How Human Interaction Impacts Evolution
By Tara Hulen
Literature tells us that no man—or woman—is an island. Over millennia, humans have formed an interconnected web that spans the planet.
In fact, that interaction may play a key role in human survival. Eduardo Neiva, Ph.D., professor in the UAB Department of Communication Studies, and James Lull, Ph.D., emeritus professor at San Jose State University, have written The Language of Life: How Communication Drives Human Evolution (2012: Prometheus Books), which revolves around “the idea that communication is central to all biological development,” Neiva explains. In other words, survival goes to the most communicative as well as to the fittest. And since communication involves cooperation, the one who offers the helping hand usually has the advantage over the backstabber.
UAB Magazine: As a humanities professor, what brought you to write about what is usually a topic for biologists?
Neiva: The humanities have operated with the strict notion that what matters are differences: of cultures, of the sexes, in everything. The idea in this book is that everything is unified. Life is actually a great chain of interaction; all living forms interact with one another, and that creates change.
UAB Magazine: People usually think of that interaction in evolution in a negative way—survival of the fittest—but you don’t seem to see it like that.
Neiva: One reason we wrote the book is that we were very frustrated with some general notions that were attached to evolution—one of them is it’s all about survival of the fittest. Evolutionary theory has always favored that phrase, which has, in the popular mind, been considered the dominant factor. But that notion forgets many other things that are absolutely key to evolution, such as cooperation.
The idea is not a new one. Prince [Pyotr Alexeyevich] Kropotkin wrote a brilliant book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, in 1902 about how mutual aid drives evolution. Oral traditions, passing on skills, the existence of societies—all of these advance evolution and require mutual aid.
Communication and social life are not just human traits, either, despite what people often think of as the rule. Social life is everywhere. Bees, for instance, are a marvel of elaborate social division.
UAB Magazine: You make the point that communication is very important when it comes to the birds and the bees.
Neiva: Sex entails one thing: persuasion. The male needs to convince the female that he is mate-able—that he is a good choice. That requires communication. And that gets to a debate about what exactly is the “fittest” today. The person who is fittest might not necessarily be the one who is the most muscular. The great issue today in terms of survival of the species is whether human beings choose to mate or not—whether women decide to have children.
UAB Magazine: You extend this theory down to the molecular level as well.
Neiva: Genetics is a science that is absolutely filled with communication terms: genetic code, information, and transmission of qualities. All of those things are communicative aspects.
UAB Magazine: The book ends with an encouraging prognosis for the future. So it’s all onward and upward from here?
Neiva: Progress won’t always go in a straight line. The image I have is much more of a hopscotch. But in the end, I am a hopeless optimist. I think humans have come a long way, changing the nature of life, extending lifespan, and improving many kinds of conditions. This book is a kind of optimistic hymn about life—about the wonders of life and being one with the universe. Not being at odds, not to be outside of the universe, but to be fully part of it.