Suicide on the Social Savannah

About a year ago now, I was in the shower or something, rehearsing what I’d say to someone if a certain situation arose. I realised that I was often planning what to say, how I’d say it, and who I’d say it to. It was often to get something off my chest, somewhat like writing a letter with no intention of sending it. I got to thinking about how helpful it is for our imaginations to rehearse these hypothetical situations and I imagined the evolutionary benefits of such a system. In the moment (a year or so ago), I whipped up a quick article to capture my thoughts, and here it is:

Creative Commons/

Creative Commons/


Suicide on the Social Savannah

Do you find yourself having imaginary conversations with particular people, generating witticisms and refining your opinions? Do you regale yourself with recent autobiographical tales, repeating the events cyclically, identifying peaks to emphasise and troughs to omit? Or, do you prepare mini stand-up routines to present on social occasions, maintaining the veneer of spontaneity while delivering three day old jokes to an unwitting audience. Come; join me as I briefly speculate on the potential origins of this embarrassing, personal phenomenon.

A few years ago I read Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’, where he discussed the evolution of the imagination. The topic made up just a few brief paragraphs, but it stuck in my memory nonetheless.

The hypothetical goes something like this: Once the brains of our distant ancestors were complex enough to make difficult decisions, different individuals would have made better or worse decisions. Chasing down prey, picking a shelter site, and running from a predator all require decision making.

Without an imagination, all an individual can do is make a decision and suffer the consequences: charge at a prey item without a plan, nest beneath a precarious pile of boulders, or run from a predator in a straight line. With the emergence of an imagination, individuals no longer needed to go hungry, get crushed, nor get eaten in order for them to experience the outcomes of their choices. They could simply use their imagination and anticipate the consequences before it was too late.

An imagination meant that individuals needn’t jump off a cliff to know that it would end their lives. There might be an inherent fear of heights, but on top of that – a powerful imagination could predict the outcome through simulation. And, incidentally, that’s exactly what I do when I stand near an edge or look over a railing. Without my consent, my mind conjures up the sensations and imagery of jumping off the edge and plummeting to my doom. Plummeting vicariously is more than enough to force me back from the edge.

It would likely be difficult, if not impossible, to determine exactly how the imagination evolved (in terms of brain wiring), but once it was there – it would have been extremely beneficial.

It is easy to picture how the various proto-forms of imagination would get passed from parent to child to create the sophisticated simulation module we have in our heads today. The imagination is a property of the brain’s wiring, which in turn is determined by genetic, epigenetic, and environmental factors. Genetic – and to some extent, epigenetic – factors are passed on to the offspring.

Reproductive success (how many kiddies you make) determines whether a trait, such as the imagination, gets passed on and succeeds. Individuals that can mentally layout options, simulate their outcomes, cross off lethal options, and take up beneficial ones would make self-preserving choices and be on their merry-way to reproductive town and eventual parent- and grand parenthood. All the while, imaginative offspring continue reaping the benefits of their portable, internal world-simulator, dividing quicker than their dull, unimaginative counterparts.

A little more on this idea can be found in a brief article, also written by Dawkins, called ‘The Evolved Imagination’, which can be found online. Strangely (or not), he also uses the example of heights and cliffs.

Now, you might think that the evolved imagination idea sounds well and good, and probably intuitive. But, intuitive doesn’t equal accurate. It is just speculation. Also, I don’t know which stage in our evolutionary history fostered the development of the imagination: were we humanoid, apey, did we have tails, were we in trees, were we even primates? Unfortunately, we don’t (yet) have a time machine to go back and measure the real-life benefits of our ancestors’ nascent imaginations.

But, I digress. We were originally interested in a specific type of imagination, the type that has you talking to yourself in the shower, playing the parts of two people and scripting an imaginary dialogue that will probably never happen.

For a few million years, at least, we and our primate ancestors have been living in large social groups. Within the last million years, our friendship groups were probably around 150 people. To calculate this number, a researcher named Robin Dunbar compared the size of primates’ brain size (memory) with the size of their social groups, where he found a neat pattern. Then, using the fossilised skulls of our ancestors, Dunbar calculated that earlier humans likely spent time with and dealt with around 150 folks in their lifetimes.

During these times, getting food, not becoming food, and surviving is not enough to ensure you get your genes into the next generation. As always, how many children you produce is a better measure for evolutionary success. Simply not falling off a cliff does not get you into grand parenthood. We live now, and probably for thousands of generations before Homo sapiens, in social groups that observe, judge, and gossip about each and every member in that group: “Watch, he’s about to slip over again, the clumsy bastard”, “Oh here they come now, trying to look all macho”, “Check out that hussy, flaunting all over the place”. And that’s when we’re NOT there. When we know we are in the eyes of a social circle, we have relative control over our behaviour, and consequently, how others judge us.

Living in groups or societies has many benefits, but many trials: we have it tough. In order to be a contestant in the survival of the fittest, not only do we have to get food, get rest, stay safe, but we also have to be a welcome and respected part of a complex and often irrational social group. Only once you’ve done this can you meet a mate, produce a child and keep it alive for twenty years. There are a lot of exceptions, but it helps if you are a welcome member of your social group.

Therefore, meeting mates, both the friend-type and the sexy-type, is the first step towards securing your genetic time capsule. Your genes’ survival (i.e. your reproductive success) hinges on the relationships you develop, your social presence, and your character, or…avatar. Up keeping this societal juggling act requires gigawatts of intellectual energy, and you’d better have a good idea of what you’re doing before you do it – that’s for sure.

We now have a scenario where the human imagination must take on a new role to ensure you remain evolutionarily relevant. Imagining how to escape from a threat is now only a secondary consideration (and often reserved for the dream world); its primary task is to ensure you are a respected socialite and an outwardly viable parent.

Now, the imagination is not wondering how you would get down if you climbed a tall tree in the African savannah; it’s wondering when the perfect opportunity would be to tell a hilarious anecdote, and which words would maximise report. Socialising with a new group of people, your brain is there, observing the bubbling circle of potential relations – possible friends and possible partners. The momentum of jokes, gasps, and scoffs flows naturally from awkward to cacophonous. Over-clocked, our imagination is picking its moment, sampling ourselves, our thoughts and intentions, before we get broadcasted to our neighbours. Our imaginations are saving us from death by embarrassment.

And in this scenario, as with real life and death situations, we can ignore our imagination, our better judgement, and take a leap of faith. A death-defying dare devil imagines the horror of soaring over a deep canyon, looks to the other side at the hordes of groupies, and so stifles the image of failing – a suicidal gamble guaranteeing reproductive success if successful. An unfamiliar face stands in a social circle looking around at the group, they contemplate making an obscene but potentially funny comment, their imagination holds up a red flag – “don’t risk it” – the opportunity is quickly disappearing so they take the leap.

For our imagination, it’s always been about making kiddies, only, the environment has changed. Where once there was death, now there is shame, once survival, now respect. In a thousand millennia, for our descendants in the deep future, what our imaginations will be co-opted for to ensure their survival in that distant environment – we can only imagine.