Last Updated on May 1, 2023 by Timothy Byron Smith
A Smithsonian scientist has ranked the humble coffee shop as the eighth wonder of the world, and claims to have found the miracle inherent in the human brain.
A coffee shop is a place where individuals of the same species can wander around without care, and pass by unfamiliar individuals, something that no animal other than humans can accomplish.
Even our closest relatives, chimpanzees, and bonobos, are incapable of such an act. While these apes are more likely to get along with an unfamiliar individual, they still consider it a stranger, belonging to a foreign group and must recognize it as such.
All species with societies divide the world into “us” and “them”, but humans are unique in that they tolerate strangers in their societies. Smithsonian scientist Mark Moffett says the ability to tolerate strangers in our society is a mystery too little considered and may have been an unheralded turning point in human evolution.
Humans can tolerate strangers in their societies by drawing on the myriad of clues each individual presents to the world, signaling who they are. Some of these markers of identity are quirky and unique, while others are society-specific, such as primary language, dialect, or devotion to a national flag.
Moffett, who has spent two weeks in Africa absorbed in the social interactions of animals such as lions, spotted hyenas, and meerkats, argues that the ability to tolerate strangers in a society is a miracle inherent in the human brain. Lions, hyenas, and chimps do not tolerate strangers in their societies.
They have to recognize each individual they encounter and keep track of whether that individual is part of their society or an outsider. Anyone else, any stranger, is without question one of the latter. Humans, on the other hand, can tolerate strangers in their societies by drawing on the myriad of clues each individual presents to the world.
It is relatively rare for animals to dwell in societies. Many aggregations that we might casually call “societies” are fluid and ephemeral, such as swarming locusts, or a herd of buffalo. Some individuals in these groups could be socially connected—a buffalo mother with her calf, perhaps. But those present are generally free to come and go, with no clear sense of membership—no sense of us and them.
Humans, on the other hand, have lived in societies from our humble beginnings, even before our lineage separated from that of the chimpanzee and the bonobo. Both of these apes live in societies, called communities, which means the simplest (and most parsimonious) hypothesis is that the common ancestor of all three species did, as well.
That puts the first societies of our ancestors back 7 to 8 million years into our past, at minimum. Life in societies has been as fundamental to human existence as finding a mate or raising a child.
Moffett also argues that the ability to tolerate strangers in society is an unheralded turning point in human evolution. When humans no longer needed to know each other on an individual basis is uncertain, but he wagers the time came early in the evolution of our species, or potentially in the evolution of an earlier ancestor.
In any case, humans are unique in their ability to tolerate strangers in their societies, and the coffee shop is a prime example of this miracle inherent in the human brain.
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Tim is the author and webmaster of this blog. He is a coffee aficionado who has always strived to succeed by simplifying the many facets of the coffee business into engaging and informative writing. In addition to helping readers discover their next brew, he intends to educate them about espresso and coffee.