Thesis #7: Humans are best adapted to band life.

by Jason Godesky

As we saw in the previous thesis, the division between our genus, Homo, and the Australopithecines occurred two million years ago, with H. habilis and his freakishly large brain. All primates have brain-to-body mass ratios that are much higher than normal, but the human ratio is remarkable even among primates. According to a study from the University of Liverpool, that disproportionately high brain-to-body mass ratio is determined by the size and complexity of their social groups.

Society has ever been the most powerful strategy that primates employ. We discussed the benefits of risk-sharing in the previous thesis, boiling down essentially to this example, using hunting:

But hunting is never a sure thing. Sometimes you bag yourself a big, juicy kill, and sometimes you come home empty-handed. Skill has a lot to do with it–but so does luck. Among foragers, it’s been calculated that on any given hunt, a hunter only has a 25% chance of making a kill. Yet our ancestors not only derived most of their protein from meat, they derived most of their daily energy from meat, as well. How did they do this, if they only ate one day out of four? While the probability that one hunter will fail on a given day might be 0.75, the probability that four hunters that all go out on the same day will all fail to catch something is 0.316. In other words, if four hunters all agree to share whatever they kill between them, then there is generally a 68% chance that all four of them will eat that day–where alone, their chances drop to 25%.

Sharing amongst a group thus ensures food for everyone. It also helps guarantee safety from predation. Cooperation helped primates increase the food they obtained, and decrease the occurence of becoming food themselves.

The shift from scavenging and the occasional opportunistic hunt very likely had a good deal to do with another defining characteristic of our species: egalitarianism. Most social primates are strictly hierarchical, like chimpanzees. But, when troops of young, male chimpanzees go on hunting expeditions, that hierarchy often begins to break down. Hunting is a cooperative effort–trying to maintain hierarchy in that situation simply imperils the hunt. As humans began to look to meat for the bulk of its nutritional needs, cooperation became more important, and hierarchy became a luxury our ancestors could not afford.

Egalitarian societies built on sharing and cooperation and guided by consensus were much more adapted to the niche humans exploited than the hierarchical troops of other primates. This egalitarianism even became part of our very bodies–humans have some of the lowest sexual dimorphism in the entire animal kingdom, on par with penguins. Compare this to, say, the baboon, where males may be up to three times the size of females. In some animals, the genders look like entirely different species to the untrained eye. The kind of low sexual dimorphism found in humans is not unheard of in the animal kingdom, but in every case, it points to shared parenting behaviors.

There is an inherent complexity in any social group. Not only must we remember the individuals who make up the group, we must also remember the relationships between them–and while the number of individuals increases arithmetically, the number of relationships grows exponentially. If we have 99 people, and add 1 more, we’ve only added one individual, but 99 new relationships. It seems that it was precisely that complexity that drove the growth of the primate brain. If that is true, then the seperation from Australopithecine to Homo was likely driven by a social evolution. This is the same time we start to see the first stone tools, and possibly the first evidence for hunting, rather than scavenging. Hierarchical troops make social groups less complex, by fitting all members into a strict hierarchy–chimpanzees can get by simply remembering the individuals and their rank. Rhizomatic societies–that is, egalitarian societies–have an exponential number of relationships, as each individual relates to every other individual in new and different ways. As humans became hunter-gatherers, the simple hierarchical model that served so many other primates ceased to suffice. We needed to become egalitarian to survive, and in order to do that, we needed bigger brains relative to our bodies.

The report on the Liverpool study mentioned above, includes Robin Dunbar’s conclusions:

Humans are primates, too – so do they fit into the pattern established for monkeys and apes? This is the key question which Robin Dunbar sought to answer by using the same equations to predict human social group and clique size from neocortex volume. The results were… ~150 for social group size, and ~12 for the more intimate clique size. He subsequently discovered that modern humans operate on a hierarchy of group sizes. “Interestingly”, he says, “the literature suggests that 150 is roughly to the number of people you could ask for a favour and expect to have it granted. Functionally, that’s quite similar to apes’ core social groups.”

Interestingly, forager bands tend to hover around that mark of 12 people (with some significant variance), and the line between tribe-level and chiefdom-level society–the line between egalitarian and hierarchical society–is invariably drawn at 150.

This number of 150 continues to pop up in many different contexts. Malcolm Gladwell discusses Dunbar’s findings and their implications in The Tipping Point. On a much more off-beat note, David Wong references it in “Inside the Monketsphere“:

Yes, the Monkeysphere. That’s the group of people who each of us, using our monkeyish brains, are able to conceptualize as people. If the monkey scientists are monkey right, it’s physically impossible for this to be a number larger than 150. Most of us do not have room in our Monkeysphere for our friendly neighborhood Sanitation Worker. So, we don’t think of him as a person. We think of him The Thing That Makes The Trash Go Away.

Here we see the essential problem with any large-scale society: we cannot conceive of so many people. It speaks to the very heart of Stalin’s cold truism: “One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths are a statistic.” Thus, for any society much larger than 150 people, we become neurologically incapable of maintaining an egalitarian society. Hierarchy becomes necessary, yet the human animal is very much adapted to egalitarianism–and in no way adapted to hierarchy. Cross-culturally, we all have some expectations rooted in that egalitarian heritage. We expect freedom, and we expect to be treated as a human being rather than a stereotype. We all feel some negative feeling of stress when these expectations are not met–as they invariably are not met in any large, hierarchical society.

As Steve Thomas put it:

Well, now you know the details of my social life. What’s the point? That I’m awesome and have a lot of friends. But other than that, if you look closely at the group I’ve described (which is not set up very differently from other social groups, as far as I can tell—except for those dependant upon the shared-workplace or the shared-suburb; i.e., upon hierarchy) you can see that it operates on the basic principles of tribalism. The structure is basically that of the hunter-gatherer band, or the loose network of rhizome, including the fluidity of the individual microbands; the lack of a fixed power structure; and the fission-fusion, congregation-dispersal pattern of group interaction. The economic interaction, too, is tribal: people voluntarily band together to provide one another with a basic human need (in this case, companionship) The only difference is that the traditional band provided the hunter-gatherer with ALL of her/his needs, whereas the vast majority of our needs—particularly the most important, i.e., physical ones—must be provided by hierarchy.

We gravitate towards band-level society whenever we have the option. Our social circles will tend to have a band-like quality to them, as Steve Thomas highlighted. When resources grow thin and the luxury of hierarchy can no longer be afforded, we consistently see people turn to band-level groups. In the wake of Katrina, “tribes” formed in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Daniel Quinn pointed to cults and gangs as responding to this same impulse towards the small, tightly-knit community–even if they often neglected the essential element of egalitarianism that defines rhizome.

We are well-adapted to such groups. We expect such groups, neurologically, and where they do not exist, we will create them. We need such groups. This should hardly surprise us, as our groups have been adapted to us, as well. It is a case of co-evolution between social structure and the animal it serves–just like the co-evolution of pack and wolf, hive and bee, school and fish, so, too, did band and human mutually shape one another.

Let’s take “sharing” as an example. Our culture denigrates sharing. The recent innovations in “intellectual property” especially have tried to make sharing illegal, and induce in us all a feeling of shame when we share with others. Yet we still believe sharing to be a virtue. In our evolution as band-animals, sharing was not simply nice, it was the cornerstone of survival. The Ju/’Hoansi have no word for “thank you”; to thank someone suggests that their actions were out of the ordinary. Caring for others in band-level society was the expected norm; it was the most selfish act one could come up with. The most effective way to serve oneself was to serve others. Bands very effectively defeated violence, cheating, and other “immorality” not nearly so much by condemning it, as by removing the incentive. Compare this to our own, hierarchical “Cheating Culture.” Our survival does not depend on sharing with our small, close-knit community. Not only do the people around us no longer register as “people,” beyond our 150-person neurological capacity, neither does their survival affect us in any way. In short, there is great incentive to steal, cheat, lie or commit any of the other “immoral” acts which small, egalitarian groups need not concern themselves with. As a result, we must impose laws, to create artificial disincentives against what is otherwise a very clear endorsement of “immorality.” Yet this is an artificial disincentive–laws can be gotten around, police eluded, and so forth. There is no disincentive in the act itself; only in being caught.

Most of our problems today can easily be traced to some manner in which we remain maladapted to our present life–to the struggle of a Pleistocene animal, to adapt to the bizarre, Holocene nightmare we have created. Our social structure is one such example. We evolved as band-animals. Our egalitarianism defines us; it is probably the single most defining trait in humanity. We evolved as egalitarian band-animals in the Pleistocene. Egalitarianism is our natural state, and our birthright. It is what we expect, down to our very bones. Yet today, it has become so rare that many humans doubt its very possibility. We have accepted the evils of hierarchy–the trauma of an animal maladapted to its current environment–as inevitable.

Humans are best adapted to small, egalitarian bands, in the same way that wolves are adapted to packs or bees to hives. Humans flourish in such a social structure, providing us not only with our material needs, but also our universal psychological needs of belonging to such a group, of personal freedom, and of acceptance for ourselves as individuals. Hierarchical society is a social structure we left behind when we became human. It may provide for our material needs, but it fails utterly to provide for any of our psychological needs. So, we invent small, band-like societies–social circles, clubs and the like–to compensate for all the failings of hierarchy. In short, egalitarianism is an essential requirement for healthy human life; hierarchy is an utter rejection of everything that makes us human.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] These “cells” or “rhizomatic nodes” or “tribes” are also, invariably, small. I discussed this phenomenon in my most recent thesis, “Thesis #7: Humans are best adapted to band life.” In fact, the size limits are not merely for optimal social networking; they are hard-wired into the human brain. This brings us to the most essential failing of hierarchy. Hierarchy is adopted when populations become so large that egalitarian society is no longer possible, and fission is not a viable strategy (for material or memetic reasons makes little difference). We are well-adapted to such groups. We expect such groups, neurologically, and where they do not exist, we will create them. We need such groups. This should hardly surprise us, as our groups have been adapted to us, as well. It is a case of co-evolution between social structure and the animal it serves–just like the co-evolution of pack and wolf, hive and bee, school and fish, so, too, did band and human mutually shape one another. […]

    Pingback by By Any Other Name » The Anthropik Network — 28 September 2005 @ 12:08 AM

  2. Links

    This page is a work in progress and needs your help to be more completed. Please submit any Anthropology website/pages that you know of by commenting on this article with the URL of your recommended site. Equally so, if a link is broken or misrepresented

    Trackback by Anthropology.net — 30 September 2005 @ 6:06 PM

  3. […] Horticulture was the first type of food production practiced. At its simplest, it is nothing more than basic techniques to favor the regrowth of preferred plants. Very low-intensity work can allow significant returns, as the beginning of the marginal return curve allows for significant ERoEI. This is what makes horticulture the most efficient adaptive strategy available.2 Horticulturalists tend to organize at the tribe level with a larger, denser population. The tribe is still egalitarian, but it involves a more complex organization, often involving groups like clans, clubs, guilds and secret societies that cut across tribal boundaries and provide multiple dimensions of power and influence to stabilize a larger egalitarian society. The size of the horticultural village tends to fix more around Dunbar’s number of 150 (see thesis #7). […]

    Pingback by Thesis #8: Human societies are defined by their food. » The Anthropik Network — 9 October 2005 @ 12:41 PM

  4. […] Egalitarianism is an essential part of human nature; it is the very thing that led to our humanity, and remains an undeniable yearning in the human spirit that continues to shape our political fortunes (see thesis #7). Hierarchy is the antithesis of that, and thus, we cannot avoid the inescapable conclusion that hierarchy itself is dehumanizing and maladapted to the human condition. It appears to suit many of our closest primate relatives just fine (chimpanzees, for example), but it denies the very thing that created us as a unique species–our egalitarianism. It squashes the vast diversity of possible social interactions into a rigidly defined structure, and thus, violates the principle set forth in thesis #1–making hierarchy “evil.” The question is, is hieracy a necessary “evil”? […]

    Pingback by Thesis #11: Hierarchy is an unnecessary evil. » The Anthropik Network — 21 October 2005 @ 1:57 PM

  5. […] Humans are adapted to a band-level society (see thesis #7), and have a very difficult time operating in any unit of society with much more than 150 persons. To accomodate such a maladapted scenario, drastic measures must be taken. These measures make an ill fit to the human animal, and it is precisely this adaptation that leads to all those social ills which we find endemic to civilization, but startlingly absent, or at the very least in a much diminished form, among band-level, foraging societies, such as war, poverty, corruption, chronic stress and even hunger and disease. These are the penalties a large-scale society pays for force-fitting humans into a society larger than they are adapted to. These penalties may be outweighed for a time by the high marginal returns of complexity, but when those marginal returns diminish, civilizations collapse. […]

    Pingback by Thesis #20: Collapse is an economizing process. » The Anthropik Network — 18 December 2005 @ 8:50 PM

  6. […] Jason Godesky ise, “Tez #7: İnsanlar en iyi grup yaşamına uyumludur” da şöyle diyor: Burada herhangi büyük ölçekli toplumla ilgili temel sorunu görürüz: çok fazla insanı tasavvur edemeyiz. Stalin’in soğuk önermesinin ta kalbine konuşur: “Bir ölüm trajedidir, fakat bir milyon ölüm istatistiktir.” Bu yüzden, 150′den daha büyük herhangi bir toplum için, nörolojik olarak eşitlikçi bir toplum sürdürmeye yeteneksiz oluruz. İnsan hayvan eşitlikçiliği çok daha uyumlu olmasına rağmen - ve hiyerarşiye uyumlu olmamasına rağmen, hiyerarşi gerekli olur. Çok-kültürlü olarak, hepimiz bu eşitlikçi mirasta köklenmiş kimi beklentilere sahibiz. Özgürlük umuyoruz, ve klişeden ziyade bir insan olarak davranılmayı umuyoruz. Bu beklentiler karşılanmadığı zaman hepimiz stresin negatif duygularını hissederiz - her zaman herhangi geniş, hiyerarşik bir toplumda karşılanamadığı gibi. […]

    Pingback by Y A B A N I L » Arşiv » Sihirli Sayı — 23 October 2006 @ 2:07 PM

  7. […] Our civilization has given us a strange sense of universal ideals—we aspire to a global commuity united in love and fellowship. Of course, the human brain simply can’t handle a society on that scale.13 Human tribes, inspired and patterned on the wolf pack, are extremely close-knit societies ruled by fellowship, egalitarianism, consensus, and reciprocity. Recently, Michael wrote on civilized horror stories about wolves. So how did the wolf become nature’s bogeyman, especially given the list of possible representatives including animals that actually have posed a serious danger to humans and our evolutionary ancestors? […]

    Pingback by Wolves & Dogs (The Anthropik Network) — 13 November 2006 @ 4:20 PM


Comments

  1. Brilliant amalgamation of ideas, this is.

    -Jim

    Comment by JCamasto — 23 September 2005 @ 7:50 PM

  2. Your code thingie is malfunctioning.

    Just a thought. How have countries like India and China managed to grow such huge populations on comparably low oil consumption? India is forecast to overtake China in population in the next two decades or so.

    If they could grow on low oil usage why can’t the rest off us at least avoid a major dieoff by lowering our energy consumption?

    Recall, that industrialization in China is only a recent affair. They already had over a billion people when it began.

    Comment by Mad Max Jr — 12 October 2005 @ 2:34 AM

  3. Please remove that requirement for a code. It’s not working.

    Comment by Mad Max Jr — 12 October 2005 @ 2:40 AM

  4. Hopefully, you’ll respond to my above post some time soon.

    Comment by Mad Max Jr — 12 October 2005 @ 1:28 PM

  5. I’ve got a lot to keep up with, Max; when my replies slow down, it’s usually because I’m falling apart!

    The code thing is Spam Karma–without it, we’d be swamped in a few hundred comments per day shilling Viagra. Usually works pretty well–in your case, it was deposited in my moderation queue, and would’ve been posted as soon as I approved them this morning. Since you got the message through, I went ahead and deleted them.

    As for China and India, they grew such large populations without oil by exactly the agricultural practices that have made it impossible to grow anything further with oil. The Green Revolution came just in time for such countries.

    These are areas that were once fertile. They are infertile now because they were so drained before.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 12 October 2005 @ 1:38 PM

  6. What about the nuclear reactors? How long could they go for providing power for essential services such as hospitals and the Internets?

    100 years?

    Comment by Mad Max Jr — 12 October 2005 @ 11:25 PM

  7. Don’t know much about nuclear power, but it’s my understanding they’re nothing without uranium. Which must be mined. Which requires oil.

    That and, there’s just not all that much uranium on earth. True, nuclear reactors don’t need that much uranium–but my completely uneducated, off-the-cuff guess would be that a transition to nuclear power–if by some miracle of administrative, logistic and political agility–could completely swap out our fossil fuel dependent grid, we might get another century out of it.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 13 October 2005 @ 12:01 AM

  8. The two major problems with that is one, people don’t like nuclear reactors. And two, Everytime you’d need to expand your power output, you’d need a new reactor. In order to meet demand for 2010 we’ll need to build several hundred new reactors over the next 4 years. We haven’t built half that many over the past fifty.

    Comment by Benjamin Shender — 13 October 2005 @ 9:41 AM

  9. Thesis # 7 contains three statements which it alleges to be facts, but which are really either false or are Jason’s opinions. These statements are used to “prove? the following conclusion:

    “Thus, for any society much larger than 150 people, we become neurologically incapable of maintaining an egalitarian society.?

    If this were true it would condemn this Anthropik Tribe project to failure. After a collapse and die-off there may well be areas that would support tribes. Although there may not be that many survivors, this planet will likely still have resources to support several million humans. According to Quinn, there will eventually be enough people to consume all of the food. When this new carrying capacity is reached, the total earth population will again need to deal with the tragedy of the commons to prevent a new collapse. This will require war, hierarchy, or a global egalitarian organization with strangers cooperating with strangers. The statements and my responses follow:

    1.

    “All primates have brain-to-body mass ratios that are much higher than normal, but the human ratio is remarkable even among primates. According to a study from the University of Liverpool, that disproportionately high brain-to-body mass ratio is determined by the size and complexity of their social groups.?

    This is a false statement. Robin Dunbar doesn’t claim that brain/body mass ratio is determined by social group size. The linked article shows only that there is a correlation between neocortex sizes and the social group size of primate species, including humans. A seven-year study is going to attempt to discover the cause of human brain-to-mass ratio. There are several other likely possible causes for the evolution of our large brains.

    2.

    “In fact, the size limits are not merely for optimal social networking; they are hard-wired into the human brain?

    This is another false statement. Our brains are not “hard-wired?. Although some of our mental functions have evolved and are “programmed “ by our genes, many are formed during childhood in interaction with our environment. Even in old age we have neurons available that will “wire? themselves into networks to form new functions in response to our experience, learning and practice. Although we may indeed have a genetically formed module that handles social relations, that doesn’t exclude the possibility that we could develop the ability to increase that number. Humans have evolved into an animal with a very adaptive mind, which is why modern humans can adapt to modern environmental conditions. Cases of feral children have shown that humans are born with very little of their potential mental ability. If we are going to use computer analogies, we could say that humans are born with an operating system, some utilities, and a few applets. Major applications must be formed interactively with the environment and culture through experience and learning.

    There is another limitation to the size of a functional egalitarian group. If decisions are to be made by consensus, each individual must have time to decide and express their opinion and their reasons for it. This works best for groups of 4 to10. In order to track even the most important events and connections in the life of an acquaintance requires time to interact with that person. The 150 limitation could also be due to time. Its possible the brain module that deals with this doesn’t need any more capacity as the number of social interactions is limited by our available time.

    3. “Here we see the essential problem with any large-scale society: we cannot conceive of so many people.?

    This is an opinion based on the opinions of David Wong and Joseph Stalin. Wong claims that we consider anyone outside our monkeysphere as a thing. Joseph Stalin said that people will react to a million deaths as a statistic. As these examples show, there are people capable of holding these orientations and beliefs. But there are many of us that are able to consider people that we are not acquainted with as valuable sentient beings that are similar to ourselves; and feel that they can perceive us in a similar manner. Although it is difficult to visualize the number, we can still have, for example, a strong emotional reaction to 100,000 civilian deaths in Iraq. The members of a tribe that considered non-members to be things could not trust other people. Nor could others trust them.

    The difficulty of working interactively with more than 150 people is a problem that must be overcome in order to form an egalitarian society, but it’s not a neurological problem. It must be solved if rhizome is going to defeat hierarchy. Tribes or clans that have what is often considered “clannish? attitudes will not be part of an egalitarian society. A world of real freedom will require us to have respect and concern for those both within and outside our tribe. We must also be able to expect this from others.

    Comment by Bob Harrison — 2 January 2006 @ 11:08 AM

  10. If this were true it would condemn this Anthropik Tribe project to failure. After a collapse and die-off there may well be areas that would support tribes. Although there may not be that many survivors, this planet will likely still have resources to support several million humans.

    There’s a huge difference between a population and a society. When healthy cultures get too big, they fission. Ours do not; we simply become dehumanizing, bloated, hierarchical tyrannies careening towards collapse. The Tribe of Anthropik will never be more than 50. If we reach 50, we’ll simply split into two tribes of 25. It’s the same way it worked in the Paleolithic, where the 150 rule began, and population was measured in millions. There are millions of monkeys, too, but they’re capped to even smaller numbers. They work by the same principle. Conflating populations and societies is simply setting up a straw man; it’s the society that is capped, not the population. The population can have as many societies as necessary. Tribes have ways of maintaining balance with their neighbors that don’t require their members to understand those neighbors as people. In fact, it works better if they don’t, and just think of them as two-dimensional charicatures. That’s where the usual, pejorative sense of “tribalism” comes from. That is also hardwired into the human brain. It’s very adaptive, and works out very, very well.

    This is a false statement. Robin Dunbar doesn’t claim that brain/body mass ratio is determined by social group size. The linked article shows only that there is a correlation between neocortex sizes and the social group size of primate species, including humans. A seven-year study is going to attempt to discover the cause of human brain-to-mass ratio. There are several other likely possible causes for the evolution of our large brains.

    Then why does the linked article keep talking about the brain-to-body mass ratio? Specifically, it says:

    Robin Dunbar used the volume of the neocortex – the ‘thinking’ part of the brain – as his measure of brain size, because this accounts for most of the brain’s expansion within primates. He found that both measures of social complexity correlated with relative neocortex volume in primate species. Subsequently, he predicted the social group size of some other monkey and ape species from their neocortex volumes – with impressive accuracy.

    No, Dunbar doesn’t say social group size dictates brain-body ratio; he says (as I do above) that brain-body ratio dictates social group size. While there are no doubt any number of factors involved in brain-body ratio, most of those are relevant to all animals, across the board. Why are primates special, being so clearly separated from the rest of the mammals by much larger brains per pound of flesh? And why are humans so far ahead of even other primates? So far, the best answer is social. Yes, there are other factors–factors that affect deer and humans equally. The factor that affects humans and not deer, however, is the fact that the one thing humans have really evolved to do well is form small, egalitarian social groups.

    This is another false statement. Our brains are not “hard-wired?. Although some of our mental functions have evolved and are “programmed “ by our genes, many are formed during childhood in interaction with our environment.

    Are you denying that thinking involves a brain, with specific structures and specific cells? Could I learn to talk with my hippocampus? Or to feel fear through my neocortex? Our brains are hard-wired for certain, universal patterns. We get to fill in the details however we like, but the broad basics of language, society and thinking patterns are already set, biologically. Of course we learn most of our behaviors. Learned behavior is one of our very best adaptations. But no human is a tabula rosa; neither are we automatons. Learning and genetics both have a role to play. Among other things, for instance, genetics gives you a brain that can only concieve of about 150 people. That’s precisely what Dunbar’s research has shown.

    Even in old age we have neurons available that will “wire? themselves into networks to form new functions in response to our experience, learning and practice.

    And Fred Gage, et. al showed that adult mammalian neurogenesis is real. The brain is much more plastic than most of us have given it credit for, and we learn a lot. But that’s also irrelevant, because as plastic as it is, it still has limits. 150 people is one of those limits.

    Although we may indeed have a genetically formed module that handles social relations, that doesn’t exclude the possibility that we could develop the ability to increase that number.

    Yes, it does. There’s variation within a species, and variation that is no longer in the same species. That kind of variation would be far beyond anything we would call “human.” That requires an entirely different species. Humans aren’t capable of that. Every human has a Brocke’s area; every human has a hippocampus; every human has a neocortex that can handle about 150 people. To increase that number significantly would mean increasing the neocortex significantly, which would not only require significant somatic changes to accomodate, but also dramatic psychological changes to adjust to all the myriad shifting thought processes. In other words, such a thing would not only no longer look human, its thinking would be completely alien, as well. It would be an entirely different species.

    Humans are capable of infinite diversity within the confines of our biology. But it’s precisely those confines we’re discussing. Changing them means changing us–it means giving up our humanity.

    Cases of feral children have shown that humans are born with very little of their potential mental ability.

    Very true–and very irrelevant. If I give you a pint-sized glass, you can fill it with anything. Ice, juice, water, rum and coke, beer, piss, butter, mucous. But whatever you fill it with, you’re only going to fit a pint, because it’s a pint-sized glass.

    You can fill a human child up with any kind of learning, social structure, or belief system you desire. But that ability is not without its capacity, either. You can introduce her to any selection of people you like, but only a maximum of 150 of them will ever be real “people” to her.

    If we are going to use computer analogies, we could say that humans are born with an operating system, some utilities, and a few applets.

    Yes–and a specific hard drive size, too.

    There is another limitation to the size of a functional egalitarian group. If decisions are to be made by consensus, each individual must have time to decide and express their opinion and their reasons for it. This works best for groups of 4 to10. In order to track even the most important events and connections in the life of an acquaintance requires time to interact with that person. The 150 limitation could also be due to time. Its possible the brain module that deals with this doesn’t need any more capacity as the number of social interactions is limited by our available time.

    Unlikely, since the 150 limitation was discovered without so much as a nod to egalitarianism. Dunbar noted a correlation among monkeys, none of which practice any kind of formal consensus, and most of which are hierarchical. He then extrapolated that number to human brain sizes and discovered 150–which is, oddly enough, a number that pops up very often in sociology, as well.

    But you can get concensus out of 150. Lots of tribes do it routinely. In a group that big, there are usually only a few opinions, each with a separate camp. Concensus doesn’t require everyone to speak; just everyone with something unique to say. That usually comes out to 4-10, anyway. It takes longer, yes, but the decisions are much more sound–and tribes have all the time in the world.

    But there are many of us that are able to consider people that we are not acquainted with as valuable sentient beings that are similar to ourselves; and feel that they can perceive us in a similar manner. Although it is difficult to visualize the number, we can still have, for example, a strong emotional reaction to 100,000 civilian deaths in Iraq. The members of a tribe that considered non-members to be things could not trust other people. Nor could others trust them.

    That’s a very different thing from considering them people. You don’t have a strong emotional reaction to 100,000 civilian deaths in Iraq; you didn’t even know most of them, how could you possibly have a strong emotional reaction to something you didn’t even know happened? You have a strong emotional reaction to the idea of it happening. Why do you think we so often disentangle the two? If you were correct, then it would be perfectly valid for me to compare my strong emotional reaction to historical accounts of the Holocaust to the experience of a survivor who lost his whole family to it. Of course, none of us would do something so awful, because on some level, we recognize that we’re reacting to the idea of it, not to the thing itself. We can’t comprehend the thing itself; it’s beyond our physical ability to do so. We can only picture one, or two, and image the rest, try to multiply it. Even then, do we really feel six million times the ache of a single death, when we hear the word “Holocaust”? No. We barely feel the pain of a single death, because it is so far removed from us.

    Of course, we hate to have that actually stated. We harbor delusions of granduer. Our religions tell us that we should emulate the gods’ mercy for every livng thing. But they are gods, far beyond the biological limitations of the human mind in all its magnificence, and all its frailness. Being reminded that we fall so far short of that ideal makes us feel that we have failed–but if we have failed, it is only because the expectation was never realistic to begin with.

    The difficulty of working interactively with more than 150 people is a problem that must be overcome in order to form an egalitarian society, but it’s not a neurological problem.

    It’s not a problem to be overcome at all. It’s part of human nature, and something to be embraced. Any scheme that tries to defy that flies in the face of human nature, and is doomed to failure.

    Tribes or clans that have what is often considered “clannish? attitudes will not be part of an egalitarian society.

    Tribalism. Why not? It worked before–what has changed? Certainly not humans. Why wouldn’t it work again?

    world of real freedom will require us to have respect and concern for those both within and outside our tribe. We must also be able to expect this from others.

    Nonsense. We don’t all have to be brothers and sisters in the eyes of the LORD to be free. That’s just salvationist rubbish, and precisely the sentiment that fueled the extermination of the New World, the Inquisition, and globalization. That may be the single most vile idea ever espoused, actually, because it sounds so clearly “good” (we’ve been culturally conditioned since birth to respond to it as “good”–tribal peoples are not so easily decieved), but has been used not just to expand our civilization, but also to continue to shackle us to it.

    That’s the reason we refuse to fission–and the reason we refuse to be free. Real freedom will require us to leave such notions behind, and accept that we are neither broken nor fallen–that humans are good enough just the way we are, if only we’d start living like humans again.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 2 January 2006 @ 11:48 AM

  11. Jason: Your response to my post about Thesis 7 is not rational.

    You stated in Thesis 7:
    “All primates have brain-to-body mass ratios that are much higher than normal, but the human ratio is remarkable even among primates. According to a study from the University of Liverpool, that disproportionately high brain-to-body mass ratio is determined by the size and complexity of their social groups.?

    +

    In my post I say:
    “This is a false statement. Robin Dunbar doesn’t claim that brain/body mass ratio is determined by social group size. The linked article shows only that there is a correlation between neocortex sizes and the social group size of primate species, including humans. A seven-year study is going to attempt to discover the cause of human brain-to-mass ratio. There are several other likely possible causes for the evolution of our large brains.”

    Your response:
    “No, Dunbar doesn’t say social group size dictates brain-body ratio; he says (as I do above) that brain-body ratio dictates social group size. While there are no doubt any number of factors involved in brain-body ratio, most of those are relevant to all animals, across the board. Why are primates special, being so clearly separated from the rest of the mammals by much larger brains per pound of flesh? And why are humans so far ahead of even other primates? So far, the best answer is social. Yes, there are other factors–factors that affect deer and humans equally. The factor that affects humans and not deer, however, is the fact that the one thing humans have really evolved to do well is form small, egalitarian social groups.”

    If you re-read your Thesis you will see that you have inverted the casual relationship here. However, which causes which is not of interest here. As a person with a scientific background, you should have seen that my point was that Dunbar only claims correlation and not causality.
    Other factors that don’t affect deer and are considered human abilities that possibly caused more intelligence to increase survivability are: advanced projectile predation; protolanguage and staged tool making.

    You also responded:

    “Then why does the linked article keep talking about the brain-to-body mass ratio? Specifically, it says:

    Robin Dunbar used the volume of the neocortex – the ‘thinking’ part of the brain – as his measure of brain size, because this accounts for most of the brain’s expansion within primates. He found that both measures of social complexity correlated with relative neocortex volume in primate species. Subsequently, he predicted the social group size of some other monkey and ape species from their neocortex volumes – with impressive accuracy.”

    Robin Dunbar considers this correlation an important lead. He doesn’t claim to have discovered causality yet. I would suggest that anyone who doesn’t understand the difference between causality and correlation check this Wikipedia link.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correlation_implies_causation_(logical_fallacy)
    What Dunbar actually compared was Neocortex Ratio (neocortex volume divided by the volume of the rest of the brain or the volume of the hindbrain) Dunbar, R. I. M (1993) http://www.bbsonline.org/documents/a/00/00/05/65/bbs00000565-00/bbs.dunbar.html

    Comment by Bob Harrison — 8 January 2006 @ 8:59 PM

  12. It’s perfectly rational. It’s all but proven. It’s just not what you want to hear. For whatever reason, you seem to have some need to believe that large-scale human societies are possible–but they’re no more viable than a wolf pack of 5,000, or a pod of two billion whales. These are simple matters of scale.

    I had thought this would be self-evident, but apparently it is not. Tell me which of these is the controversial statement: Animals think with their brains. Their ability to think and conceptualize is a biological function of their brains. Their capacity to think and conceptualize is set by the physical parameters of their brains. The ability to conceive of an individual is part of an animal’s capacity to conceptualize, which is set by the physical parameters of the brain. Since the brain is not infinite, no animal’s ability to conceptualize is infinite. Every animal must have some cap of the number of individuals it can conceptualize, since its brain is not infinite.

    Now, that’s what pretty much everyone takes for granted. Dunbar showed that every other primate on the planet, without exception, fell into line with a correlation of neocortex size, to group size. Neocortex size determines group size. Primates form groups of size X, because their neocortex is size Y, which allows them to form groups of size X. If you extend this same equation which applies perfectly to every other primate on earth, you get 150 for the cap mean, and 12 for clique size. The correlation fits what we know about human group sizes. Every human society that has ever grown very far beyond 150 has required hierarchy to simplify their relationships. Horticultural villages average about 150. Cohousing communities, communes, and kibbutzes average about 150. Forager bands and close circles of friends average around 12. You’re right that correlation does not mean causation. But we have a very clear, obvious causative mechanism, the correlation holds, and no primate group–human or otherwise–has ever, EVER defied it.

    Now, if you want to dispute the conclusion, I can only see one possibility left open for you, and that’s just flat out mysticism. You’ll need to champion the idea that thought has nothing whasoever to do with the brain, and it all has to do with spirituality or some such. Of course, even then you’ll need to face the ugly truth that we’ve never done it before, and appear to be physically incapable of it, so your message must be the sublimation of whatever mystical spirit we possess–basically, that it will all be OK if we could just be better than we’ve ever been before. But, even Madison understood, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

    I don’t know why it is so crucial for you that we must have communities of thousands or millions (or billions), but that’s something you will need to come to terms with, because such a thing is simply not possible in the world we live in.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 9 January 2006 @ 12:57 AM

  13. Jason your rhetorical tactics are transparent and becoming irritating. What is your problem? As I have posted here earlier, egalitarian organizations have long been aware of this limitation on the practical size of working groups. Dunbar has noticed that primates also have similar limitations and that the sizes of all primate groups studied including humans correspond to neo-cortex size. I have not disputed Dunbar’s findings. I do dispute the conclusions you have derived from them.

    As I pointed out in my last post your assertion that this limitation has been proven to be due to our neocortex size by Robin Dunbar is false. Your response is evasive. You use a long straw man argument about the finitude of brains, which is irrelevant to the above.
    This is followed by a long paragraph that restates what we agree upon about group sizes. This paragraph ends with a unrelated conclusion about what seems a mystical “obvious causative mechanism?.
    The next paragraph is ridiculous. You say that I can only dispute “the conclusion “ through flat out mysticism and by denying a relationship between thought and the brain. What is “the conclusion?? Though irrelevant, I agree with the sentiment of the quote from Madison, except for the angels.
    Although it’s also irrelevant to this discussion, I do believe we can be better than we ever were before. I also believe we need to fine a way to relate and cooperate in a positive way with the rest of humanity.

    My only point on this post was to point out that you are wrong when you say that Robin Dunbar’s work PROVES that we are neurologically not capable of social groups larger than 150. I have done that.

    Comment by Bob Harrison — 9 January 2006 @ 2:29 AM

  14. Well, although I love a pissing contest as much as the next guy, let’s try to put our ducks in a row here.

    It is not proven. Jason says “all but proven.” Bob says “that means not proven.” This is fine, and apparently irrelevant to the debate. Jason will remember this for the book and be more careful.

    Now, the point of contention appears to actually be whether humans can become better.

    My Two Cents: Of course they can. Why not? But in the mean time we have a very limited time scale and need to work with what we have now. We can deal with what we would like to have later. But we simply do not have time to increase our mental capacity sufficently far to have a community of exceptional size.

    Comment by Benjamin Shender — 9 January 2006 @ 3:36 AM

  15. Jason your rhetorical tactics are transparent and becoming irritating. What is your problem?

    Funny–I was about to say the same thing to you….

    As I pointed out in my last post your assertion that this limitation has been proven to be due to our neocortex size by Robin Dunbar is false. Your response is evasive. You use a long straw man argument about the finitude of brains, which is irrelevant to the above.

    It would have to be irrelevant to be a straw man, now wouldn’t it? But it’s not a straw man, because it’s not irrelevant. It is, in fact, the very crux of the argument you’re taking issue with. You wrote, immediately before this, that you “have not disputed Dunbar’s findings. [You] do dispute the conclusions you have derived from them.”

    Well, the conclusion I’ve derived from them is stated above:

    Animals think with their brains. Their ability to think and conceptualize is a biological function of their brains. Their capacity to think and conceptualize is set by the physical parameters of their brains. The ability to conceive of an individual is part of an animal’s capacity to conceptualize, which is set by the physical parameters of the brain. Since the brain is not infinite, no animal’s ability to conceptualize is infinite. Every animal must have some cap of the number of individuals it can conceptualize, since its brain is not infinite.

    I think that’s fairly obvious, and apparently you agree–since you classify that as a “straw man.” I believe that Dunbar’s research fills in those numbers that we know must exist. So, the “conclusions [I’ve] derived” from that research is that our neurological capacity only allows us to form egalitarian groups of 150, max. Beyond that, we need a conceptual “cheat sheet” to help us keep score–and that’s what hierarchy is. If we try to operate beyond our neurological capacity, we must submit to hierarchy for expediency, because we’re operating beyond our neurological capacity to treat everyone as people. Instead, we have to simplify things, and that means paring people down into pegs in a ladder–or, at best, simply nesting sets of 150 in a republic, and submitting ourselves to higher nested sets.

    Although it’s also irrelevant to this discussion, I do believe we can be better than we ever were before. I also believe we need to fine a way to relate and cooperate in a positive way with the rest of humanity.

    Why?

    See, I think that’s our major stumbling block. Tribalism worked out great before; it preserved everyone’s freedom and autonomy, and complemented–rather than contradicted–human nature. I don’t see anything inherently good or bad about large populations, and if someone on the other side of the world has utterly nothing to do with me, why should I know or care what they’re doing?

    You seem to have this as a basic axiom, but it’s not an axiom we share. Can you tell me why humans should all know and interact with each other, when no other animal does?

    I didn’t say Dunbar proved it. I said he all but proved it. The underlying argument is simple logic; Dunbar’s research just fills in the numbers. It’s all the proof you could ever expect for such a contention.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 9 January 2006 @ 11:12 AM

  16. I think I understand part of the reason why tribalism at present is so unappealing.
    When the collapse occurs and surviver tribes form, it would be very difficult for the “tribeless” to join the existing tribes, if those tribes regard outsiders as non-people.
    Many of the currently living peoples do not have enough experience with the tribal modes of thought.

    Comment by _Gi — 9 January 2006 @ 11:49 AM

  17. I think the bigger influence is probably religious. Our religions try to mitigate the crisis of scale we face in civilization. So, all poor people are Jesus, so you don’t need to know all the millions of poor people–just know one person, Jesus, and be nice to them for him. Eastern religions offer no such easy “cheat,” but demand the same kind of universal compassion.

    Of course, such compassion simply isn’t possible without relegating people to two-dimensional stick-figures. And it’s driven some of the worst atrocities our species has ever committed, so I’m unconvinced that such compassion for anonymous, abstract masses is a good thing. I’m for compassion for living things, not for abstract concepts.

    But, we’re trained from birth that tribalism is bad and wrong. That’s a very hard thing to break ourselves of, but we can never start until we can first understand that that’s precisely what we have to do.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 9 January 2006 @ 11:58 AM

  18. See, I think that’s our major stumbling block. Tribalism worked out great before; it preserved everyone’s freedom and autonomy, and complemented–rather than contradicted–human nature. I don’t see anything inherently good or bad about large populations, and if someone on the other side of the world has utterly nothing to do with me, why should I know or care what they’re doing?

    The Natives of North America probably also felt that way before 1492, however it may not take so long before sailing ships are again arriving. You seem to be under the strange impression that because humans of 10,000 years ago didn’t know our planet was finite, that it won’t be after a collapse. The nature of humans includes not only what they had evolved to 10,000 years ago but also all of the adaptations since then and those that will occur in the future.

    “Clearly, we are not the result of a constant and careful fine-tuning process over the millennia, and much of our history has been a matter of chance and hazard. Nature never “intended? us to occupy the position of dominance in the living world that, for whatever reasons, we find ourselves in. To a remarkable extent, we are accidental tourists as we cruise through Nature in our bizarre ways. But, of course, we are nonetheless remarkable for that. And still less are we free of responsibility.”

    – Ian Tattersall, 2002

    Comment by Bob Harrison — 9 January 2006 @ 2:38 PM

  19. Bob,

    but after a collapse, Columbus wouldn’t be popping round again - and even if he did, he wouldn’t bring a whole empire with him. That’s assuming you are convinced by the argument for complete collapse, of course.

    Comment by Clive — 9 January 2006 @ 2:48 PM

  20. Very true. The reason you don’t hear me talk much about “the adaptations since then” is that there haven’t been very many, but what there has been, has been absolutely trivial. 10,000 years is the blink of an eye, and we haven’t made any amount of significant adaptation on any front in so short a time. This is precisely what I showed in thesis #6. Given a few thousand more years, maybe we’d become adapted to this life. Maybe not. That’s why I also don’t speculate much on “those that will occur in the future,” either–it would be pure speculation, with absolutely nothing to support it. You may hope we might develop the neurological capacity for a society of thousands, or millions (though I shudder to consider the logistical issues of such an enormous brain, given that human head size is already such a hurdle to overcome in child birth), and maybe we will. But then again, maybe we’ll become even more tribalized. Who can say? Evolution is not about “progress,” but change; and even if it were about our “improvement,” who is to say that a society with 1,000 people is better than one with 100?

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 9 January 2006 @ 2:50 PM

  21. I think Bob Harrison has confused “egalitarianism” with “sustainability.”

    Bob, it has been scientifically proven that after 150 people, you need hierarchy to simplify relationships.
    Large-scale egalitarian societies over 150 are not viable. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are unsustainable.

    Hierarchy is not always inherently unsustainable, and you have admitted this, Jason. There have been exceptions, such as the salmon-migrating tribes of the Northwest Coast, and the fishing tribes of Southern California and North Pacific islanders. Those societies routinely had villages of up to, sometimes, 1000 to 2000 people, and were hierarchal, but they were sustainable since they were limited to the salmon and fishing runs. They had limits to their growth, but they had societies far above the 150 limit.

    Also, there have been horticultural villages larger than 150, such as the villages of the Iroquois confederacy, which had similar numbers of the Northwest Coast tribes.

    Whether or not they were “bad” societies or societies “maladapted” to their members is another issue. But the Northwest Coast Indians did live sustainably, and is it our duty to force them to live without their hierarchy since it is not affecting us?

    Comment by aksum — 20 January 2006 @ 2:43 PM

  22. Of course, I don’t believe that any society is better than the other. A society does not truly have to justify its existence by claiming its superiority.

    Comment by aksum — 20 January 2006 @ 3:24 PM

  23. Whether or not they were “bad” societies or societies “maladapted” to their members is another issue. But the Northwest Coast Indians did live sustainably, and is it our duty to force them to live without their hierarchy since it is not affecting us?

    Not at all. My concern is less with whether or not others live under a hierarchy, than whether or not the option exists for someone to find a sustainable, egalitarian life if that’s something someone wants. If civilization were capable of co-existing with such societies, I’d be happy to co-exist with it. But it’s not. Freedom can only be had over its dead body, so I’ll be cheering for its destruction.

    As for “superiority,” it depends on how we define “superior.” The possible criteria are endless. My thesis made the claim that humans are best adapted to band life, and I believe that. If “superior” means, “most adaptive to your nature,” then band societies are “superior.”

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 20 January 2006 @ 3:36 PM

  24. My definition of “superior” is that it is a product of ethnocentrism, and it does not exist “scientifically.” We do not have to call something superior in order to claim it is “most adaptive,” do we?

    Comment by aksum — 20 January 2006 @ 5:20 PM

  25. That’s why I didn’t use the word.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 20 January 2006 @ 5:44 PM

  26. Exactly.

    Comment by aksum — 20 January 2006 @ 6:11 PM

  27. Jason

    Two things to mention here.

    The first is that within our society we do try to form tribes or groups of support. Whether extended family, work or school-related, or mutual interest groups we do sort of form a “tribe” within society. We bloggers who are interested in this topic are a loose group ourselves. Maybe such “tribes” are loose or dysfunctional, but they try to fulfill that need.

    The second is that, as Robert Putnam has shown in his book, Bowling Alone, our community is collapsing as our needs for a tribe or group are NOT being met. Perhaps that collapse is the cause for our witnessing violence upon our society’s members and rarely doing anything to prevent or limit that violence.

    Gary

    Comment by Gary Ewell — 27 January 2006 @ 5:32 PM

  28. Another brand new article, “a democracy of groups” seems to support your Tribalism argument, Jason, but suggests incorporating this within our current society.

    http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue10_11/noveck/

    Gary

    Comment by Gary Ewell — 3 February 2006 @ 6:28 PM

  29. Our hierarchical society is full of small pockets of egalitarian organization. Any movement towards a more tribalized society is a good thing, but we shouldn’t confuse advancement and complacency.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 3 February 2006 @ 6:33 PM

  30. Even a pack of lions can recognise the distress of a young child and keep her kidnappers away until other humans arrive (something which has actually happened).

    I can’t help but find it ever so extreme to say that because a person doesn’t belong in this familial-type group/”monkey-sphere” that they are automatically relegated to ‘things’ (!). Not that I dispute the basic tennet of the theory (or know enough to, anyway), but because I can only think of a person on the other side of the world as an abstract entity doesn’t mean that when I meet a stranger today I don’t recognise them as a human being who I can bond with momentarily, or even so much as respect. So I may not relate to them as I would a close member of my family, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have any kind of relationship with strangers, either.

    This is why I don’t see how ‘Dunbar’s number’ can prevent a mass society meeting its needs on a co-operative, deomcratic, egalitarian basis. Not that I couldn’t be wrong–we can only talk with certain amount of ignrance.

    Comment by adc069975 — 19 October 2006 @ 9:38 AM

  31. I think you’re taking it all much too literally, Random Alphanumeric-String. Take a look at, say, Darfur, and the U.S. response to the crisis there. We know something vaguely “bad” is going on there, but our reaction is entirely out of proportion to what’s going on. The people in Darfur are not in our “monkeysphere.” Compare that to the U.S. response to 9/11, which killed far fewer people, and did so in a far less painful way—and the U.S. response, which is immeasurably greater. The reason? Many of the victims of 9/11 were inside the 150 of policy makers.

    Beyond 150, we can’t keep track of the various relationships at play. We can’t remember who relates to who, and how. We’re forced to find “cheats” to simplify the process to something we can understand, and the most obvious cheat is hierarchy. There’s the mechanism to the old claim by, say, Asimov, that democracy and human dignity cannot survive overpopulation.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 19 October 2006 @ 9:55 AM

  32. Hi,

    The number of relationships doensn’t grow exponentially, it grows subexponentially. The number of relationships in a group of N people is N times (N-1), which grows O(N^2), much slower than 2^N (which is exponential).

    Comment by sic — 6 January 2007 @ 9:40 AM

  33. “The number of relationships doensn’t grow exponentially, it grows subexponentially.”

    Right, I would replace “exponentially” with “quadratically”.

    Granted, the word “exponential” is losing its technical meaning as non-math people use it to mean simply “very fast (growth).” But this informal usage seems out of place in such a carefully written book. “Quadratic” here and in Thesis 13. “Much (more destructive)” in 16. That’s as far as I’ve read so far. :)

    Comment by John Tobey — 10 January 2007 @ 11:48 PM

  34. That’s an excellent point, John. Thank you for the correction.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 11 January 2007 @ 10:49 AM

  35. Lions & tigers & bears, oh my! This stuff is getting very close to something I’ve been working on for a while, an essay called “Combinatorial Overload” which I intend to publish online when I get my site established (shortly; my dudes are currently working on the infrastructure). I’ve been reluctant to discuss my stuff on this site because I don’t want to create digressions, but this is so close I can’t see not going there.

    It’s nearly 4:30AM and I’m probably too tired & spaced-out to do justice to this at this hour, but here goes:

    The equation Sic referred to above can be written as I = (P * (P -1)) / 2, where I = interactions and P = participants. You can set this up in a spreadsheet and plug in different values for P and watch what happens to I. It’s quite interesting, and the implications are even more so:-)

    I first encountered this while studying cryptology (codes & ciphers) in the early 1980s (don’t ask:-), as it’s the algorithm governing key material distribution in symmetric-key encryption systems. Given a number of participants, each possible pair needs a unique key, and thus the issue of centralized key management rapidly becomes unmanageably complex. This was said to be an arguement in favor of asymmetric key encryption systems. At the time, I made the counter-arguement in favor of decentralized key management: rather than a central key management entity, each individual participant should manage her/his own keys with respect to other participants, thereby eliminating the problem of combinatorial complexity.

    Fast-forward 20-something years, including many years’ experience with groups operating on consensus principles. I had noticed that in such groups, there tends to be an upper limit of size, beyond which decision-making processes bog down and cause the group to become at risk of failure.

    For households, the size limit seems to be the range of six to eight members (possibly plus young children), which, if you plug those numbers into the variable P in the equation, produces an output I = 15 to 28 potential interactions.

    Long story short, “combinatorial overload” occurs when the amount of time required for decision-making processes (and related communications) in a consensual group expands to the point that it intrudes upon time that is required to perform subsistence tasks.

    There is another interesting bit of empirical data that converges, at least as far as households are concerned. In my work designing telephone switching systems, I found that most workers in offices can’t handle more than three “line” buttons on their phone: one for the conversation they are presently having, one for the random call that interrupts it briefly, and one for the important call they are waiting for and can’t let themselves miss. For receptionists, the number of line buttons is 4, because their task is not to engage in lengthy conversations, but to connect callers to other persons in the office.

    I refer to this as “load factor,” L, the amont of communications load handled by an individual, expressed as the number of interactions I divided by the number of participants P (each interaction consists of two participants).

    For example in the aforementioned household of size 6 to 8, you have P = 6 to 8, and the resulting I = 15 to 28. This turns out to be L = 2.5 to 3.5, and the household size of 7 produces I = 21 and L = exactly 3, the magic number of line buttons on the telephone.

    If you plug the tight-group number of 12 participants in, you get 66 possible interactions, and a load factor of 5.5, which means that individuals will tend to simplify some of their relationships in the group in order to reduce their load factor.

    If you plug the “monkeysphere” number of 150 participants into the equations, you get 11,175 possible interactions, and a load factor of 74.5: clearly too high to sustain at the level of intimate interactions, thus conducive to further simplification of relationships beyond the intimate sphere.

    I don’t think 12 or 150 are absolutes, but rather, guidelines and possibly reresentations of population averages. That is, maximum group size may vary, and 12 and 150 may represent an approximate average for each type of group (whether mean, median, or modal, remains to be seen).

    I strongly disagree that people outside of one’s monkeysphere are represented as “things” e.g. “sanitation worker = thing that makes trash go away.” The distinction of “tribe = people / non-tribe = not people” is ethnocentrism taken to the point of sociopathy, and we see the results in terms of criminal gangs and cultures in which crimes of force or fraud are socially acceptable. In clinical psychology, it is “depersonalization,” a hallmark of psychotic states.

    What I believe is more likely, is that the brain sets up a symbolic or representational system that groups people into categories based on their mutual similarity. Think of it as a kind of self-revising emergent cluster analysis function.

    When an individual encounters a stranger (i.e. someone outside her/his monkeysphere), s/he will attempt to match that person to one of their existing cognitive clusters, and they will tend to understand and respond to the person accordingly. In addition there is always a baseline of “this is a fellow human being” and a set of cultural norms re. how to treat all humans in general.

    For example, I meet a new person, I start by recognizing that they are in fact a fellow human, and my initial behavior toward them is governed by learned cultural baselines: for example basic respect for and manners toward others, non-aggression, curiosity about their lives and views, etc. As I learn more about the person, i.e. through conversation or observation, the unconscious pattern-matching will occur with regard to my existing set of categories or clusters.

    In many cases, this only has to go as far as a basic degree of social functionality: during the day you interact with numerous people in the context of your job and their jobs, and this calls for professional courtesy in both directions but not for intimately personal conversations. In this culture you don’t need to know about the deeply-held philosophical beliefs of your customers or of other workers to whom you are a customer; but you do need to treat them with basic respect as fellow humans.

    I could go on about the idea that functional hierarchy is not the same thing as status hierarchy, but I’ll leave that for tomorrow or some time when I’m not half asleep at the keyboard:-)

    Comment by gg3 — 28 January 2007 @ 9:02 AM

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