Dunbar’s Number and the Bonding of Reciprocal Exchange (Warrior Poet Mental Yoga 151)

Pretext Cribb Comment: I performed some minor editing and paraphrased a portion of the first paragraph. The credit of content remains attributable to the authors. The principle of Dunbar’s Number and the ramifications of understanding such in relation to behavioral dynamics cannot be understated. This knowledge and observation is prime reasoning to argue against centralization (communism, fascism, democracy, corporatism, and whatever other forms). It explains the most common and probable nature of corruption in the human psyche regarding relationships and interactions. Turning humans and universal empathy into perceived “Its” which deserve only apathy or worst, monstrously destabilizes all of the perceived, as well as all of the perceivers. It clearcuts humanity and the autocorrection of natural law. One wonders if such a behavioral change is not meant to promote war, killing, and carnage amongst people in some attempt to prevent overpopulation and the exponential loss of our true inherent humanity.

Cribb          2017

What allows chain-linked tragedies in “communities” or “groupings” of people is the absence of local (direct) personal shame. Auto-correction or natural correction of personal/individual behavior within a group occurs much more readily in small scale communities where no one can escape public scrutiny and judgement. Such tragedies become inevitable only when the group size exceeds our species’ capacity for keeping track of one another, a point that’s come to be known as Dunbar’s number. In primate communities, size definitely matters.

Noticing the importance of grooming behavior in social primates, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar plotted overall group size against the neocortical development of the brain. Using the correlation, he predicted that humans start losing track of who’s doing what to whom when group size hits about 150 individuals. In Dunbar’s words, “The limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.” Other anthropologists had arrived at the same number by observing that when group sizes grew much beyond that, they tend to split into two smaller groups. Writing several years before Dunbar’s paper was published in 1992, Marvin Harris noted, “With 50 people per band or 150 per village, everybody knew everybody else intimately, so that the bonding of reciprocal exchange could hold people together. People gave with the expectation of taking and took with the expectation of giving.” Recent authors, including Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling The Tipping Point, have popularized the idea of 150 being a limit to organically functioning groups.

Having evolved in small, intimate bands where everybody knows our name, human beings aren’t very good at dealing with the dubious freedoms conferred by anonymity. When communities grow beyond the point where every individual has at least a passing acquaintance with everyone else, our behavior changes, our choices shift, and our sense of the possible and of the acceptable grows ever more abstract.

The same argument can be made concerning the tragic misunderstanding of human nature that underlies communism: community ownership doesn’t work in large-scale societies where people operate in anonymity. In The Power of Scale, anthropologist John Bodley wrote: “The size of human societies and cultures matters because larger societies will naturally have more concentrated social power. Larger societies will be less democratic than smaller societies, and they will have an unequal distribution of risks and rewards.” Right, because the bigger the society is, the less functional shame becomes. When the Berlin Wall came down, jubilant capitalists announced that the essential flaw of communism had been its failure to account for human nature. Well, yes and no. Marx’s fatal error was his failure to appreciate the importance of context. Human nature functions in one way in the context of intimate, interdependent societies, but set loose in anonymity, we become a different creature. Neither beast is more nor less human.

Sex at Dawn

Ryan and Jethá          2010


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