Dunbar's Number

Discussion in 'Human Science' started by Magical Realist, Apr 29, 2014.

  1. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    "Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.[1][2][3][4][5][6] This number was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can only comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships.[7] Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 250, with a commonly used value of 150.[8][9] Dunbar's number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.

    Dunbar theorized that "this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size ... the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained." On the periphery, the number also includes past colleagues, such as high school friends, with whom a person would want to reacquaint themself if they met again."---http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar's_number

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    Last edited: Apr 29, 2014
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  3. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    This strikes me as one of the many bits of the human psyche that are forced to change for every Paradigm Shift.

    In the Paleolithic Era, people only had stable relationships with the members of their own clan--several dozen hunter-gatherers who had known each other since birth.

    The Agricultural Revolution ca. 12KYA was the first Paradigm Shift that resulted in major changes in the way we live, think and feel. The twin technologies of farming and animal husbandry both permitted and required people to stop being nomads and settle in permanent villages. But moreover, economies of scale and division of labor make large villages much more prosperous than small ones, so it became advantageous for once-hostile clans (who fought to the death over scarce food during a drought year) to move in together and work in harmony (agriculture produced a reliable food surplus). People were living and cooperating with a couple of hundred villagers (and eventually many more) so they had to expand their ability to maintain stable relationships.

    The next Paradigm Shift, the Building of Cities stretched it even more. Cities are even more prosperous than villages because of the many specialists they can support, so it was advantageous to make this shift. Yet it was a strain on our nature to "get along" with so many people, much less maintain actual social relationships with them.

    Fortunately, our species has a uniquely massive forebrain (at least 3 times as large as our closest relative, the chimpanzee), so we have the amazing ability to override instinctive behavior with reasoned and learned behavior. We may not be programmed by evolution to live in harmony with thousands of people, but if doing so will make our lives better, well then we will just bloody well learn how!

    The Paradigm Shift resulting from the discovery of the technology of metallurgy raised the curtain on the Bronze Age. Residents of a city near a tin mine had to learn to cooperate with the people a hundred miles away who had a copper mine, or they would not be able to make bronze tools. This was facilitated by the wheel (which could never have been invented by people using primitive flint blades) and the domestication of draft animals that could pull large wagons full of trade goods at high speed (by their standards) over long distances.

    The Iron Age saw the rise of large nation-states, and our ancestors had to consider themselves kin to people whom they almost never saw. The Industrial Revolution created even larger empires, forcing the citizens to consider themselves kin to people they never even met.

    And now the Electronic Revolution keeps us in touch with people on the other side of the planet--no longer anonymous strangers but people we actually chat with, share photos, celebrate their children's graduations and weep over the deaths of their elderly parents. (And argue about Dunbar's Number.

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    ) Read up on the worldwide response to the death of Neda Agha Soltan at the hands of a government thug in Iran. She was our friend, our sister, our daughter. Country music singers, representing the most xenophobic segment of American society, wrote songs for her! Neda did not die in vain. She taught us that national boundaries are bullshit in this new wired world.

    I'm not at all worried about Dunbar's number. We always rise to the challenges that our own technological Paradigm Shifts create, and we'll rise to this one.

    Or to put it another way: It is our nature to overcome the limits of our nature!
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  5. lpetrich Registered Senior Member

    Unfortunately, http://cliodynamics.info has lapsed, so I can't refer you people to some sources that I had earlier used.

    Biologist Peter Turchin has been researching questions of the origin of large-scale societies and how they behave over the centuries. Why have we been able to beat Dunbar's number and get large numbers of people to cooperate? He once reviewed sociologist Robert Bellah's book Religion in Human Evolution, a book that he thinks has some important ideas about this question.

    A big motive for large-scale societies he proposes to be success in fighting off rivals -- and conquering them. But how does one get success in ruling such big realms? Having to continually fight rebellions in the provinces is an indicator of failure rather than of success. A favorite alternative has been to get one's subjects to believe in some religion or ideology that teaches one's legitimacy of rule. Thus, monarchs have often been gods or descendants of gods or provincial governors of gods. Even that has limits, and a common way out has been to do syncretism like crazy, identifying various people's deities with each other.

    But an alternative emerged over 800 to 200 BCE, in what philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age: universalistic belief systems. These emerged under pressure from incursions of horse-riding nomads from the Eurasian steppes. The settled peoples had to unite to fight them. The Persians had to unite against steppe nomads to their north, and their conquests forced their neighbors to try to unite. Back to Axial Age belief systems. These were not only universalistic, they were transethnic, making it easier to unite disparate peoples under their banners. They featured a universal god or a universal natural order, though they often coexist with smaller-scale deities. They were:

    Greece: The various philosophers, notably Plato and Aristotle
    Israel: Judaism
    Persia: Zoroastrianism
    India: Upanishads, Jainism, Buddhism
    China: Confucianism, Taoism

    Judaism doesn't seem to be completely Axialized to me, because it continues to be an ethnic religion. However, its two biggest offshoots, Christianity and Islam, are thoroughly Axialized.

    The practice of modern science is a successor of some of the Greco-Roman philosophers' endeavors, and it is thoroughly Axialized. Some present-day ideologies are also Axialized, like democracy and Marxism.

    Gore Vidal wrote a novel about the Axial Age, "Creation". He imagined a Persian-Empire official who wandered to Greece and India and China, learning lots of interesting things on the way. The official was a Zoroastrian, worshipping the "Wise Lord" (Ahura Mazda).
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  7. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    These guys don't have much respect for human nature. They seem to think we're dumb animals, enslaved by our instincts. It is our nature to transcend those instincts. Do they even talk about the first and most fundamental shift in our behavior: the Neolithic Revolution, the transition from a nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle, sleeping in a different place every night, "owning" only the things they could carry, leaving excrement and garbage everywhere... to permanent agricultural settlements with individual homes they returned to every night, restricted to a small area where they tended their herds and crops, having to keep the place clean, watching as their numbers increased to the point that they were not intimately acquainted with all their neighbors, needing to invent the concept of government to maintain order and resolve disputes?

    As I noted in my first post, humans have a uniquely large forebrain which, specifically, gives us the ability to overcome our instincts. Of course there's still a caveman inside every one of us, wistfully yearning for a simpler life (which explains the back-to-nature movement), and occasionally going Paleolithic on us and doing something "uncivilized." But most of the time we keep him happy with beer, football, motorcycles, air conditioning, furniture, a refrigerator full of food his ancestors couldn't have dreamed of, and a domesticated wolf at his feet who thinks he's God and would give his life to protect him.

    The Neolithic Revolution was surely the most wrenching Paradigm Shift in human history. Everything since then has been a minor adjustment.

    You need to read more Jung. The gods are archetypes programmed into our unconscious. We all have a Healer, a Warrior, a King, a Reveler, a Parent, etc., inside us. One is often dominant and this shapes our career path. But they're all there and can be called on when necessary: the Parent becomes a Healer when her child is injured and a Warrior when another child threatens him.

    The Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Persians and other kingdoms rather easily discovered that they all had the same gods with different names. It is the monotheistic religions of Abraham that have upset this order. The rich, multidimensional human spirit has been squeezed into a one-dimensional model with "good" at one end and "evil" at the other. The various Abrahamic communities (Jewish, Sunni, Shiah, Catholic, Baptist, Mormon, etc.) fight over their definitions of "good" and "evil." (Baha'i and Rasta are so new that they're still in their formative stages, loving everyone and preaching world peace. But give them a few centuries and they'll join with the older Abrahamic communities in the killing.)

    The world will never be safe until the cancer of monotheism is conquered.

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