Real Friends Will Defend You From Saber-Toothed Tigers

Illustration for article titled Real Friends Will Defend You From Saber-Toothed Tigers

"What are friends for" is often posed as a rhetorical question. But a team of scientists believe they have an answer, and that answer is: to keep you from getting eaten.


The Telegraph reports on research by scientists at Oxford University, who studied the social behavior of a variety of primates, living and extinct. They found that primates started being more sociable when they started moving around during the day. Hanging out in daylight meant they were more vulnerable to predators, and they had to make friends to help fight them off. This is also the origin of the saying, "a friend in need is a friend in throwing makeshift arrows at a dire wolf."

This new finding should help people make sense of friendship, something that's become a vexed issue in our modern age. In the Guardian, Zoe Williams references research showing that now that many of us spend our days staring at computer screens rather than down the gullets of slavering carnivores, the average person has just two real friends. But what's a real friend? Williams subscribes to this definition: "a friend is someone who will drop what they're doing and come and help you, if you need it." Accordingly, she has five.

One woman she interviews for her piece, however, has just "one or two," and a quarter of respondents in a 2006 survey said they had no close confidants. Many have taken this to mean that we denizens of the TwitterFacebookInterweboverse are doomed to a life of solitude. But I'm not worried. Pretty soon the coyote-wolf hybrids are going to start breaking into our houses, and then we'll have to band together for survival.

Origins Of Human Social Networks Discovered [Telegraph]
Social Networking Aside, How Many Close Friends Do You Have? [Guardian]


Stephan Zielinski

With regards to the Telegraph's headline "Origins Of Human Social Networks Discovered": that's for a value of "Discovered" equal to "Speculated About." Let's think about this. How would one go about studying the social behavior of an extinct primate? Crystal ball? Time machine? Ouija board? "H-E-Q-R-A-N-F. That's Kenyanthropus platyops for `We are a patrilocal species that resolves intratroop conflicts primarily through labiodental perineal grooming,' right?"

In fact, Schulz et alia went with a simpler approach: they guessed. From the abstract at [] : "However, primate social behaviour shows strong evidence for phylogenetic inertia, permitting the use of Bayesian comparative methods to infer changes in social behaviour through time. . ." Translation: "Well, we figure social behavior doesn't change all that fast, so what we see now is probably how it was before— albeit in animals that don't exist now."

There may be some interesting ideas behind the paywall; I don't know. But they'll be ideas, or thought experiments— not discoveries or hard facts. You can tell it's handwaving because there aren't any numbers in the "Figures"— just a bunch of words in circles with exciting arrows flying around.