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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 24.4 > Stranger Danger

Stranger Danger

Review of The Human Swarm: How Tolerance of Strangers Creates Society by Mark W. Moffett
Basic Books, 2019. 480 pp. $32. ISBN 13: 978-0465055685

Going to a restaurant is one of my keenest pleasures. Meeting someplace with old and new friends, ordering wine, eating food, surrounded by strangers, I think is the core of what it means to live a civilized life. —Adam Gopnik

AFTER CENTURIES OF SPECULATION, THE last 25 years has seen a flurry of theoretical advances toward understanding how our species transitioned from a run-of-the- mill hominin living more or less in a state of nature, to entirely reconstructing our environment and living in a “nature” of our own design. While our cousins, the other African apes, use tools, transmit culture, are highly intelligent, and possess rich emotional lives, there remains a large gap between the social culture of the other apes and our own. Although I am accustomed to emphasizing the behavioral similarities between humans and other animals, as I did in my book Not So Different,1 there is no denying that we are peculiar animals. While one could argue, for example, that chimpanzees have the basic toolkit of referential communication, it is obvious that the transition to farming, settled life, and urbanization is nowhere in sight.

In his new tour de force, The Human Swarm, biologist Mark Moffett outlines a powerful new thesis that, if correct, could unite several ideas about the origins of behavioral modernity and help explain how we ended up firmly on the path toward civilization and the creation of nation-states. At the risk of oversimplifying what he spends over 400 pages building the case for, the gist of Moffett’s thesis is as simple as it is insightful: at some point in our past we became tolerant of strangers within our own societies. This is indeed unusual. As Moffett writes, “In this final stage of our narrative, humans have taken a path for which there are few parallels in nature.”2

The example that Moffett often gives in his many interviews about the book is that of the café. Because we waltz in and out of coffee shops without a thought, we fail to grasp just how odd this is (and I don’t mean because everyone is buried in their phone or laptop, eschewing in-person conversations in a venue especially designed to foster them). When we enter the café, we are an unknown person, an interloper, walking into a crowd of persons unknown to us and to each other, a sea of strangers. We consider that experience totally unremarkable, but among almost all other animal species on earth, including the most pro-social ones, the casualness of our café experience is completely unthinkable. As Moffett has put it, “If a chimpanzee walks into a group of stranger chimpanzees, not all of them will leave unscathed.”

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UNDERSTANDING FLAT EARTHERS WHO SAYS THE EARTH IS FLAT, AND WHY? COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Water Fluoridation: Public Health, Not Poison, by Harriet Hall, M.D. • The Gadfly: Are You in the 43 Percent?, by Carol Tavris DEBATE Does God Exist? A Rebuttal of Theologian Brian Huffling • God is Not a Moral Being: A Response to Gary Whittenberger on the Problem of Evil ARTICLES Understanding Flat Earthers • Shroud of Turin Update • The Girl Who Smelled Blue: The Colorful Case of Willetta Huggins • How to Navigate Contentious Conversations • How Much Longer Will Cancer Screening Myths Survive? • Nationalistic Pseudohistory in the Balkans • “Prove that I am Wrong!” What QAnon, Descartes, and Brains in Vats Have in Common REVIEWS Reviews of Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness • The Human Swarm: How Tolerance of Strangers Creates Society • Darwin’s Apostles: The Men Who Fought to Have Evolution Accepted, Their Times, and How the Battle Continues • Forensic Science Reform: Protecting the Innocent • The Psychology and Sociology of Wrongful Convictions: Forensic Science Reform • Blinding as a Solution to Bias: Strengthening Biomedical Science, Forensic Science, and Law JUNIOR SKEPTIC Victorian England’s Jurassic Park, by Daniel Loxton