The Loneliness Myth

The Loneliness Myth

Is Facebook making us lonely? No! Sometimes there are actually clear answers to rhetorical headline questions. Claude Fischer, a professor of sociology at Berkeley, gets empirical in the Boston Review. First, we're not lonelier or more socially isolated generally:


Social scientists have more precisely tracked Americans’ isolation and reports of loneliness over the last several decades. The real news, they have discovered, is that there is no such epidemic; there isn’t even a meaningful trend.

If we turned to historians to measure Americans’ degree of isolation over the centuries, they would probably find periods of growing and lessening social connection. The rough evidence indicates a general decline in isolation. When you think back to, say, a century ago, don’t call up some nostalgic Our Town image (although alienation is a theme in that play). Picture more accurately the millions of immigrants and jobless, farm-less Americans trekking from one part of the country to another, out of touch with family and likely to be trekking again the next year.

Second, the Internet isn't leaving us hived off in our separate dark basements staring in unblinking hypnotized anomie at glowing rectangles of sedating alienation:

People using the Internet, most studies show, increase the volume of their meaningful social contacts. E-communications do not generally replace in-person contact. True, serious introverts go online to avoid seeing people, but extroverts go online to see people more often. People use new media largely to enhance their existing relationships—say, by sending pictures to grandma—although a forthcoming study shows that many more Americans are meeting life partners online. Internet dating is especially fruitful for Americans who may face problems finding mates, such as gays and older women. Finally, people tell researchers that electronic media have enriched their personal relationships.

People typically turn new technologies into devices for doing what they have always wanted to do. And people like to stay in touch. A century ago, Americans, especially women, turned two new technologies marketed for other purposes, the telephone and automobile, into “technologies of sociability.” 

With all due respect to Michael Sandel, this is how one reasons about social life: with evidence.

Here's a question. Why are we so prone to thinking things are going to hell in a handbasket? (Also: what's a handbasket?) As Fischer observes at the outset of his piece, we seem to think we've been getting lonelier for well over a half-century. But we haven't been. In a smart review of Larry Lessig's Republic Lost, Ed Lopez notes that Lessig is the latest in a long line of intellectuals alarmed about corruption and distrust of public institutions, all of whom seem to think that there's something new and especially alarming about corruption and distrust these days. But once you actually stop to think about it, as Lopez does, it looks like same ol' shit. The point is, some of our brightest social theorists seem to over-ready to identify troubling trends or newly urgent problems when there is actually very little evidence of any trend, or that this or that problem has actually deepened. A simple explanation of this sort of error is that we intuitively take our own increasing awareness of a problem as evidence that the problem has become objectively more salient. We should watch out for this. 

None of this is to deny that things get worse. Sometimes things get worse! The music kids listen to these days, for example. Just awful. No doubt there's evidence to this effect. 

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Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
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Urban foxes self-evolve, exhibiting Darwin’s domestication syndrome

A new study finds surprising evidence of the self-evolution of urban foxes.

A fox at the door of 10 Downing Street on Janurary 13, 2015.

Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A study from the University of Glasgow finds urban foxes evolved differently compared to rural foxes.
  • The skulls of the urban foxes are adapted to scavenging for food rather than hunting it.
  • The evolutionary changes correspond to Charles Darwin's "domestication syndrome."

How much can living in the city change you? If you were an urban fox, you could be evolving yourself to a whole new stage and becoming more like a dog, according to a fascinating new study.

Researchers compared skulls from rural foxes around London with foxes who lived inside the city and found important variations. Rural foxes showed adaptation for speed and hunting after quick, small prey, while urban fox skulls exhibited changes that made it easier for them to scavenge, looking through human refuse for food, rather than chasing it. Their snouts were shorter and stronger, making it easier to open packages and chew up leftovers. They also have smaller brains, not meant for hunting but for interacting with stationary food sources, reports Science magazine.

Interestingly, there was much similarity found between the male and female skulls of the urban foxes.

The observed changes correspond to what Charles Darwin called the "domestication syndrome," comprised of traits that go along with an animal's transition from being wild, to tamed, to domesticated.

The study was led by Kevin Parsons, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow.

"What's really fascinating here is that the foxes are doing this to themselves," Parsons told the BBC. "This is the result of foxes that have decided to live near people, showing these traits that make them look more like domesticated animals."

The researchers are not suggesting you should go out and get a fox as a house-pet just yet. But they are seeing the evolutionary process taking place that's moving the urban foxes along the path towards becoming more like dogs and cats, explained the study's co-author Dr. Andrew Kitchener from National Museums Scotland.

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London on May 14, 2020.

Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP

"Some of the basic environmental aspects that may have occurred during the initial phases of domestication for our current pets, like dogs and cats, were probably similar to the conditions in which our urban foxes and other urban animals are living today," said Kitchener. "So, adapting to life around humans actually primes some animals for domestication."

The specimen came from the National Museum Scotland's collection of around 1,500 fox skulls.

You can read the study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

fox sleeping beneath stadium seats

A fox at the LV County Championship, Division two match between Surrey and Derbyshire at The Brit Oval on April 9, 2010 in London, England.

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

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