Friday, June 19, 2020

The Monkeysphere

Not actually Erin.
& is used with permission.
The Monkeysphere. That's a heck of a word, isn't it? But despite how silly it sounds, it's actually a very important concept that helps explain why humans are callous to some people and care deeply about others. If you're a prepper you need to understand what it is and how it works, because not only does it inform us how society as a whole works, but also explains how our own prepper group dynamics operate.

What It Means
The term "monkeysphere" was coined in 2007 by David Wong of Cracked magazine, and as much as it pains me to give Cracked credit for anything, it's actually a very meaningful and catchy way to describe the concept known as Dunbar's Number. In the 1990s, anthropologist Robin Dunbar was studying how primates interacted with each other and found that average social group size corresponded to brain size. On a lark, Dunbar applied this number to humans (who are also primates) and found that the correlation remained true. Dunbar's Number, aka the monkeysphere, describes the number of social relationships a primate can indefinitely maintain.

What we call Dunbar's Number is actually a series of them, with a variation of plus or minus 50% due to some humans being more social than others. As explained in The Limits of Friendship, these groups are:
  • 5: the Close Support Group. These are your best friends (and often family members) and you care deeply about them. 
  • 15: the Circle. These are the friends that you can turn to for sympathy when you need it, and the ones you can confide in about most things.
  • 150: Casual Friends. This is the baseline of Dunbar's Number and the most well-known of the series. Some people can only manage 100 casual friends, and the very social can handle up to 200, but either way this represents the number of people who you like being around and whom you would invite to a large party. 
  • 500: Acquaintances. These are the people you sort of know, but not very well, like co-workers, neighbors down the street, and so forth. 
  • 1,500: Tribe.  This is the absolute limit of the human brain, and it represents the people whose faces you can recognize on a regular basis. 
What's interesting about the monkeysphere is that the number shows up as the optimum size for many large units. For example, the average group size of modern Hunter-Gatherer societies is 148 people, and so we can postulate that our ancient ancestors used groups this size as well. What's more, militaries from as far back as the Roman Empire to as recently as today use units within Dunbar's number: the U.S. Army's operational unit diagram lists a company as being between 100 and 200 soldiers.

Why Do We Have One?
Our brains are just wired like this to prevent us from mental exhaustion. Here's an analogy to help explain.

My Daisy Girl
  • I have a dog named Daisy. She's my adorable puppy and I love her lots, and I take her for walks and I play with her. 
  • If I add another dog to the family, I don't love Daisy any less, but now I have to exert energy to maintain a relationship with this new dog, and I probably have to exert more energy with Daisy so she doesn't feel left out.
  • Add another dog. 
  • Add two. 
  • Add a dozen. 
  • Eventually, I will hit my limit where I say "No more dogs. I can't take care of any more, and the ones I have are driving me crazy with all their demands!" The dogs have finally exceeded my monkeysphere, and I simply can't care about any more of them because it is literally making me crazy. 
The same goes for humans. This is why we care deeply when a friend breaks an arm or gets a divorce, and why we only care on an abstract level, if at all, that people we don't know and will never meet are starving or dying of a disease or being slaughtered. And further, this explains why so many human actions look like tribalism: it's because they are. Outside of our monkeysphere, people stop feeling like people to us because we don't interact with them socially. Instead, they're either things we have to interact with to give what we want, like fast food servers or bank tellers or shop cashiers; or they're competitors for resources, like all of those people who take up space on the road and prevent you from getting where you want to go because they're in your way. Rush hour frustration is a perfect example of our brains' relational capabilities being overwhelmed.

In summary, the monkeysphere is a good explanation for humanity's "Us vs. Them" attitude, and the reasons for this lie within another social characteristic known as Groupness. I will explain groupness next week, and you'll see why it's such a pervasive influence in how cultures think and act.

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