Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Why are Goodbyes so Hard? An Amateur Theory

For many millennia, homo sapiens lived in small bands that foraged and lived together (1). Every once in a while, a small group would splinter off in search of better conditions, to avoid or resolve conflict, or after natural calamities, but it is safe to assume many of our ancestors lived most of their lives in the company of people they had always known.

Why am I telling you about unnamed people who lived all their lives in small groups thousands of years ago? Because I theorize that this might partly explain why it is so hard to say goodbye in 2019.

Leaving your parents and friends in Ibadan to move to Europe semi-permanently? That is something our species could hardly have imagined 1000 years ago. Even when charismatic leaders caused groups to splinter for whatever reason, I doubt they could have set out to move ‘halfway’ across the planet (2). As a race, we don’t have lots of experience saying goodbye. And in the absence of experience saying goodbye, we continued to select for traits that promoted group cooperation and bonded us together tightly (3).

Not only did we not get experience saying goodbye, we got loads of experience staying together.

Of course, some people lean into and seem to enjoy goodbyes. My amateur theory has something for these people too. After all, all those groups that splintered off from larger groups and were responsible for our species colonizing the entire planet must have left their ‘wanderlust-y’ genes in some people. And some people enjoy seeking new thrills more than they are afraid of the unknown (4).

As for me? It seems my heart and my head are not on talking terms. I have these dreams that demand I be willing to move, but my heart longs to stay in Ibadan and Lagos – close to my Mummy, Daddy, and my many brothers and sisters.


 (1) “Members of a band knew each other very intimately, and were surrounded throughout their lives by friends and relatives.” “The average person lived many months without seeing or hearing a human from outside of her own band, and she encountered throughout her life no more than a few hundred humans.” Excerpt From: Yuval Noah Harari. “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” Apple Books.
(2)  Except for the colonization of Australia some 45,000 years ago that required our species to cover significant distances and sea channels far wider than a hundred kilometers, most forager bands only wandered a few hundred kilometers from their original group. “James F. O’Connel and Jim Allen, ‘When Did Humans First Arrive in Greater Australia and Why is it Important to Know?’, Evolutionary Anthropology 6:4 (1998), 132–46; Jon M. Erlandson, ‘Anatomically Modern Humans, Maritime Voyaging and the Pleistocene Colonization of the Americas’, in The First Americans: The Pleistocene Colonization of the New World, ed. Nina G. Jablonski (San Francisco: University of California Press, 2002), 59–60, 63–4. 
If a forager band split once every 40 years and the splinter band migrated hundred kilometers to the east, the distance from East Africa to China would have been covered in 10,000 years (Yuval Noah Harari). Given that we first appeared around 100,000 years ago, this more than explains how we covered the entire continent.
(3)  Jennifer R. Spoor and Janice R. Kelly, “The Evolutionary Significance of Affect in Groups: Communication and Group Bonding” Group Processes Intergroup Relations (2004)
(4)  This not exhaustive. There must be many other explanations for why some people find it much easier to say goodbye than others.

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