The wisdom of Homo sapiens: ‘the wisdom of the crowd’? Promiscuous sociality, things and networks in human evolution

Authors: Coward, F.

Start date: 6 July 2017

Homo sapiens are named for their perceived ‘wisdom’. Until relatively recently, the nature of that wisdom – and that of our ancestors – was usually considered to be most obviously demonstrated by our technological prowess. In particular, the way in which groups applied their technological know-how to making a living – for example, whether they were mobile foragers, settled farmers or industrialized producers – was considered a major determinant of all other social and cultural developments. More recently, however, researchers have begun to acknowledge the crucial importance of the kinds of intelligence involved in human social interaction for technology and subsistence, and to recognise the fundamental role it played in our evolution.

In this talk I will discuss the fundamentally social nature of human wisdom. In particular, I will focus on the significance of ‘promiscuous sociality’ – the incorporation of other-than-human entities such as things, other animals, places and even non-corporeal ‘beings’ such as spirits and gods, into our social networks. I argue that viewing material culture in particular in social terms provides a vital extension to, and enhancement of, human social cognition: this ability is what has allowed us to form often extremely large long-term communities such as villages, towns and cities, and to negotiate the globalized social networks, that are such unique features of the modern world.

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