Nicholas Christakis
Physician & Social Scientist, Harvard

How Humans Are Like Fungi

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The social networks we form add up to a giant “human superorganism.”

Nicholas Christakis

Nicholas A. Christakis, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., is an internist and social scientist who conducts research on social factors that affect health, health care, and longevity. He is a Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences; Professor of Medical Sociology in the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School; and Professor of Medicine in the Department of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Christakis' current work is principally concerned with health and social networks, and specifically with how ill health, disability, health behavior, health care, and death in one person can influence the same phenomena in a person's social network. Most recently, Dr. Christakis has been exploring the joint genetic and socio-environmental determinants of the formation and operation of human social networks. His 2009 book, co-authored with James H. Fowler and published by Little, Brown and Company, is called "Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives."

Follow him on Twitter @NAChristakis

Question: What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

Nicholas Christakis: I’m a professor of medicine and professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School and a professor of sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and I do what I would call network science, so I, for the last ten years, have been studying how and why human beings come to be embedded in social networks. Not the kind of online kind that people might think about all the time nowadays, but the kind of ancient kind that we have formed for hundreds of thousands of years. And I study how we humans come to form these very elaborate networks and what these networks come to mean for our lives, and the sort of the field as it were of medical sociology is concerned with all sorts of phenomena, social processes and social phenomena that influence health and health care. But I’m focused primarily on I would say a subset of that or not a subset, but a different field. Let’s say network science.

Question: What kind of research went into your book “Connected”? 

Nicholas Christakis: We have done work on the social, psychological, mathematical and biological rules that govern how human beings come to form social networks—the structure of networks—and then we’ve also examined the kind of social and psychological rules or attributes of how social networks function. So how do we form social networks and how do they affect our lives, and it’s what we would consider to be the anatomy and the physiology of a kind of human superorganism. In a very fundamental way we are like ants or actually kind of like fungi too, where individual human beings assemble themselves into these elaborate complex structures and we’re… James Fowler and I, my coauthor, are deeply concerned with how and why we form these structures and what they mean for our lives. So in the book we present about… We talk a lot about our own research, but we also pull in the research of many other scientists who have been looking at a variety of phenomena, and we talk about the role of social networks in human emotions. We talk about the role of social networks in human romantic and sexual behavior, in health, in politics and in economics, and then we also talk a little bit about the genetics of human social networks and the sort of modern online variety of social interactions, and then we close with an argument in the book about why we form social networks and what in a very deep sense they mean for our lives.

Recorded March 31, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen