Why Humans Cannot Work Alone

We humans find energy and strength in working together. If not for that, we would have been annihilated as a species long ago.

Ramesh Srinivasan

Executive Coach, Leadership Development, Sales Trainer, Key Account Management, Product Mgmt Consultant

The story is so delicious that I decided to believe it after checking a few basic facts. Apparently, Sir Isaac Newton(1643-1727) and Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), the author of Robinson Crusoe were good friends. Newton was knighted in 1703and was President of the Royal Society in 1705. The novel Robinson Crusoe, based on the real story of a sailor abandoned on a lonely island was published in 1719. So, the dates match, and there is a good chance that they knew each other.Daniel Defoe was largely a journalist, doing articles and essays, and constantly meeting people in coffee houses. Then they get mentioned together in connection with the infamous South Sea Bubble of 1720. Defoe wrote persuasive articles pushing people to invest in the Bubble, a scam in which Newton lost a lot of his money.

Either way, this story is too good to pass up. Newton, a very wealthy patron of science and arts, had his select circle of friends come together for a night on the town in one of London’s famous taverns every weekend. On one such rowdy night, a drunk Defoe announced to the assembly of friends that he intends to write a novel with only one character in it, from beginning to end. The crowd cheered him on. A few weeks later, a dejected Defoe sought out Newton’s shoulder to cry on. Defoe felt that he may have bitten off more than what he can chew. He had a serious ‘writer’s block’, and half-way through, the story of the ship-wrecked sailor Crusoe on a God-forsaken island for all of 26 years, was going nowhere. A sober and wise Newton seems to have advised Defoe that even when alone, no man is alone. Every human has his/her conscience to talk to, answer to, live with and be accountable to. So, loneliness is a myth. “No Man Is An Island”, indeed. Thus was Man Friday introduced into the story. The discourse between Crusoe and his Man Friday reveals the real Crusoe to the reader. It also makes Crusoe a better human being – compassionate and resourceful. The qualities deep rooted in a civilised human being is best brought out in the interactions with another human being.

If we choose to respect Sir Isaac Newton as a humanist, his advice to Defoe is valuable. Man cannot flourish when alone.

Humans need conversations and actions inspired by relations, contacts, exchanges, interfaces, dealings and collaborations, with other humans. Yuval Noah Harari reminds us of how Man’s ascendancy as the most superior being on Earth may have begun. When a lone mammoth was spotted to be hunted down, half a dozen or more humans surrounded the beast, and through signals to each other and by following a plan, they brought the beast down. Contrast this, he says, when six mammoths corner a single human being. They roar, make a lot of ferocious noise, and simply rush in to attack the hapless fellow. They let the human get away, most of the times.

Human dominance has always been dependent on, and endured because of knowing one another, learning from each other and working together. Witness the 2000 survival drama film Cast Away directed by Robert Zemeckis, and the hopelessness that quickly envelops Chuck Noland (played by Tom Hanks) stranded on a deserted tropical island, with only a few FedEx packages for company.Things look up for him, and for those watching the movie only when Noland draws a face on a volleyball and calls it ‘Mr. Wilson’. The conversations between Tom Hanks and Mr. Wilson reveal a lot about Chuck Noland as a person and helps him retain his sanity over the 4 years of abandonment.

Every human is a WIP (Work In Progress) and needs other humans as tools to shape him. Events, experiences and people are chisels that sculpt each one of us. Crusoe and Noland summoned the necessary resources when they wanted to question themselves. When temporarily kept away from these (human) resources, we will find all ways to rush back towards them. Social or any form of distancing is a nice but short-term game that cannot last.