Doug Bonderud

Nov 2nd 2020

Human Evolution: Welcome to the Friend Zone


When did humans learn to be friendly? It’s an important question. While big brains helped humans outlast evolutionary competitors, such as the Neanderthals, smarts weren’t enough to secure our primacy at scale. By trading aggression for cooperation, early hominid groups were able to develop tactics that allowed them to both survive — and thrive. But what prompted the formation of friendly frameworks in human evolution, and how did this friend zone help us zero in on beneficial human behavior?

Friendly Competition

According to Popular Science, friendliness and cooperation are the cornerstones of successful human evolution. Put simply, the friendliest were most fit for survival.

Here’s why: While the popular interpretation of Darwin’s concept is to imagine “fitness” as describing the biggest, strongest and most aggressive individuals, survival of the fittest only refers to survival itself, both in the moment and by creating viable offspring. While aggression might offer greater access to food and mates, it’s also inherently stressful and dangerous. Aggressive humans could be injured or killed and, without the help of others, faced weakened immune systems from the stress of continually protecting their primary status. By working together, humans were able to accomplish more with less risk — and there’s now evidence to suggest that we “self-domesticated” our facial features over time by selecting mates that were more amicable than aggressive.

And while some of our earliest expressions, such as disgust or fear, were driven by optical needs — disgust caused a narrowing of the eyes to improve focus while fear did the opposite to improve field of vision — more intricate displays of cooperation or comfort were developed to help nurture the “good” side of our nature and encourage human beings to work in concert rather than in conflict.

Facing the Music

The fundamental functions of friendliness start with facial expressions. Consider one of our most common cooperative markers: the smile. As Scientific American notes, many primate species consider bared teeth an aggressive gesture, especially if lips are curled and teeth are apart. Meanwhile, when lips are relaxed and teeth are together, submission is the likely supposition.

For humans, smiles likely started as a way to showcase mutual submission — a willingness to work together — and evolved into the ubiquitous expression we use today. Worth noting? Not all smiles are genuine. While babies naturally smile in response to pleasurable stimuli, adults can deliberately obfuscate true intentions by smiling to gain initial trust rather than taking any direct cooperative action.

So, when did humans learn to be friendly? In a BBC interview, anthropologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London noted, “As the last surviving species of humans on the planet, it is tempting to assume our modern faces sit at the tip of our evolutionary branch.” This theory was originally supported by a supposedly common ancestor — Homo heidelbergensis — that lived 500,000 years ago and had a face midway between that of modern humans and those of Neanderthals. But a more recent discovery in Spain found a new species of hominin, called Homo antecessor, that lived more than 850,000 years ago and displayed facial construction much closer to that of modern humans. While there’s no absolute certainty here, it seems that common human facial features may have existed far earlier than originally thought.

The Robot Revolution

How does the world end? Not with a bang, but with a friend request.

Humans aren’t just interested in person-to-person friendliness. We also want to mimic the same function in robots. According to Brian Scassellati, professor of computer science, cognitive science and mechanical engineering and director of Yale University’s Social Robotics Lab, “Robots that engage with people are absolutely the future. There’s no question that’s where robotics is moving.” From caring contraptions that help children learn to winning workers that positively interact with other staff, mankind is committed to moving friendship forward — even if it means hard-coding it into human analogues.

This speaks to the evolutionary impact of friendliness: the drive to cooperate — rather than compete — to advance the species as a whole. While individualism remains a sought-after quality for personal advancement, humans can’t deny the power of positive interactions in large groups, even if those groups are partially artificial. In fact, there’s a case to be made here that the robot revolution is our next evolutionary step. Sure, having super-strength or telekinetic powers would be fantastic, but these aren’t realistic outcomes. Humankind’s greatest strength — the development and deployment of new technologies — offers the opportunity to make minds in our ideal image, friendship and all.

Share and Share Alike

Small groups of early humans did well with aggressive leaders and insular behavior. But as big brains became the evolutionary exemplar, cooperation replaced conflict as the “fittest” function for ongoing survival. Faces formed the front lines of friendliness, fueling our drive for self-domestication that made working together — even when we don’t see eye-to-eye — better than staying apart.