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Is the need for privacy evolutionary?

        Science | Evolution

Don't let that distinctly human hotel sign fool you. Humans are just one of many animals that require at least a modicum of privacy.
Don't let that distinctly human hotel sign fool you. Humans are just one of many animals that require at least a modicum of privacy.
John Foxx/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

It is strange to think that at some point -- in a fit of nostalgia -- our descendants will surf archived Facebook pages for pictures of great-grandmother drinking Busch Ice at a fraternity party and learn that she "liked" Olive Garden.

There's little doubt that our concept of privacy has evolved and will continue to. We're increasingly willing to share our passionate love of needlepoint with our neighbors and to blog about it to total strangers. (And it wouldn't hurt if those page views attracted advertisers, too.) But most of us still value a little bit of isolationism when it comes to society knowing everything about us. Sure, we might want to present an idea of ourselves to the public -- but do we honestly want the public to know who we really are?

It used to be a nearly moral obligation to adhere to a strict policy of privacy. In the Victorian era, the "personal" became taboo; the gilded presentation of yourself and family was critical to social standing. Women were responsible for outward piety and purity, men had to exert control over inner desires and urges, and everyone was responsible for keeping up appearances [source: Smith].

Even the design of the home began to change. Dumbwaiters were invented so the servants couldn't interrupt the "private" life of the family, whereas previously the appearance of a large wait staff had social cache [source: Design243]. Swinging back on the pendulum, the "private life" of the 21st century now takes place online, where we update friends and strangers on Facebook with our political views, we post pictures of our dinner to Instagram, and we share the music we're listening to right this second on Spotify.

Clearly, there's been a shift. But as we see from the international uproar over the U.S. PRISM program and other government surveillance, we still have the desire to keep some information to ourselves.

Does privacy have a biological or evolutionary basis that actually serves a purpose, either to protect or even edify us? Keep in mind that we're just one of many animals to pursue privacy. Birds, for instance, don't just sing to gossip with their feathered neighbors or because they're so full of cheerful tidings. Their song is often meant to mark their territory, indicating that they would like a wide berth, thanks very much [source: Klopfer and Rubenstein]. In fact, it's a rare organism (think social insects like ants) indeed that doesn't need a little me time [source: Klopfer and Rubenstein].


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