Today would have been my brother’s birthday, and I’ve been saving this passage from Boris Pasternik’s Doctor Zhivago to mark it. Here the title character, Yura Zhivago, is speaking to Anna Ivanovna who feared she was terminally ill. He offers what he thinks happens to us when we die, and the primacy of our social connections:
“So what will happen to your consciousness? Your consciousness, yours, not anyone else’s. Well, what are you? There’s the point. Let’s try to find out. What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself? Your kidneys? Your liver? Your blood vessels? No. However far back you go in your memory, it is always in some external, active manifestation of yourself that you come across your identity–in the work of your hands, in your family, in other people. And now listen carefully. You in others–this is your soul. This is what you are. This is what your consciousness has breathed and lived on and enjoyed throughout your life–your soul, your immortality, your life in others. And what now? You have always been in others and you will remain in others. And what does it matter to you if later on that is called your memory? This will be you–the you that enters the future and becomes part of it.” (Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, p. 68)
I still haven’t mastered the ability to completely separate the academic and the personal, and I’m not sure I completely want to. Instead of an impenetrable wall between them, perhaps, for me, there is a wrought-iron fence with an open gate. What I mean is that I often go between the two, allowing them to inform each other. The passage from Zhivago is from literature, and is not a scientific statement. But it runs parallel to some aspects of science, which seems poetic to me, particularly on a day I’m thinking of my brother.
In his 2013 book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Matthew Lieberman describes how humans are biologically set up to prioritize social connection. In fact, Lieberman notes that this is so important that it is our brain’s ‘default setting.’ That is, when we’re not preoccupied by other mental tasks, our brain is geared to think about the social world around us, and this begins as early as infancy. “Evolution, figuratively speaking, made a big bet on the importance of developing and using our social intelligence for the overall success of our species by focusing the brain’s free time on it” (p. 19-20).
Elsewhere, Lieberman said that our evolutionary history has increased our sociality at several turns: “Mammals are more socially connected than reptiles, primates more than other mammals, and humans more than other primates. What this suggests is that becoming more socially connected is essential to our survival. In a sense, evolution has made bets at each step that the best way to make us more successful is to make us more social.”
Today, it is almost impossible to conceive of a human being in total isolation. Even those hermits who live off the grid get their supplies and food from somewhere. Instead, we are capable of forming many different types of connections: parental, familial, friendships, romantic, commercial, comradeship, teammates, etc. Relationships — and the bonding that goes with them — are what we do.
However, there are also costs to being so invested in each other, such as the potential for loneliness, isolation, bullying, rejection, and loss:
“Throughout our lives, we are destined to experience different forms of social rejection and loss. Most of us go through multiple relationship breakups, and we typically spend a portion of those on the side of being left, rather than leaving. Such breakups often feel unbearable, and they can dramatically alter how we view ourselves and our lives for a long time after. Our Faustian evolutionary bargain allows us humans to develop slowly out of the womb, to adapt to specific cultures and environments, and to grow the most encephalized brains on the planet. But it requires us to pay for it with the possibility of pain, real pain, every time we connect with another human being who has the power to leave us or withhold love. Evolution made its bet that suffering was an acceptable price to pay for all the rewards of being human.” (Lieberman, p. 69-70)
I think this is an important reminder that most things in evolution have costs. Matt Cartmill put it like this: “Evolution doesn’t act to yield perfection. It acts to yield function.” The losses we incur from rejection, or through death, hurt for a real biological reason (which Lieberman covers in depth): because they make us pay attention to threats to our social connections, which are essential to our well-being and longevity. Even though they are essential, our connections are still fragile. They also, as Zhivago said, help make us who we are.
♫The wind is low, the birds will sing. / That you are part of everything.♫