The Evolution of Social Concepts

The human is a social animal. We love Facebook, Instagram, and many other social media devices. Of course, this is not to say we evolved to use social media, but our heavy use of social media does say something about our evolution.

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Humans developed, over time, to process certain types of information as important social cues; which means, we have developed neural circuitry to process specific types of information. Without going on a super geeky rant about the Default Neural Network, it is important that you understand what that is, so we’ll give a semi-geeky rant.

The Default Neural Network (DNN) is a series of brain structures which are highly correlated with one another; that is, they tend to function in unison with each other for multiple cognitive functions. The DNN is reported to be the neurological basis of the self, as well as the foundation to human social interaction (1).

Some of the cognitive functions associated with DNN that support the hypothesis that the DNN is the neural basis of the self are:

  • Autobiographical information: Memories of collection of events and facts about one’s self
  • Self-reference: Referring to traits and descriptions of one’s self
  • Emotion of one’s self: Reflecting on one’s own emotional state

The social cognitive functions are:

  • Theory of Mind: Thinking about the thoughts of others and what they might or might not know
  • Emotions of other: Understanding the emotions of other people and empathizing with their feelings
  • Moral reasoning: Determining just and unjust result of an action
  • Social evaluations: Good-bad attitude judgments about social concepts
  • Social categories: Reflecting on important social characteristics and status of a group

And other functions important for complex social interactions:

  • Remembering the past: Recalling events that happened in the past
  • Imagining the future: Envisioning events that might happen in the future
  • Episodic memory: Detailed memory related to specific events in time
  • Story comprehension: Understanding and remembering a narrative

(See References for relevant sources regarding these claims 1 – 9)

So, we can conclude that the brain processes certain types of information as social information. Thus, it follows that some of our datum about the world is social datum, and so we have social datasets. (shit’s bout to get real, fam).

Cognitive Labels and The Evolution of Social Ideas

Now that we know the brain indeed has social-datum, let us consider social labels and cognitive functions. Doing so will allow us to see how information evolves independently of the brain; that is, social complexity and the brain co-evolve with each other.

Drawing (3)

During our evolutionary past, not only could we be King-Kong without people raining on our parades, but the traits which made good leaders were different. Alpha males were usually physically dominant members of the group. It was almost like a bad advertisement – got big muscles? need to spread genes? have we got a solution for you! become an alpha male today by simply smacking your chest in front of the entire group! (P.S. don’t try this at a bar, it doesn’t work anymore). However, as time went on and humans got smarter, the alpha male role changed. Rather than physical dominance, alpha males became socially adept and complex thinkers. Obama, an alpha male, is anything but a gym bro (I bet he does bicep curls though), yet he had been the leader of the American group of humans. This begs the question, why?

As humans became better thinkers, our demand for physicality became less. Indeed, the animal that could use this incredibly powerful tool called the frontal cortex tended to do better than those that chose the physical strength path (this is reflected in modern society as well). So, the animal that could control a whole group of these frontal cortex devices had more power than the animals that smacked their chests; thus, the socially adept animals were able to become leaders. The traits that were most advantageous for the developing social ecology amongst humans, and the natural ecology, became social traits. But this is not the only change that occurred.

With the change in traits that become dominant in our populations, something else co-occurred; namely, the complexity of our social life changed as well. Before, a perceptual cue like silver hair down one’s entire back, being swole to the point of having no neck, and intimidation skills were indicators of who was dominant and who was submissive. However, in modern times, the label that publicly accepted institutions ascribe to people now determines dominance, and so the perceptual cues have become more nuanced. (to be clear, by dominance, I simply mean the most command over resources).

The ability to label things has allowed for a development in labels that occur with the brain; rather than seeing silver hair as a meaningful cue of dominance, instead, we process cues like “Harvard graduate,” or, “president,” as meaningful cues for dominance.  The frontal cortex has allowed us to establish more complex conditioned associations, and with this increased complexity came more complex cultures.

The notion of a Harvard graduate will now evolve with the brain, as we will continuously update the associations we make with that label as time goes on. This brings about a social-information evolution that, obviously, cannot evolve independently of some form of a brain or interface to reality. Having the label “Harvard graduate” can either increase in social value, thus making the label propagate further, or decrease in social value, thus making the label become obsolete. Our social-datum sets will evolve independently in this regard.

As our brains evolve, so too will our societies. And when our societies evolve, so too will our social labels. Therefore, we can conclude the content of our thoughts has its own evolution.


  1. Andrews-Hanna, Jessica R. (2012-06-01). “The brain’s default network and its adaptive role in internal mentation”The Neuroscientist: A Review Journal Bringing Neurobiology, Neurology and Psychiatry18 (3): 251–270. doi:10.1177/1073858411403316ISSN 1089-4098PMC 3553600Freely accessiblePMID 21677128.
  2. Buckner, R. L.; Andrews-Hanna, J. R.; Schacter, D. L. (2008). “The Brain’s Default Network: Anatomy, Function, and Relevance to Disease”. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1124 (1): 1–38. doi:10.1196/annals.1440.011PMID 18400922.
  3. Dastjerdi, Mohammad; Foster, Brett L.; Nasrullah, Sharmin; Rauschecker, Andreas M.; Dougherty, Robert F.; Townsend, Jennifer D.; Chang, Catie; Greicius, Michael D.; Menon, Vinod (2011-02-15). “Differential electrophysiological response during rest, self-referential, and non-self-referential tasks in human posteromedial cortex”Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America108 (7): 3023–3028. doi:10.1073/pnas.1017098108ISSN 1091-6490PMC 3041085Freely accessiblePMID 21282630.
  4. Lerner, Yulia; Honey, Christopher J.; Silbert, Lauren J.; Hasson, Uri (2011-02-23). “Topographic mapping of a hierarchy of temporal receptive windows using a narrated story”The Journal of Neuroscience31 (8): 2906–2915. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3684-10.2011ISSN 1529-2401PMC 3089381Freely accessiblePMID 21414912.
  5. Regev, Mor; Honey, Christopher J.; Simony, Erez; Hasson, Uri (2013-10-02). “Selective and invariant neural responses to spoken and written narratives”The Journal of Neuroscience33 (40): 15978–15988. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1580-13.2013ISSN 1529-2401PMC 3787506Freely accessiblePMID 24089502.
  6. Honey, Christopher J.; Thompson, Christopher R.; Lerner, Yulia; Hasson, Uri (2012-10-31). “Not lost in translation: neural responses shared across languages”The Journal of Neuroscience32 (44): 15277–15283. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1800-12.2012ISSN 1529-2401PMC 3525075Freely accessiblePMID 23115166.
  7. Andrews-Hanna, Jessica R.; Smallwood, Jonathan; Spreng, R. Nathan (2014-05-01). “The default network and self-generated thought: component processes, dynamic control, and clinical relevance”Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1316 (1): 29–52. doi:10.1111/nyas.12360ISSN 1749-6632PMC 4039623Freely accessiblePMID 24502540.
  8. Lieberman, M. D. (2015). Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.

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