What is Friendship? Part Three

by Miles Raymer

Note: This is the third section of a four-part essay. If you haven’t already done so, please begin with the Introduction and Part One.

Part Three: Friendships are the bedrock of social homeostasis

Since the Enlightenment, we have seen a tectonic shift in the way humans understand our nature as social animals––including the relatively new idea that we are, in fact, social animals. Areas of inquiry that were once categorized as philosophy, metaphysics or religion have, slowly but surely, become colonized by the findings of modern science. I use the term “colonized” intentionally to denote that this process has not been uniformly smooth, rational or just.

I do believe, however, that bringing science into fields of study where it was once unwelcome has been a primary driver of progress and flourishing around the world. This case has been made most recently by Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now:

Many people are willing to credit science with giving us handy drugs and gadgets and even with explaining how physical stuff works. But they draw the line at what truly matters to us as human beings: the deep questions about who we are, where we came from, and how we define the meaning and purpose of our lives…But this entente unravels as soon as you begin to examine it…The worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of a knowledgeable person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities…The scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today. (393-5)

This is an excellent summary of the character and import of my own scientifically-informed humanist perspective. It is impossible, therefore, for me to formulate theories about friendship without including scientific evidence for why friendship exists and its possible evolutionary benefits. I will focus on how our evolutionary heritage and neuropsychological makeup not only “hem in the possibilities” of friendship, but also enable and support our ability to form and maintain strong friendships.

What does it mean to claim that friendships are the bedrock of social homeostasis? Homeostasis is a term that I first encountered in junior high science class, but it wasn’t until my undergraduate education that I discovered how it could be applied to a wider set of ideas than its usual biological purview. This happened when I encountered the work of renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio in a philosophy course called “Sources of the Self.” It seemed strange at first to be reading science in that context, but when I dug in I quickly realized that Damasio’s investigations into the origins of selfhood had strong implications that would completely transform my philosophical outlook.

Throughout his career, Damasio has used homeostasis to ground his understanding of how the biological world is organized:

Homeostasis refers to the fundamental set of operations at the core of life, from the earliest and long-vanished point of its beginning in early biochemistry to the present. Homeostasis is the powerful, unthought, unspoken imperative, whose discharge implies, for every living organism, small or large, nothing less than enduring and prevailing. The part of the homeostatic imperative that concerns “enduring” is transparent: it produces survival and is taken for granted without any specific reference or reverence whenever the evolution of any organism or species is considered. The part of homeostasis that concerns “prevailing” is more subtle and rarely acknowledged. It ensures that life is regulated within a range that is not just compatible with survival but also conducive to flourishing, to a projection of life into the future of an organism or a species. (The Strange Order of Things, 25, emphasis his)

In this wonderful passage, Damasio deftly links a core scientific phenomenon to Pinker’s “deep questions about who we are, where we came from, and how we define the meaning and purpose of our lives.” I take this a small step further, suggesting that humans should seek to protect and promote not just biological, but also “social homeostasis.” Damasio himself has hinted at this:

The imagined, dreamed-of, anticipated well-being has become an active motivator of human action. Sociocultural homeostasis was added on as a new functional layer of life management, but biological homeostasis remained. (Self Comes to Mind293)

Borrowing Damasio’s language, I define “social homeostasis” as “the means by which social life is regulated within a range that is not just compatible with survival but also conducive to flourishing.” And since friendship is one of the primary methods by which social homeostasis is regulated, friendship is not just an ethical imperative (as I argued in Part One), but a biological imperative as well.

To drill down on this point, we should explore just how deeply we are wired for sociality, particularly by our evolutionary and neuropsychological architecture. This has perhaps been best explicated by acclaimed entomologist Edward O. Wilson, whose achievements include the invention of sociobiology and being one of the pioneers of evolutionary psychology. Late in his career, Wilson became a champion of an evolutionary model called multilevel selection, which argues that groups of organisms are a legitimate selective mechanism, along with genes, cells, and individuals. In some species, including humans and social insects, “eusociality” (or hypersociality) allows groups of organisms to out-compete other groups, conferring an otherwise-unavailable selective advantage on the individuals in the victorious group. It is this dynamic, Wilson explains, that made both intelligence and sociality keystone features of the human animal:

The pathway to eusociality was charted by a contest between selection based on the relative success of individuals within groups versus relative success among groups. The strategies of this game were written as a complicated mix of closely calibrated altruism, cooperation, competition, domination, reciprocity, defection, and deceit. To play the game the human way, it was necessary for the evolving populations to acquire an ever higher degree of intelligence. They had to feel empathy for others, to measure the emotions of friend and enemy alike, to judge the intentions of all of them, and to plan a strategy for personal social interactions. As a result, the human brain became simultaneously highly intelligent and intensely social. It had to build mental scenarios of personal relationships rapidly, both short-term and long-term. Its memories had to travel far into the past to summon old scenarios and far into the future to imagine the consequences of every relationship. (The Social Conquest of Earth17)

If we accept Wilson’s portrait of our evolutionary past and its implications for the present, it becomes clear that social coherence in general––not just gene-driven familial bonding––can make or break a tribe, ethnicity, city-state, nation, or even for the entire human species. Such a factor cannot be ignored if we value and want to promote social homeostasis.

It’s important to note here that I’m not a biologist, and also that the theory of multilevel selection is hotly contested by professional scientists. In these circumstances, interested laypeople are left with no choice but to examine the evidence to the extent they can and appeal to the authority they find most persuasive. I have done this, and have found Wilson’s point of view to be the one that makes the most sense to me. This is primarily because multilevel selection does not attempt to refute the validity or downplay the importance of selection at levels other than the group, but rather attempts to fill a gap in our understanding by injecting group competition into the evolutionary narrative.

There are two other thinkers who have supported Wilson’s view and influenced my own: Jonathan Haidt and Peter Turchin. Haidt, an expert in moral psychology, asserts that the pressures of multilevel selection rendered humans “10% bee”:

Human beings are conditional hive creatures. We have the ability (under special conditions) to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves. That ability is what I’m calling the hive switch…The hive switch is an adaptation for making groups more cohesive, and therefore more successful in competition with other groups. (The Righteous Mind223, emphasis his)

Haidt’s “hive switch” helps explain a variety of human experiences that can be generally categorized as “ego-dissolution,” and which are otherwise difficult to justify in evolutionary terms. Examples include religious ecstasy, extreme selflessness in war or crisis, awe in the face of nature, live concert culture, and the effects of certain drugs. Nobel prize winner Romain Rolland called this the “Oceanic Feeling“––my preferred way of referencing this beautiful and mysterious aspect of the human condition.

Peter Turchin is a more recent discovery of mine; his book War and Peace and War is the most intriguing and provocative history book I’ve read to date. Turchin tackles history with an interdisciplinary mindset, synthesizing research from fields such as evolutionary theory, economics, statistical mechanics, nonlinear dynamics, geopolitics, social psychology, demography, chaos theory and physics.

In the context of social homeostasis, two of Turchin’s insights are worth examining. The first is his revitalization of an old concept called “asabiya,” which was originally coined in the 14th-century by Arab thinker Ibn Khaldoun:

Different groups have different degrees of cooperation among their members, and therefore different degrees of cohesiveness and solidarity…Asabiya refers to the capacity of a social group for concerted collective action. Asabiya is a dynamic quality; it can increase or decrease with time. Like many theoretical constructs, such as force in Newtonian physics, the capacity for collective action cannot be observed directly, but it can be measured from observable consequences. (5-6)

If multilevel selection establishes the legitimacy of social groups as an evolutionary force, then asabiya provides the analytical schema for tracking how a social group’s ability to overcome collective challenges waxes and wanes over time. War and Peace and War contains numerous examples of how this drama has unfolded throughout world history, clearly demonstrating that groups with superior tools of social coherence usually prevail, even when confronted with superior technology and numbers.

Turchin’s second germane insight is how the need to increase and sustain asabiya exerted a major influence on the development of our moral systems and use of symbolic markers:

Two key adaptations enabled the evolution of ultrasociality. The first one was the moralist strategy: Cooperate when enough members in the group are also cooperating, and punish those who do not cooperate. A band that had enough moralists to tip its collective behavior to the cooperative equilibrium outcompeted, or even exterminated, bands that failed to cooperate. The second adaptation, the human ability to use symbolic markers for defining cooperating groups, allowed evolution of sociality to break through the limits of face-to-face interactions. The scale of human societies increased in a series of steps, from the village to the clan to the tribe and tribal confederation, then the state, empire, and civilization. (136)

Every human society is rife with symbolic markers that enable members of an in-group to rapidly communicate a staggering diversity of messages, ranging from food preferences, moral or religious associations, availability for sexual encounters, and much more. These same symbols also serve as signposts for out-group members who, while they may not be able to decipher the in-group’s symbolic code, will at least realize that they are encountering someone who is not “their type” in one or multiple ways. These markers make sociality more efficient, fun, and sometimes more brutal, as when they facilitate forms of marginalization or ostracization. But overall, moral systems that emphasize collective concern and employ symbolic markers to delineate between those worthy and unworthy of receiving that concern have been a powerful driver of success for human groups throughout history.

This last comment is crucial, for I must now turn to the question of why friendship makes a unique contribution to the regulation of social homeostasis that cannot be mimicked by familial, romantic or professional relationships. The healthy regulation of social homeostasis requires many different types of relationships, but friendship is among the most important––possibly even the most important. This is because, of all the types of relationships in which we participate, friendships are the most volitionalRoger Ames explains:

Friendship serves a definite, sometimes compensatory source of meaning and value. While immediate family relations are usually a matter of birth and blood, developed friendships are contingent, and entail diversity and deliberate choice. (Confucian Role Ethics114).

We can form and abandon friendships with much more autonomy and fewer consequences than with romantic partners, family members or professional colleagues. Ironically, it is the volitional nature of friendship that allows us to downplay its importance and treat it as a lesser category of relationship. Humans are often fickle, and one’s friends can disappear when the chips are down. But then, of course, they are not really friends at all, and abandonment can present a salutary opportunity to seek out true friendships.

There is no doubt, however, that friendship is the most protean and self-directed of our social frameworks, and therefore the top candidate for efficacious adaptation. This may not have mattered much for the majority of history, when most people never met someone outside their small, genetically-entangled band of hunter-gatherers, but in the modern world it matters a great deal. The survival of our species and that of many others now depends on humanity’s ability to ratchet up our capacity for collective action––to extend asabiya across the globe in order to avoid catastrophe and discover new horizons of social homeostasis.

Here we return to the idea of friendship––the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to extra-familial social relations––as our primary method for organizing our social loyalties. As Yuval Noah Harari has rightly argued, loyalty to a global identity is quickly becoming a nonnegotiable addition to the older loyalties on which modern identities are founded:

Even on a united planet there will be plenty of room for the kind of patriotism that celebrates the uniqueness of my nation and stresses my special obligations toward it. Yet if we want to survive and flourish, humankind has little choice but to complement such loyalties with substantial obligations toward a global community. A person can and should be loyal simultaneously to her family, her neighborhood, her profession, and her nation––so why not add humankind and planet Earth to that list? (21 Lessons for the 21st Century125)

It is impossible to say exactly what forms global identity might take, but there is no doubt that this trail must be blazed in order to mitigate the threats of climate change, global poverty, nuclear proliferation, biological warfare, pandemics––the list goes on. And what is the crucible in which our global identity should be forged? I contend that it is friendship, and it is this contention that will be the topic of Part Four.