Cosmically Connected Primates

“For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”                 

– Carl Sagan, Contact

Three different people have shared the inspirational video below with me in the past two days, and I thought it deserved to be disseminated as widely as possible. It’s the response of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to the question: “what is the most astounding fact you know about the universe?” In his answer, Tyson elaborates on the majestic idea that the heavier elements crucial for organic life owe their origins to the incredible pressures created within aging stars. Those stars then exploded and released their newly forged contents into surrounding space, some of which eventually coalesced into us (to make a long story short).

By itself, that concept is sublime, and it should be enough to sustain one’s sense of awe for a long while. But Tyson also goes a bit farther, speculating on why this idea elicits such an emotional response within us. 

When I look up at the night sky, and I know that, yes, we are part of this universe. We are in this universe. But, perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up… I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.

There is a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life. You want to feel connected. You want to feel relevant. You want to feel like you’re a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.”

Elsewhere, I’ve written about Tyson and his ability to inspire when he speaks about our kinship with the rest of the universe. (He is a phenomenal communicator of science). The idea of being directly connected to the cosmos is an enormously powerful one, and I have some – highly speculative – guesses why.

It’s possible that one reason the notion of a cosmological connection is so uplifting, aside from the novelty of the idea, is that this could partially stem from our long evolutionary history as social primates. Because of that history, the need to feel connected with others is likely embedded deeply within us. According to Shultz et al. (2011), primates began their path as intensely social animals around 52 million years ago, probably as a means of protection from predators as our ancestors made the shift from nocturnal to diurnal living. Over the course of those tens of millions of years, it is almost a given that our emotional and cognitive abilities have been modified by natural selection to allow us to navigate our social environments and to help us form bonds with others (see: Dunbar and Shultz, 2007). Those bonds could have applied to many different types of relationships, including parent-child, friends and allies, mates, and even weaker ties forged through trade and exchange.


Chimpanzees grooming

Today, it is appropriate to think of our species as being obligatorily social. One piece of evidence for this are epidemiological data demonstrating that having solid friendships may help us to live longer. In a very large meta-analysis of 300,000+ people from 148 separate studies, it was found that among the elderly, “people with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships” (Holt-Lunstad et al. 2010). In fact, having strong friendships was about as important in predicting longevity as smoking or alcohol consumption, and it was more important than obesity or exercise.

Interestingly, similar patterns have been found in baboons as well, where females who had stronger and more stable social bonds lived longer than those who did not (Silk et al. 2010). A recent report from the DRC found that a group of bonobos attempted on two different days to free a fellow member who had been caught in a metallic snare, even abandoning their normal foraging patterns and walking nearly 2 km to assist him (Tokoyuma et al. 2012). To acknowledge the obvious, primate relationships are important.

Being socially entangled doesn’t always work out for the best, of course. We are inclined to think that the social networks to which we belong (ethnicities, nationalities, favorite sports teams, political ideologies) are more important than others’ networks, and conflicting interests between those groups sometimes reaches the point of mass-scale, inter-group violence.

But even this is a social activity, and perhaps greater connectivity and interdependence is a potential remedy, as we are reminded that our social ties can be further extended. The fact that the Tyson video which inspired this post was brought to my attention on an online social network via people who I’ve never seen face-to-face speaks to this point. Information and emotional states trickle in through our social ties, frequently from people we’ve never met. There is even evidence that happiness – that often elusive state of mind sought by most of us –  can be contagious, and that it “is not merely a function of individual experience or individual choice but is also a property of groups of people” (Fowler and Christakis, 2008). Misery and depression likely have similar transferable properties, so be wary to whom you connect.

In this light, perhaps our cognitive-emotional abilities as social animals could be extended well beyond our immediate social circles, with our need for connection capable of being affixed onto other species or, as Tyson might say, to stars and the rest of the universe. If that idea sounds too far-fetched, perhaps I can make an analogy.

Some psychologists have suggested that we have an over-active ability for “agency detection,” that is, seeing intent and volition even in inanimate naturalistic forces (Henig 2007). I often encounter this notion in my undergraduate classes, where students are apt to accept the general theory of evolution, but many cling to the notion that some agent (likely divine) must have guided the process. They protest that some things, like human intelligence, are too complex to have come about naturally. It’s possible that this psychological bias to see agency likely arose because it was costlier to miss an agent who might do us harm than to see an agent where there was none. In other words, it would better to guess that the mannequin in our peripheral vision is a potential mugger than to think the mugger is a mannequin. Bloom (2005) argued that we have “a terrible eye for randomness,” and that our minds are geared to dismiss the idea that patterns can be formed mechanistically. Rather, we see intention all around us, predisposing us to see deities and spirits as agents influencing patterns in our lives.

To return to Tyson’s feeling of connectivity, perhaps in the same way that we have a hyperactive ability for agency detection, we may also have an excessively developed (or at least highly flexible) ability for emotional connection. In Bloom’s words, we have a “hypertrophy of social cognition,” and that could be one reason we can feel an affinity for someone we do not know personally but encounter on television, online, or even fictional characters in books. Perhaps that affinity can be extended to our pets, dieties, spirits, potential alien life or artificial intelligence, or even inanimate matter such as atoms and stars. If having social relationships is essential for our psychological well-being and overall health and longevity, then in the same way that it is better to perceive an agent who is not there than to miss one who is there, it may be less costly to feel a connection with anything, even if it is not another human being. As Sagan wrote in the quote at the top of this page, love makes the vastness more bearable. But I wonder if a solitary species, if it gained enough intelligence, would feel the same way. We may have to wait for an exceptionally bright octopus, or a honey badger to test that hypothesis (though it seems unlikely that honey badgers would care).

Like Tyson, I often look up at the night sky, particularly on teaching days when I wake up far too early, the sun has yet to rise, and the world is still. I think of my connections and the people I know on the other side of the country, or on other continents, and wonder what the sky looks like to them at that moment. I sometimes think of our early human ancestors looking up at night and how they might have felt under that canopy of stars. Other times I think of my brother, how ephemeral life can be, and how those connections are inherently finite. I too find it astounding that the atoms in our bodies can be traced back to the stars. It makes me reflect on that feeling of connection with other lives, and with matter and energy. Even knowing those connections are ultimately temporary, I am grateful for them. They are among life’s highlights.

Related Posts

A Reverence for Life (May 6, 2011)

Life is Beautiful (May 15, 2010)

One Big Family (March 15, 2010)


Bloom P. 2005. Is God an accident? The Atlantic. December. (Link)

Dunbar and Shultz, 2007. Evolution in the social brain. Science 317: 1344-7. (Link)

Fowler JH, Christakis NA. 2008. Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. BMJ 337: a2338. (Link)

Henig RM. 2007. Darwin’s God. New York Times Mar 4. (Link)

Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB. Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS Med. 2010 Jul 27;7(7):e1000316. (Link)

Shultz S, Opie C, Atkinson QD. 2011. Stepwise evolution of stable sociality in primates. Nature 479: 219–22. (Link)

Silk JB, Beehner JC, Bergman TJ, Crockford C, Engh AL, Moscovice LR, Wittig RM, Seyfarth RM, Cheney DL. Strong and Consistent Social Bonds Enhance the Longevity of Female Baboons. Current Biology, July 1, 2010 (Link)

Tokuyama N, Emikey B, Bafike B, Isolumbo B, Iyokango B, Mulavwa MN, Furuichi T. 2012. Bonobos apparently search for a lost member injured by a snare. Primates. DOI: 10.1007/s10329-012-0298-2

11 thoughts on “Cosmically Connected Primates

  1. Thanks Patrick, you never cease (so far) to inspire thought and reflections. And you’re still the optimist, in spite of my harpings on the inhumanity of Man, and its nice to read some basic humanity from a man of science rather than a commercial Patience Strong calendar (are there such things any more or did they disappear with my mother?). I don’t blame Einstein for the Atomic bomb, and I love his hair.

    A couple of doodles. If I can switch from Tyson to Tylor (who invented as far as I know the word ‘animism’ and applied to Man the word ‘culture’ — 1870s stuff). Tylor thought animism the basis for all religious belief, then packaged up all religions into a brown bag and labelled it ‘survivors’, meaning ‘leftovers’ from a less scientific era. He didn’t exactly throw the bag in the garbage (had he done so, I doubt he’d have got a knighthood from the ‘Protector of the Faith’). He, and the many anthropologists who followed on from Tylor, recognised animism as the most pervasive form of belief shared between any humans (and for all we know some non-humans). This belief generally distinguishes between an ‘essence’ — what we call the soul — which can go to heaven or through transmogrify enter a spirit world prior to reincarnation in one form or another, and the almost mechanical (and more scientific) workings of the brain as central command post and the various bits of the material body, which decays or otherwise rejoins the four elements on death, which is the final full stop. Animism also allows man to ascribe some spiritual existence to plants and animals — and here’s where I get back onto your subject: this is extended to stones and natural formations like planets.

    Thus an affinity with the stars is part of Man — even if we discount science fiction — and has been with Man since Man decided he was Man and started to think and then to categorise the world and label the relationships between the bits. Some bits Man ascribed with more importance than others. He soon got to worship those bits and enter ‘communion’ with like-minded believers or to seek to destroy them and all who worship them. Occasionally, on his best days, Man is very never-mind and allows a thousand schools of thought to co-exist, knowing perhaps sub-consciously that all these schools share the same core. So we now have symbols of states, symbols of religion, symbols even of scientific thought like historical-materialism. And Man develops such affinity to such symbols, until he values them above life itself — logical enough since life as material body is a temporary thought but life as soul continues, along with the sacred symbol of the day or the era. Seeing a scientist praying before a man-made object like a crucifix or a Buddha or towards the Kaba Stone in Mecca does strike me as a bit pre-historic, but if that makes him happy and helps keep his society functioning, that’s okay.

    That same scientist knows fully that Man developed smelting of copper and tin into bronze by watching these two base-minerals ooze out of rocks and running together to form bronze, a unity stronger than its parts. That these minerals existed under his feet was a later discovery. Initially things came as gifts from the sky — long seen as infinity and the place that determines what happens on earth. When later Man found meteorites that oozed iron in the fireplace, which dried and hardened and gave him spear-points and arrow heads and swords, the Bronze Age passed into the Iron Age and Man had, as a gift from the gods, the means to create and destroy on a massive scale — which he wasted no time in doing.

    We can look at the stars and we are seeing things as they were a long time before Man came on the scene, and no doubt a long time after Man is no more on the scene to think about them. It’s a marriage between those two strands of thought that make Man what he is — the known and the unknown. There will always be more unknown than known. I know this because when we know everything and understand perfectly the connections between all the bits, there will be no thinking any more and no more communicating — there will be Void. That’s okay too.

    • Thanks, Robert. Your ‘doodles’ consistently make me think as well. I’ll keep trying to inspire, and to hold on to that optimism.

      That’s an interesting segue from Tyson to Tylor, and not just because their names are alliterative. I read some of Tylor and animism years ago as an undergrad, but have to admit he doesn’t cross my mind very often anymore.

      Perhaps the hyperactive agent detection idea is just a modern way of saying animism. They seem to overlap somewhere. Only Paul Bloom would probably say it’s not just a leftover belief system, but maybe a way that our brains function. The ‘essence’ idea could be a part of this, since a dead person looks more or less the way they used to when they were alive. So what changed? Perhaps their essence/soul has since departed. And if we can have bodies without souls, we can have souls without bodies.

      The optimist in me sometimes (often?) gets frustrated when people take their symbols far too seriously and value them above life, particularly when their symbols are deemed so much more important than others’.

      p.s. I had to look up what Patience Strong was.

      p.p.s. I welcome the Void.

  2. By the way, those societies with the greatest social interaction all seem to have the lowest life expectancy at birth. Those with lonely old people in front of the TV seem to have eternal life. So much for the friendship theory of longevity. But that’s just me being anthropological.

  3. In jest, the saying has been “A physicist is a way for the Universe to know itself.”

    It’s a jest is because of the conceit that this is just for physicists. If one reformulates it just a little bit, it can be a powerful inspiration of purpose for everyone, including your dog. “The atoms that make up your body are the same as the atoms in stars. You are a way for the Universe to know itself. Start studying.”

  4. Pingback: Strained Bonds of Affection | Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

  5. Pingback: We Are an Obligatorily Social Species – Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

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