Monday, August 18, 2008

Dunbar's number: 150 people

  1. Robin Dunbar -wikipedia
  2. Dunbar's Number -wikipedia

Dunbar's number is the supposed cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable social relationships: the kind of relationships that go with knowing who each person is and how each person relates socially to every other person.

I am saving it here because the "we can only manage a social network of 150" cliche comes up so often.

It's weird, the pro-evolution crowd are the usually the same crowd that points to retro points in civilization as summations of the human condition. Social primates, village dynamics....big deal. We all know the one who makes it in New York City is the superior person, the hick in the village and monkey at the zoo are their inferiors. But in our era such talk is impolite. Thank god evolutionary advance isn't stopped by prohibitions in language.

CORRECTION: The last thing I said (above) about New York City and the superior person is wrong. In the blog comment below SerpentLord says a much more positive message that challenges Dunbar's number.

"This actually increases our obligation to be politically correct because the phrase "superior person" is just as technically backward as it is politically backward. It is a superior network, not a superior person which gives some people advantages over others.

It also allows us to address issues of "being connected" in a positive way (create an environment which helps people develop and exploit connections) rather than a negative one (create an environment which breaks up connections that give some people more advantages than others.) "

This gives a really good antidote against primitivism ( a contagion on the Left ) and crude elitism ( a contagion on the Right ). The Superior Network.

1 comment:

The Serpent Lord said...

A village hick and a captive monkey are typically limited to routine contact with less than 150 peers by their artificial environment. The "natural" environment for a human is a community with some history of human habitation - more likely a city than a modern rural community - and the natural environment for a monkey is a troop of dozens or even hundreds of monkeys.

The difference between the human and monkey is not the size of Dunbar's number, but the versatility of the measured connections. The monkey's social network is a relatively closed system of primates with relatively limited skills and relatively few dimensions of social life (basically a dominance hierarchy.)

The human's social network on the other hand can be infinitely rich: each relationship could be qualitatively unique - a separate dimension for each social connection. Each person you know can also have unique attributes that add value to the connection. It can be more useful to know a butcher a baker and a candlestick maker than a hundred monkeys whose skills are limited to grooming and eating bugs.

The strength of a human society can be enhanced by it's indirect connections. ("kevin bacon factor" for example.) It doesn't matter if a monkey is a distant cousin of a monkey living in another troupe a hundred miles away, but such a relationship can be exploited effectively by humans - especially the more connected ones.

This actually increases our obligation to be politically correct because the phrase "superior person" is just as technically backward as it is politically backward. It is a superior network, not a superior person which gives some people advantages over others.

It also allows us to address issues of "being connected" in a positive way (create an environment which helps people develop and exploit connections) rather than a negative one (create an environment which breaks up connections that give some people more advantages than others.)