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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 62

Dr. Mark Moffett — The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall

The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall (book cover)

In this riveting conversation, Dr. Shermer speaks with Dr. Mark Moffett, biologist (Ph.D. Harvard, under E. O. Wilson), wildlife photographer for National Geographic, cave explorer, and world traveler about his new book, The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall, on the nature of societies from a biologist’s perspective. Scientists routinely explain that humans rule the planet because of our intelligence, tools, or language, but as Moffett argues, our biggest asset, surprisingly overlooked to date, is our ability to be comfortable around strangers. We can walk into a cafe or stadium full of unfamiliar people without thinking twice, but a chimpanzee, wolf or lion, encountering strangers could be attacked and perhaps killed. This ability—not IQ—has allowed humans to swarm over the world in vast nations. If we want to compare ourselves to the rest of the animal kingdom in order to define what makes our societies unique, Moffett argues that it’s time we look at ants. Making their way across the African savannah, the Australian coastline, and the American plains, our ancestors moved in small bands of lifelong fellow travelers. Month after month they made their camps and searched for food and water. Rarely did they encounter other human souls. So rarely that outsiders seemed to occupy a realm between reality and myth. Aborigines guessed the first Europeans they met were ghosts. Over time our view of the members of other societies has changed radically; today, foreigners don’t seem outlandish or otherworldly, as they once routinely did. As a consequence of global exploration starting in the 15th century, and more recently tourism and social media, contact between people from far-flung parts of the globe is now commonplace. Outright incomprehension of outsiders is no longer the excuse it often was in prehistory.

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This episode was released on April 16, 2019.

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