The Social Life of Genes

The article:

The critique (and face-off in the comments):


How our housing choices make adult friendships more difficult


  • Our ability to form and maintain friendships is shaped in crucial ways by the physical spaces in which we live…in America we have settled on patterns of land use that might as well have been designed to prevent spontaneous encounters, the kind out of which rich social ties are built.
  • The key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact. That’s why we make friends in college: because we are, by virtue of where we live and our daily activities, forced into regular contact with the same people. It is the natural soil out of which friendship grows.
  • As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other…This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.
  • when we marry and start a family, we are pushed, by custom, policy, and expectation, to move into our own houses. And when we have kids, we find ourselves tied to those houses. Many if not most neighborhoods these days are not safe for unsupervised kid frolicking. In lower-income areas there are no sidewalks; in higher-income areas there are wide streets abutted by large garages. In both cases, the neighborhoods are made for cars, not kids. So kids stay inside playing Xbox, and families don’t leave except to drive somewhere.
  • Thus, seeing friends, even friends within “striking distance,” requires planning. “We should really get together!” We say it, but we know it means calls and emails, finding an evening free of work, possibly babysitters. We know it would be fun, but it’s so much easier just to settle in for a little TV.
  • Those of you who are married with kids: When was the last time you ran into a friend or “dropped by” a friend’s house without planning it? When was the last time you had a spontaneous encounter with anyone who was not a clerk or a barista, someone serving you?
  • Where would it happen? What public spaces are there in which you mix and mingle freely with people on a regular basis? The mall? Walmart? How about noncommercial spaces? Can you think of one?
  • A robust walkshed is an area in which a community of people regularly mingles doing errands, walking their dogs, playing in the parks, going to school and work, etc.
  • The idea behind baugruppen, and co-housing generally, is that it’s nice to live in an extended community, to have people to rely on beyond family. It’s nice to have bustling shared spaces where you can run into people you know without planning it beforehand. It’s nice to have friends for your kids, places where they can play safely, and other adults who can share kid-tending duties.
  • We shouldn’t just accept a way of living that makes interactions with neighbors and friends a burden that requires special planning.
  • We should recognize that by shrinking our network of strong social ties to our immediate families, we lose something important to our health and social identities, with the predictable result that we are ridden with anxiety and loneliness. We are meant to have tribes, to be among people who know us and care about us.

Married, with roommates: why my wife and I choose to live in a group house


  • This is the pattern in America today, as David Roberts laid out in a recent Vox piece: “When we marry and start a family, we are pushed, by custom, policy, and expectation, to move into our own houses.” Roommates are for college kids and single people on a budget; married people live by themselves.
  • For us, living in a group house was not a phase to grow out of but a lifestyle choice that valued people over privacy. Sure, we lose certain freedoms — we can’t walk around the kitchen naked, for instance — but what we get in return is many lighthearted conversations, laughter, and an opportunity to get to know people on a deep level. As Roberts wrote in his essay, “The key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact.” In a city where we have to plan coffee dates with people two weeks in advance, a group house can readily foster spontaneity.
  • Living with others, we don’t put pressure on each other to be our only conversation partner. Without that burden, we are free to enjoy each other’s company rather than depending on it to satisfy all of our social needs.
  • Just like in Houston and Innsbruck, cooking for housemates and friends was a central feature of our group house identity.
  • By creating a regular cooking rotation, developing a chore schedule, and having plenty of opportunities for conflict resolution, my housemates and I unconsciously trained one another to be better partners for our future spouses.
  • It’s one thing to split the rent and another thing to enjoy life together. Sharing utility bills is different from sharing meals. Am I cooking at home just to stay within my food budget or to deepen my relationships? Is my primary motivation for living with housemates just to save money or to foster community? Would I be willing to sacrifice some individual privacy in exchange for developing a shared social identity? People answer these questions quite differently, and it doesn’t take much time of living with others in order to learn what they value most.
  • We learned that there is a power dynamic between landlords and tenants that can’t be ignored even if you are friends. When there were disputes, we couldn’t settle them with a purely democratic process because we had unequal investments in the house and different short-term/long-term perspectives. As homeowners, we were also more protective of our house in general.
  • Over the past three years, Alyson and I have devised a highly specific Craigslist housing post in order to fully convey our group house identity so that no one is caught by surprise when they move in.
  • With our current housemates, we have dinner together once a week and rotate the cooking duties. Regardless of who prepares the food or what’s on the menu, it’s one of the highlights of my week. Eating home-cooked meals with friends has a powerful effect that I’ve never experienced in any other context.
  • Living together in a community can be rewarding, but it may not satisfy everyone — in my experience, it requires us to dispense with an unhealthy obsession with privacy, personal space, and hyper-individualism.
  • There are other ways, too, of fostering and maintaining adult friendships even if you’re not ready to move into a group house. David Roberts’s article described how people are moving to walkable communities, which foster regular contact with neighbors, and other people, particularly in Germany, are building multi-unit housing that includes shared space for kids to play and adults to hang out together.
  • While I applaud these new developments and hope they become more common, I also think there are plenty of low-tech solutions that don’t require changing existing infrastructure. One friend of mine recruited other couples to move into her rent-controlled apartment building, and another friend has encouraged four different families to buy homes within one block of her. Another family was feeling socially isolated as new parents, so they started a weekly front porch cocktail party at their house. On Friday nights after their infant went to sleep, their friends would come over to sip drinks and enjoy grown-up conversations.
  • Group houses challenge my wife and me to engage in conflict resolution rather than avoidance. They encourage us to be respectful and considerate of each other rather than belittle and marginalize. Though we aren’t always best friends with the people we live with, it provides us with the spontaneous social contact that we need to thrive. In light of this, it’s worth rethinking whether shared housing is just a stepping stone or a personally fulfilling destination.