No man is an island….unless you’re a 30-something with loads of homework

Posted on November 29, 2011


Snub-nose monkeys in China - these primates can live in groups up to 600









Humans are social animals. I used to be a ‘social butterfly’…..but my socialising has regressed so much since my postgrad started I’ve retreated into my cocoon and barely see daylight.

Tonight however I’ve been coaxed out with the offer of good food, wine and a gossip with my best mate,  Mamma Africa. It’s been nine and a half weeks since we last saw each other – no Mickey Rourke puns please.

The origin of sociality is something that has caused much debate among scientists. Now researchers from Oxford University and Auckland University may be a step closer to understanding the origins of human social behaviour by analysing how social living evolved in primates.

Past theories have toyed with the idea that group living built up gradually in size over time. But new research published in the journal Nature suggests otherwise.

It’s thought that when primates made the jump from being nocturnal animals to more diurnal creatures, they also increased their sociality. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if you’re relatively small and are hanging out on your own in the dark, you won’t last long. Diurnal living while obviously being far more civilised darling, is thought to have led to living in groups. Communal living means more pairs of eyes and ears to safeguard against daylight predators. Safety in numbers.

The researchers looked at more than 200 non-human primate species and saw that social organisation appeared to have a “phylogenetic” component – it was similar among closely related groups.

By analysing genetic information, they studied the evolutionary pathways. In a nutshell they found that around 52 million years ago, groups of individuals started to hang out together, which may have later led to pair-bonding.

Japanese macaques in Nagano, February 2011

Oxford University’s Dr Susanne Shultz said: “There is an amazing flexibility in the way humans have managed to socialise, network and live together, both in groups and wider society,” she says.

“We have a huge variety of social settings to cope with, according to the different cultural practices and customs. This flexibility in the human lineage has not evolved to anything like this level in other primates.

“Our findings support previous studies that suggest that more brain power is needed for groups that have a more complicated social life.”

Dr Shultz thinks that the move to day-time living in ancient primates also allowed animals to find food more quickly, communicate better, and travel faster through the forest.

Human societies may have descended from similar groups but Dr Shultz says that the key difference is that our closest cousins’ societies do not vary within a species, whereas our societies do.

Posted in: Branching out