Humans are social – but they can be solitary too

It’s not ‘unnatural’ to be a loner.

Photo by Lukas Rodriguez on Pexels.com

Humans are social animals. In order to survive – nay, thrive – we need to communicate and co-operate with one another. Whether it’s as a member of the family, the company, or the community – banding together is what serves our species best. 

Sociability is also important for each individual’s health and happiness – without a social network, without people to talk to, and to touch, a human being is at risk of developing a myriad of physical and mental health problems.

It’s therefore ‘unnatural’ for a person to be solitary, to peel off from the pack. Those who turn away from the crowd, who prefer their own company, are  “sad, mad or bad” (Maitland). The loner can only be unhappy. They are also a liability. It’s only by learning and loving, working and playing, together, that the human race can function, and flourish.  

This is the dominant consensus, espoused by psychologists, biologists and other experts on human behaviour. How true is it though?  

Is it unnatural to be solitary? 

Do the less social members of the population really have no positive contribution to make to society?

In this article I will address the first question (the second will be explored in a separate article) – answering no; that loners, rather than being considered sick or strange, should be seen as just another way humans can be. 

Different types of sociality

Man is deemed to be a social animal because of our hunter-gatherer ancestry. 

The very first Homo sapiens had to develop social skills in order to survive. Only by banding together, by forming tribes, was man able to secure food and fend off predators. 

And according to psychologists, biologists et al, the modern-day human still has that hunter-gatherer DNA. We remain, fundamentally, pack animals: hardwired to form attachments with others, to gravitate towards the group. Although we no longer need to forage for food together, a lack of social bonds still puts us in peril, because “our nervous systems expect to have others around us”. Aloneness makes us sick, because it goes against our very – human – nature.  Hence the insistence that everyone needs relationships, companionship.

But if this is the case – how do we account for the not-very-social members of the human population? For the fact is, healthy and happy solitary-humans do exist. 

To answer this, we need a more nuanced understanding of human sociality.

Humans are a social species – because, first and foremost, no individual person can take care of all of their needs by themselves. We rely on a wide variety of social structures, processes and institutions to keep us clean, fed and watered; to keep us safe; to educate our children, and to treat us when we’re sick. Our basic physical survival is dependent on us existing as members of human society. 

This means our daily lives are likely to require some sort of social engagement – however transient or transactional. For example, with cashiers, co-workers, doctors, cab drivers… 

However, this type of sociality – the one that secures our basic, physical needs – is different to the type(s) of sociality that meet our emotional needs, namely for interpersonal connection and attachment. In other words, there are different ways humans are ‘social’. 

Yet, the distinction between being social to meet our physical needs and being social to meet our psychological needs is never made. What we are told is: all humans are social, as in sociable, as in needing close relationships. 

This conflation of the different types of sociality, prevents us from acknowledging, never mind understanding, that when it comes to intimate relationships and social interaction, the extent to which human beings need those varies significantly between individuals, with some people being very sociable, whilst others are more solitary. Instead, we are led to believe that human solitariness is unnatural. 

Social-but-solitary  

Sara Maitland, in her book, How To Be Alone, explains that because the “original human societies were hunter-gatherers… there has been a tendency to compare ourselves and our social needs to other species who also hunt collectively – especially wolves and lions.” 

However, even amongst the most social of species, more solitary sorts can be found. With regards to lions and wolves, Maitland writes: 

“both species have a second form of organizational behaviour – individuals who live alone: the lone wolf and the nomad lion. Both lions and wolves may maintain this status for life, or move in and out of it, setting up new prides or packs. These less-socialized individuals are not rare and not created by external or unusual traumas – they are, apparently, perfectly ‘natural’.” 

The animal kingdom also has what are known as ‘solitary-but-social’ species: creatures which live together, but forage separately. Such creatures include mouse lemurs, lorises, and orangutans. Gorillas are another example – they live in groups, but forage and sleep alone.

Orangutan
The orangutan is a ‘solitary-but-social’ species

This shows that belonging to a social species does not preclude the possibility that some members of that species, or the species as a whole, may (also) be solitary. Furthermore, such solitariness is not aberrant or problematic, but, for such creatures, “simply a normal part of how it is to be” (Maitland). 

The same can be said for loner-humans. 

It is quite clear that nature produces more solitary types in the human species as well.

Take the fact that between a third to a half of the population are introverts – those who are more inclined towards the inner life, rather than the external world.  Introversion (and extroversion) is a building block of human personality – one that has its roots in biology; introverts are born-that-way. This means they have an innate preference for their own company; hanging out in groups literally drains them of energy. 

Whilst mainstream introvert discourse is often (too) quick to point out that introverts still have a desire to form close social bonds, they still enjoy being in company – “Introverts aren’t anti-social. We’re differently social” (Cain) – there’s no denying more ‘extreme’ introverts do exist (welcome to this website!); those with little need for intimate attachments, who are okay with sustained periods of solitude: loners, solitaries, schizoids. And although their socially withdrawn ways are often problematised and pathologised, they can live quite contentedly too. This perhaps suggests that such solitariness might also have some origin in nature. 

Perhaps then we could consider such humans, like some animals, to be solitary-but-social, or rather, social-but-solitary. The social-but-solitary person might not be a close friend, a lover, a parent, or a partner; but they might still be an acquaintance, a co-worker, and/or neighbour. Social-but-solitary humans might work alongside other humans, participate in some activities with other humans, and communicate with other humans; however, they will also live out a lot of their life alone. 

Evolutionary remnant

“just as Homo sapiens no longer need prehensile toes, we no longer all need to be social animals in order to survive as a species. Mandatory social interaction is an evolutionary remnant which those who wish to may discard.”

Anneli Rufus, ‘Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto’

The individual human being needs to live alongside other humans because they cannot fulfil each and every one of their basic, physical needs alone. Society is necessary. But humans are no longer hunter-gatherers. We no longer need to pack together, literally, like we used to in order to survive. Little social interaction is required to undertake many essential, everyday activities (shopping, cooking, commuting, even working). We can live more solitarily now, if we want to. 

And for a small minority of the human population, they do want to; because they find it more preferable, it feels more natural, for them to be alone. 

Those pack animal genes might still be present in the human species.  But nature has clearly gone on to produce less sociable, more solitary types of people as well. 

And maybe there’s a reason for that. 

Maybe loners are necessary for the evolution of the human species…   

This will be explored in the next article. 


References:

Further reading:

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