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A primal pang

Being alone always seems to be frowned upon, but is that justified?

Out on the Hamilton highway last winter, in that lovely pink light of the evening, with the shadows long and fat and colliding with one another, all sewn up together, darkening the land in preparation for the night, and there, in passing, a solitary farmhouse with a plume of smoke: up comes a feeling of loneliness for sure, but not unhappiness. What does it mean? 

An evolutionary psychologist would say that I was resonating with ancient fear, remembering (with feelings rather than thoughts) some star-blown night on the primordial when an ancestor grandfather many times removed was sitting at the edge of his travelling band, vulnerable to a predator coming out of the dark. 

John Elder ponders the lure of becoming a loner.
John Elder ponders the lure of becoming a loner. Photo: Paul Jeffers

Maybe that's right. This would explain why lonely feelings have always had a bad rap. Or maybe, on occasion, there was something else mixed in with fear, a more positive, pioneering attitude. Hold that thought.

In November 2011, a research paper titled Stepwise evolution of stable sociality in primates was published in Nature: it argued that primates had been operating in groups ever since the ancestors of monkeys and apes split from the ancestors of lemurs about 52 million years ago. The theory goes that our pre-human selves, in bands, began confidently hunting in the daytime, rather than sneaking about alone at night. 

Our true human ancestors first appeared between 5 and 7 million years ago; almost 2 million years ago they were sitting around a fire, around the same time that Homo erectus (the first primate to look sort of human) appeared.  Homo erectus may have survived as recently as 70,000 years ago. He would have seen his own shadow in the night time cast by fire, his own image stretching out into the unknown. Was there perhaps some curiosity to follow the shadow?  

In February 2012 – that is, three months after Nature published the paper that humans had been social creatures from well before they'd actually been human – New York sociologist Eric Klinenberg published a book called Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, a trend that Klinenberg said had begun in the 1950s. Until then, he said, no human society had ever supported such a trend.  

By then of course, the extended family had shrunk to the nuclear, and was beginning to splinter further into single parent families. 

From an evolutionary point of view, what does this splintering mean? Dunno. But I'm thinking about it. 

Somehow, though, I feel it's linked to that moment on the road, in the evening, looking at the little farmhouse and its plume of smoke, and the instinctive elemental twinge that I cannot wholly put a name to. I wonder too, if Homo erectus was similarly moved: some restless individual of my imagining who stepped away into the night, to follow his shadow. I imagine him turning around and looking back upon that society which he'd not so much abandoned, but stepped away from, in order to see anew. I imagine him, much like the astronauts who'd likewise travel into the darkness, seeing from a lonely distance the fragility and beauty of who we are, and where we want to be.