevy of ideas that I, and probably you, have been hearing for years—ideas that all point to one fact: that we would be healthier if our social lives more closely resembled those of Paleolithic man.

That is to say, we should live and raise kids in medium to large groups of varied yet trusted individuals.

The Tribe

Human beings are no strangers to group living.  Call it a family trait.  Our closest animal relatives spend a good bulk of their time eating bugs off of their friends’ back.  While I’m overjoyed we’re not social in that manner, I’m less pleased that we’re not social more to that degree.  In study after study, having and spending time with close friends is consistently correlated with happiness  and well-being.  And yet, the last few decades in America have seen a remarkable decline in many things associated with being in a tight-knit social circle—things like family and household size, club participation, and number of close friends.  Conversely, we’ve seen an increase in things associated with being alone—TV, commutes, and the internet, for example.

This trend is quite unhealthy.  It’s no surprise that humans are social animals—but it may be surprising that we’re such social animals that merely joining a club halves your chance of death in the next year—or that living in a close-knit town of three-generation homes can almost singlehandedly keep you safe from heart disease.

That particular case—of Roseto, Pennsylvania—is mentioned by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.  In 1950’s Roseto, the incidence of heart disease in men over sixty-five was half the national average (and suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction, and serious crime were also basically unheard of[ii]).  Bewildered doctors searched for solutions in genetics, diet, exercise, and geography, but finding nothing, reached the conclusion that it was the close-knit social life of the community that kept its residents so healthy.  Dinners with grandma, friendly chats between neighbors, and a precocious level of civic involvement were the driving factors in the health of a town that nothing but old age could kill.

The happiness and health I’m describing are not, however, ingredients to a long-lost elixir of well-being.  This sort of paleo social life occurs in cultures large and small all over the globe.  America just happens to be an enormous exception (and the one that I live in).  The whole reason Roseto was an outlier is because it was a town whose inhabitants more or less collectively moved from rural Italy to the middle of Pennsylvania over a few decades.  This was basically an Italian village in the American countryside, and it stood out because Italy’s social culture was remarkable compared to America’s—and that was in the 1950’s.  America’s social culture has only deteriorated even further since then.  We’ve lost a lot, but my thesis is a positive one; we have as much to gain as ever.

Medium to Large

So human beings are no strangers to group living.  If anything, it’s the super-modern trend towards small families in relatively isolated dwellings that’s a shock to our system.  The great flight to the individually packaged houses of the suburbs did not do a body good.

Along with that urban emigration came a shrink in residents per household and a widespread decline in community and organization engagement.  This isolation has been taxing on our physical and mental health, and the reason has been clear from the beginning: it’s not good for man to be alone.

So we’ll spend more time with other people.  Fine.  But who should we spend our time with?  What kind of groups should we hang out in?  And how big of groups?  The simple answer is: as long as you’re pretty close to the people you’re with, it hardly matters.  Piles of research back up what is essentially obvious from everyday experience: that the more time you spend with people you trust, the better off you are.  That’s not to discourage actively meeting new people, but seeing as though close friends push us towards health and happiness better than strangers, there does appear to be a limit on the number of people you can have in your “tribe”.

And that number is about 150, says anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who achieved anthropologist fame by drawing a graph plotting primates’ social group size as a function of their brain sizes.  He inputted the average human brain size into his model, and lo and behold, the number 150 has been making a whirlwind tour of popular non-fiction books ever since.  Beyond being the upper bound for both hunter-gatherer tribes and Paleolithic farming villages,  it appears that everything from startup employee counts to online social networks show this number as a fairly consistent maximum for number of close social ties.

However, the maximum is nothing to worry about compared to the minimum—and that’s being alone.  Unfortunately, people are being alone at increasing—and alarming—rates.  This was most famously detailed in the book Bowling Alone, by Harvard public policy professor Robert Putnam.  Named after an activity that was once so inherently social, it would be laughable to imagine people doing it alone (they do), the book is an extended case that America’s level of civic, social, associational and political life (which he dubs “social capital”, and which I roughly equate with “spending time with trusted others”) has drastically decreased since the 1960s, and to deleterious effect.  From the Elks to the PTA to professional societies, organization membership is falling across the board.  In the last 25 years alone, the number of families that eat dinner together has dropped by almost half, and a third of Americans live by themselves.  Meaningful interaction with close friends and family has gone down the tubes, Putnam argues, and largely due to the tube.  He makes the case that solitary TV watching—isolated, reactive, and addictive—is the single activity most damaging to social capital.  Long commutes, a symptom of suburban sprawl and another sign of an isolated existence, are another culprit.

So drop the commute and pick up family dinners, Putnam recommends.  Yet, a growing segment of the American population doesn’t live with a family.  For the single post-students among us, our paleo social network may be less a family and more a group of close-knit friends that hang out constantly or even live together through their early to mid twenties.  The name for this budding social phenomenon is, unsurprisingly, “urban tribes”.  Urban tribes are a great way for grads to live a paleo social life before starting their own families—the next social challenges of their lives.

Raising Children

I also mentioned that we should raise our kids in these tribe environments.  Having never raised children myself, I admit that I’m a bit handicapped as a preacher here.  But hear this out; I think the logic speaks for itself—at least enough for me to want to raise my own kids in a paleo social environment.  Here are four reasons why bringing up children in a sort of tribe setting is an incredible boon to kids and their caretakers.

First of all, such a structure takes a load of work off the parents—with other trustworthy part-time caregivers around, the parents can have a little more flexibility with their time for other duties.  I think this is fairly obvious and requires no further explanation.

Second, the presence of other trusted individuals in the tribe means that children can have the freedom to break away from their parents in a safe way.  The youth of the US generally make one stride of this journey during middle school, when, as any millennial can tell you, the dissonance between freedom and dependence triggers the greatest angst this side of our mid-life crises.  But this angst isn’t natural.  As essayist Paul Graham posits, “If it's physiological, it should be universal. Are Mongol nomads all nihilists at thirteen?”

There’s no worldwide nihilist census to let us know, but my prediction is that, no, they aren’t, and furthermore, we don’t need a nihilist census (it was a fun proposition while it lasted) because all the cultures where teens are suffering angst are the same cultures where their parents and grandparents are suffering endemic heart disease, which is tracked.

But while the children of America tend towards despising their parents around middle school, you only need to cross the border to the south to see a much healthier alternative as a common structure.  Based on a few border-town visits and a discussion with a Mexican friend of mine, I can say this: kids run around everywhere and their parents are nowhere in sight.  “Such disregard!,” I judged, but my friend corrected me.  All the neighbors are known by the parents.  There are aunts and uncles across the city.  What I witnessed what not irresponsibility, but a healthy middle ground between not being allowed to cross the street and a high school house party.  As these kids naturally grow more and more independent of their parents, they have the ability to do so—but supported by a trusted network of family and friends.

Third, raising your kids in a network of trusted others means they will learn from the trusted others.  They can learn both directly (i.e. the trusted other teaches or gives advice) or indirectly (i.e. by picking up social skills and learning that dealing with people is part of life).  The indirect learning is particularly interesting.  Kids raised among a number of adults have a unique perspective: they see early on that there are shades of gray to the advice of an adult.  And that can be a very good thing.

I think even babies have something to gain here.  All the new scenery associated with a tribe—cast and props—is a much better playground than, as parenting site founder Rufus Griscom says, “[getting] on our hands and knees with educational toys and [pretending] that we too are just discovering the mysteries of gravity, percussive acoustics, and the tensile strength of Styrofoam.”  Not only are there more adults around to learn object permanence with, but the potpourri of people and scenes of the tribe make a great natural mobile.

Fourth, kids in a paleo social environment add a new dimension to the lives of everyone else in the tribe.  Tribes (and I refer to them in the loose, modern sense) can get along just fine without children.  My sophomore year dorm in college comes to mind.  However, junior year, I moved into a dorm that had a faculty resident and his family, which included his young son.  This kid, when he was present in any common space of the dorm, became a child of the community.  He was given tons of love, attention and interaction from all of the students.  And for the students, it became a unique bond we could share with this professor of ours.  We weren’t interested in raising his kid for him, but we did become closer to him (and arguably to each other) by partaking in just a bit of that job.  I was amazed that all of this community energy was the accidental doing of a single infant.

Another place where youthful exuberance is especially valuable is with the elderly.

Ask anyone to list depressing places, and nursing homes are sure to be near the top.  Sparsely decorated, smelling of sterility, and having an atmosphere slow enough to etherize a surgery patient, it’s no surprise that half of people checked into one are dead less than a year later.  What could possibly bring energy and health to such a dismal place?

The answer, one that’s perhaps even obvious to anyone who’s had children, is preschoolers.  Grace Living Center in Jenks, Oklahoma, is a notable exception to the dreary confines that are most of its ilk in that this particular nursing home recently retrofitted some of its rooms into preschool and kindergarten classrooms.  The requisite students are on loan from the elementary school across the street.

Enter the residents.  One by one, the denizens of Grace Living Center asked to get involved with the classroom.  Now, the Book Buddies program is in full swing, and the senior-most and junior-most members of our society are joining forces in the fight against preschool illiteracy.  Similar programs around the country bring in nursing home residents for storytelling and art projects.

The results were astounding.  Grace Living Center’s medication levels dropped sharply.  Life expectancy rose.  “Some of them had sort of lost interest in living,” says Jacque Rooks, a director at Windsor Place, another home that converted three of its rooms to kindergarten classrooms.  “But that changed when the kids came.  Now, they have an interest in helping the students. Having the kids here is giving them a new lease on life.”

The children benefit as well.  Most kindergarten graduates of Grace Living Center read at third-grade levels.  Beyond that, they often leave with a slightly more nuanced understanding of death than their peers in other schools.

 What to do about it

All of this begs the question why we have this system set up.  Thinking logically, how can we possibly arrive at an arrangement in which children split their time between isolated homes and an assembly-line education and the elderly are clustered in glorified waiting rooms?  I believe the answer is because it’s economical.

It’s cheapest to send all the kids to one place to get their learning out of the way, just as it’s cheapest to send all the aging grandparents to one place get their living out of the way.   Both acts are large investments in our own self-determination—each grants us more time and significantly more freedom.  Now I’m not saying everyone needs to home school their kids and pull granny from the nursing home, but I am saying that chasing after freedom at the expense of close social ties seems to be causing about as many problems as it’s solving.  In this case, there’s something better than unlimited self-determination.  Or, more specifically, someone.

And that someone is any member of your tribe—the friend or family member you live with or never stop hanging out with.  Whether you love them or you can hardly stand them, being around them plays an important role in your health and happiness.

So here’s what you should do.  Live in a bigger group.  Watch less TV and commute less frequently.  Dine with the same people.  Resolve any disputes with close friends.  Have your kids spend more time with trusted adults.  Spend time with the kids of adults who trust you.  Mix age groups.  Spend more time with grandpa.

Regardless of the specific implementation, the point is this: we stand to gain a lot from living in larger, closer groups.  That’s how we were kicking it in the monkey days; that’s how we should be kicking it now.  I say that not because of a romantic attachment to our Paleolithic forbearers, but because of the fact that a good deal of health and happiness is ripe for our picking[iii].

Adopting such a lifestyle is not without precedent—paleo social lives are common all over the world.  But if you and your parents are from American and it’s 2011, chances are good you’ve seen very few people living in anything vaguely resembling a tribe.  Paleo social may be common and age-old wisdom in other parts of the globe, but here in America, Malcolm Gladwell starts out his book on statistical anomalies with it.  And that’s what we’re up against.

Jimmy Buffett once said we’re just cavemen in blue jeans.  It’s time to start living a little more like it.

[i] Exhibit A is our upper thighs.  Sorry.

[ii] I believe one of the surest signs that your lifestyle is aligned with your physiology in some way is that the benefits come in clumps.  Just as the paleo diet helps people with weight, energy levels, digestion, complexion, resistance to illness, and other areas of health, it’s no surprise that a proper paleo social life would be a holistic boon to health.

[iii] I know, I know—I deny sentimentality for our cave-dwelling ancestors, then immediately proceed to make a hunter-gatherer pun.

Special thanks to Kelly Walsh and Ellen Chisa for editing.