helen_fisher's picture
Biological Anthropologist, Rutgers University; Author, Why Him? Why Her? How to Find and Keep Lasting Love

For me, the Internet is a return to yesteryear; it simply allows me (and all the rest of us) to think and behave in ways for which we were built long long ago. Take love. For millions of years, our forebears traveled in little hunting and gathering bands. About 25 individuals lived together day and night; some ten to twelve were children and adolescents; the balance were adults. But everyone knew just about everybody else in a neighborhood of several hundred miles. They got together too. Annually in the dry season, bands congregated at the permanent waters that dotted eastern and southern Africa. Here as many as 500 men, women and children would mingle, chat, dine, dance, perhaps even worship — together. And although a pubescent girl who saw a cute boy at the next campfire might not know him personally, her mother probably knew his aunt or her older brother had hunted with his cousin. All were part of the same broad social Web.

Moreover, in the ever-present gossip circles, a young girl could easily collect data on a potential suitor's hunting skills, even whether he was amusing, kind or smart. We think it's natural to court a totally unknown person in a bar or club. But it's far more natural to know a few basic things about an individual before meeting him or her. Internet dating sites, chat rooms, social networking sites provide these details, enabling the modern human brain to pursue more comfortably its ancestral mating dance.

Then there's the issue of privacy. Some are mystified by the way others, particularly the young, so frivolously reveal their intimate lives on Facebook, Twitter, in emails and via other Internet billboards. This odd human habit has even spilled into our streets and other public places. How many times have you had to listen to someone nonchalantly blare out their problems on cell phones while you sat on a train or bus. Yet for millions of years our forebears had almost no privacy. With the Internet, we are returning to this practice of shared community.

So for me, the Internet has only magnified — on a grand scale — what I already knew about human nature. Sure, with "the Net," I more easily and rapidly acquire information than in the old days. I can more easily sustain connections with colleagues, friends and family. I no longer take long walks to the post office to mail manuscripts. I don't pound on typewriter keys all day, or use "white-out." My box of carbon paper is long gone. And sometimes I find it easier to express complex or difficult feelings via email than in person or on the phone. But my writing isn't any better…or worse. My perspectives haven't broadened…or narrowed. My values haven't altered. I have just as much data to organize. My energy level is just the same. My workload has probably increased. And colleagues want what they want from me even faster. My daily habits have changed — moderately.

But the way I think? I don't think any harder, faster, longer, or more effectively than I did before I bought my first computer in 1985. In fact, the rise of the Internet only reminds me of how little any of us have changed since the modern human brain evolved more than 35,000 years ago. We are still the same warlike, peace loving, curious, gregarious, proud, romantic, opportunistic — and naïve — creatures we were before the Internet, indeed before the automobile, the radio, the Civil War, or the ancient Sumerians. We still have the same brain our forebears had as they stalked woolly mammoths and mastodons; and we still chat and warm our hands where they once camped — on land that is now London, Beijing and New York. With the Internet, we just have a much louder megaphone with which to scream who we really are.