Darwin’s Stickers

Mar 10, 2015

Photo: Dacher Keltner

By Andrew Zolli

For the past year, I have been working closely with Jad Abumrad and the team at RadioLab on a fascinating story about Facebook.

The story centers on the work of Arturo Bejar, who is one of the technical leaders at the company, and a team of engineers, product developers and external social scientists who collectively operate under the banner of the Compassion Research Group. Together, this team is studying how our ancient human capacities for conflict, compassion, respect, trust, and empathy are expressed by people on Facebook; based on these findings, they’re reworking the service’s interface to encourage more humane relationships among its 1.3 billion users.

In addition to exploring our digital relationships and emotions, the Facebook story also touches on the ways in which our online lives are continuously experimented upon; the new ways social scientists are exploring ancient questions with ‘big data’; and the ethical considerations that such inquiries inevitably raise. Social media is changing social science, and at Facebook, we caught a glimpse of its future.

For space and flow reasons, one particularly intriguing example of this work didn’t get an in-depth airing in the radio piece, and I thought I’d relate it here more fully.

The story actually begins all the way back in 1859, with the publication of Charles Darwin’s landmark treatise, On the Origin on Species. In that book, Darwin famously lays out the argument that species evolve over the course of generations, through the process of natural selection. At the time, most scientists, not to mention most people, were creationists who believed that the great diversity of Life was part of a natural and unchanging order, over which God had given us dominion. Accordingly, Darwin left the natural conclusion of his argument – that human beings evolved via the same mechanism as all other species – largely unstated. (Except, for a single, telling line at end of the book: “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”)


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3 comments on “Darwin’s Stickers

  • Facebook might turn out to be an evolutionary dead end. The reason is reproduction, as in the movie Idiocracy. Evolutionary phenomena work via differential reproduction, sexual selection etc. The question is whether Facebook contributes to reproductive success, or diminishes reproductive success.

    It may contribute to sexual activity, or substitute for it, but contribute less substantially to sexual reproduction and population fertility rates.

    In workplace office environments I’ve seen otherwise attractive, but desperately single women in their late 20s to mid 30s, who spend more time working their Facebook accounts than in actually pretending to work.
    These people appear to be intelligent and academically well-qualified. Possibly they are unattached because they lack financial assets and security. Possibly owing to job insecurity, the price of nightclub cocktails, and that inner city house ownership is effectively inaccessible for their generation. But they are reasonably well-paid and desirably computer literate, presumably based on their possession of an impressive Facebook profile.

    Unlike many relatively low paid but otherwise available male computer technicians, software engineers, networking infrastructure people etc. who are assumed to be obviously less capable of coping with sophisticated information technology owing to their lack of Facebook capabilities.

    Available males must at least have a substantial Facebook profile even to make it past the first hurdle in order to be deemed via group think to be of inadequate social status and income. (Females don’t consider dating males without first involving their similarly single and socially inept female associates to scrutinise their target’s social media profile.) Facebook females seem to be only interested in apparently high status males (somehow discernible via Facebook), but who apparently later turn out to lack real life qualities that lead subsequent serious relationships.

    It may be that the Facebook peacocks who can scrape together a suitably impressive plumage are more in the deception game than otherwise. Real men having more important and much better things to do than pose on Internet blogs etc.

    It could be that Facebook, and other social media like subscription dating websites, rather than bringing people together may be exacerbating otherwise random minor distinctions that might not normally disrupt human courtship. I know of women who seem to have been trying for years to get a date with what they regard as a ‘real’ man, with hopes of a relationship that leads somewhere. Possibly they’ve got the wrong definition. Or possibly the current generation of available men are really just hopeless. Many of them can’t get a job for example, which is proof enough.

    It may be that relative reproductive success over the next few decades will favour people who are averse to social media. Possibly because they can’t afford broadband access. At present they’re the only ones under 35 who seem to be having babies.



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  • We have to be careful not to over-extrapolate or conflate the measure of the thing for the thing being measured.

    I think that’s true. Emoticons in text-based messages are used in a different way to facial expressions of emotion in person-to-person contacts. The former are an explicitly and deliberately chosen tag for a message with a specific purpose in mind while the latter are often subconscious expressions which the emoter might not even be aware of.



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  • What would be interesting, I think, would be for people to be able to create their own emoticons quickly and simply rather than having to use off-the-shelf versions created by someone else. We don’t use other people’s facial signals when showing emotions in person-to-person contacts.



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