Are we a deeply social species? Lets look at sociability as a continuum.
Perhaps one way to examine the question above is to focus on the word species. By doing this we can compare and contrast with other species, and create a continuum of species from sociable at one end to solitary at the other. With this in mind, we are clearly not at the blue-tongue lizard or polar bear ends of the spectrum. But why is this? Several reasons come to mind:
1. We live with others of our species in close quarters.
2. We gather in large numbers closer to the bee end of the sociability continuum than the average armadillo.
3. We share food with others of the same species.
4. There is a dramatic difference in the quantity and quality of communication with our own species.
5. We engage in trade with others of our species.
6. We engage in acts that put the welfare of others in our species ahead of our own (altruism).
When we look at it this way, we are most definitely a social species. Where individuals sit on that continuum will vary for a variety of reasons. For example: Culture plays a role as to whether we are brought up in an individualistic or a more collectivist culture.
Robert Cialdini wrote a landmark book called Influence The Psychology of Persuasion. In it he lists influence patterns that his research suggests are hard-wired into us as humans. These patterns include:
The interesting thing about Cialdinis research is that five out of his six influence patterns support the idea that we are a deeply social species, and that we make decisions by involving or watching others. The only exception is that of scarcity. This is fascinating. (For more information, read The Tragedy of the Commons.)
Consider this as an extension to the ideas covered above: Most of us would believe that sociopaths and psychopaths have a disorder. Therefore, being able to empathise with and read the thoughts of others is considered to be normal and healthy.
The power of the flame
There is a wonderful documentary that was screened on SBS called Becoming Human. One of the ideas it proposed looked at the time we left the trees for the savannah. It was considered to be quite dangerous to be a monkey/ape/human on the savannah at night, when they were the creatures that hunted during the day and it was the carnivores (such as the lions, cheetahs and hyenas) that hunted at night. What kept us safe? It was the fact that we could start fires. It was suggested (and this is purely hypothetical as there are no genes or archaeology that will ever be available to support the idea) that we learned to be social with others outside our family but within our species, because we all needed the protection of the fire.
 Cialdini, Robert (1995), Influence The Psychology of Persuasion, Quill Publications, New York
 Gilbert, Daniel (2005), Stumbling on Happiness, First Vintage Books, New York
 The Tragedy of the Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons Last updated on the 8th of July 2012
 Becoming Human Episode 1: First Steps (2009), Documentary produced by Shining Red Productions for NOVA, WGBH Educational Foundation