Picking Robin Dunbar’s Brain: An Interview About Friends

How many friends can we handle? Are online friends different from ones we actually see? I raised these issues a few days ago in a post about Robin Dunbar and “Dunbar’s number,” which explored the trade-offs we face in devoting time to local friendship versus those more distant. Now, by chance, Filip Matous over at Brain Pickings interviews Robin Dunbar about these and other questions. An interesting interview about an idea that’s wielding much influence in evolution and social psychology of late:

We asked the iconic British social anthropologist himself, who addresses the issue further in his new book, How Many Friends Does One Person Need? — we highly recommend it.The amount of time we invest in a relationship is proportionate to its quality. Face-to-face relationships are simply unmatched by online ones. “A touch is worth a 1000 words any day,” says Dunbar. But what online relationships are good for is to stall the decay of a relationship. If you don’t go to the pub sooner or later, it will die.” ~ Dunbar

But what of all those huge numbers of online friends, aren’t they worth something? Perhaps kinship. The difference between friendship and kinship is that kin won’t fall apart with time and distance; “you can abuse your kin and they’ll still come,” says Dunbar.

Dunbar argues that having lots of kin means having fewer friends. Imagine your time-budget devoted to relationships as a pie. When you start handing out slices of your time to your friends, if too many people crowd around, no one gets a proper slice. Kinship is more about similar social groups, interests, geographical locations, whereas a friend, defined by Dunbar, is a person you can have a personal reciprocated relationship where you are willing to do each other favors.

More at Brain Pickings. Via @brainpicker.

Local & Distant Friendships – A Dunbar Number Conundrum

Long ago, when we lived in small villages, your friends’ friends were generally your friends, and vice-versa, with almost complete overlap, because you likely knew the same people — the small number of people who lived in your village. Chances were that number was 150, because 150, as evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar has argued in a social-brain theory built around this Dunbar number , is how many relationships our big human brains evolved to understand and manage. “We find it,” as Dunbar puts it:

in the typical community size of hunter-gatherer societies, in the average village size in county after county in the Domesday book, as well as in 18th-century England; it is the average parish size among the Hutterites and the Amish (fundamentalist Christians who live a communal life in the Dakotas and Pennsylvania, respectively). It is also the average personal network size – the number of people with whom you have a personalised relationship, one that is reciprocal (I’d be willing to help you out, and I know that you’d help me) as well as having a history (we both know how we came to know each other).

In today’s Guardian, Dunbar considers a key puzzle posed by that theory now that we live not in small villages but in complex societies where social circles don’t overlap as heavily.

In traditional small-scale societies, everyone shares the same 150 friends. This was true even in Europe until well into the 20th century, and probably still is true today of isolated rural communities. You might well fall out with them from time to time, but, like the Hutterites, you are bound together by mutual obligation and densely interwoven relationships. And of these, shared kinship was perhaps the most pervasive and important: offend Jim down the road, and you bring granny down on your back because Jim is her second-cousin-once-removed, and shes got her own sister, Jims grandmother, on to her about it.

In the modern world of economic mobility, this simple balance has upset: we grow up here, go to university there, and move on to several elsewheres in a succession of job moves. The consequence is that our social networks become fragmented and distributed: we end up with small pockets of friends scattered around the country, most of whom dont know each other and, perhaps more importantly, dont know the family part of our networks. You can offend Jim, and almost no one will care. And if they do, you can afford to move on and leave that whole subset of friends behind. Networks are no longer self-policing.

Because modern geographical communities no longer have the social coherence they had up until the 1950s, it is perhaps inevitable that people become less willing to remonstrate with miscreants because others are unlikely to back them up. Bearing these factors in mind, is it any wonder that some inner-city communities fall victim to gang violence? Our real problem for the future is how to overcome this social fragmentation by recreating a sense of community in our increasingly urbanised and mobile world.

It’s a nice point, but it raises another question: If we can handle only 150 substantive relationships, how can we increase and strengthen local connections of the sort Dunbar speaks of here while still maintaining the extra-local connections many of us need to work in an extralocal information economy?

In my own life, many if not most of my most vital social connections — bonds of mutual benefit and regard — are with people outside my local geographic communities. This affects both what I get out of my town and what I put into it (aside from taxes), and limits how many important relationships I have there. Sheer longevity in my little town and compensates somewhat; a book I wrote about the region earned me some cred, and weighing in or helping out with local development, school, or health-care reform issues here and there over the years gives me some pull. But I can’t possibly invest the time to build yet more relationships there and also maintain the relationships outside Montpelier — New York, Boston, London, to say nothing of researchers I talk to elsewhere — that I need to do the work I love. I’d run for city council, for instance, if I thought I had the time; but I don’t because I couldn’t’ do the position justice. Many others are in the same boat.

It’s only one tension between local community health and the global economy, of coures, and I don’t know how to resolve it. I’d love to see Dunbar or someone else address it.


There’s No Such Thing as Too Many Friends

The Gregarious Brain

The Writer’s Dilemma: What to Toss

This post launches a modest experiment at Neuron Culture: Friday LitHits, where I intend to use most Fridays to indulge and corral musings on writing, reading, and literature. Indulge, here at this blog mostly about science, because in many ways the problems of writing and reading are much the same as those of science. Corral, so these Lit Hits don’t take over the whole blog. For more of this sort of thing, see the gitlit tag at my Posterous, where I’ll post these and others.

We start with Janet Malcolm.

In The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm’s meta-biography of Sylvia Plath, Malcolm structures the book around visits, mostly in and about London, with other writers who have written about Plath and encountered the hazards, both obvious and submerged, that await anyone writing about people alive or recently alive. For the end of the book she saves a visit to one of the oddest Plath memoirists: Trevor Thomas, a man of many hats who happened to live in the flat below Plath’s in the last couple of months before she killed herself, and who in 1986 had been coaxed by the Independent to retail his memories of her. He was 79 then and a few years older when Malcolm visited him.

Thomas and a friend, Robbie, pick up Malcolm at the tube stop in London, pick up a pizza and some olives for dinner, and drive back to Thomas’s flat. The entire visit is searing, as Malcolm, a writer of incomparable intelligence, fierceness, and compassion, tries to give order to Thomas’s dense, cluttered existence in a house that is much the same way. Toward the end of this passage, which is just short of the end of the book — this is both a biography of biography as well as of Plath, so she’s trying to tie up one just before the other — Malcolm offers this passage about the challenge facing any writer. It’s vintage Malcolm and an extraordinary view of the writer’s challenge:

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Bonobos, Chimpanzees, and Nasty, Peaceful Humans

Apparently it’s Eric Michael Johnson week here at Neuron Culture. Last Friday Johnson, who studies evolutionary anthropology and the history of science, wrote about the Allure of Gay Caveman. Today he published a magnificent cover story at Times Higher Education, “Ariel Casts Out Caliban,” that explores the long-running argument over whether humans are more like “killer apes” (a role played most recently by chimpanzees) or the more “peaceful” bonobos.

I love this piece partly because Johnson has the courage to draw heavily, right from the start, on history and even Shakespeare to set up a look at a recent PLoS Genetics paper comparing the genomes of these two great apes.

In 1607, after being held captive by the Portuguese in West Africa’s Congo Basin for nearly 18 years, the English sailor Andrew Battell returned home with lurid tales of “ape monsters”. The larger of the two creatures Battell described, according to the edited volume later published by travel writer Samuel Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimes, “is in all proportion like a man”, but “more like a giant in stature…and has a man’s face, hollow-eyed, with long haire upon his browes”. These marauding beasts “goe many together, and kill many (villagers)…they are so strong, that ten men cannot hold one of them”. Battell’s narrative, much of which was received second hand and sure to be highly imaginative, was nevertheless one of Western society’s earliest introductions to our evolutionary cousins, the great apes.

Johnson then goes on to Shakespeare, suggesting the interesting possibility that Shakespeare may have drawn on recent ape discoveries in writing The Tempest, before drawing on some superbly colorful historical and literary quotes to show how the study of both other apes and pre-human ancestors such as Australopithecus africanus have repeatedly helped bolster a vision of humans as blood-thirsty folk who rose to dominance through violence. We g0, in fact, from Skakespeare to Kubrick. Johnson offers one of the best explications I’ve read of the famous bone-to-spaceship scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey

But by then the myth of the killer-ape had caught hold and Dart’s conjuration [of man’s rise through violence] had mesmerised millions. Already popular in comic books and adventure novels, now moviegoers witnessed the origin story of this monster in the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Choreographed by Dart’s student Phillip Tobias, the scene depicts a ragged australopithecine who raises a discarded femur against his brother and employs it to commit the world’s first murder. Afterwards, in an ecstasy of violence, this would-be Cain hurls the bone skywards where, in a multimillion-year jump, it becomes an orbiting spacecraft. The metaphor is unmistakable: through aggression, selfishness and the tools of violence lay the secret to humanity’s success.

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The Allure of Gay Cavemen

Guest post by Eric Michael Johnson

The following guest post by Eric Michael Johnson is part of the Primate Diaries in Exile blog tour. You can follow other stops on this tour through his RSS feed, through his Facebook page, or by following @ericmjohnson on Twitter. Thanks. – EMJ & DD


The Allure of Gay Cavemen

Third genders, two spirits, and a media without a clue

by Eric Michael Johnson

In 1993 the reputable German weekly Der Spiegel reported a rumor that Otzi, the 5,300-year-old frozen mummy discovered in the Otztal Alps two years earlier, contained evidence of the world’s earliest known homosexual act. “In Otzi’s Hintern,” wrote the editors, referring to the Iceman’s hinterland, “Spermien gefunden worden.” (If you require a translation, chances are you didn’t want to know anyway.) The rumor quickly spread on computer bulletin boards as the recently unveiled World Wide Web inaugurated a new age in the free flow of misinformation. The origin of the rumor, as Cecil Adams discovered, turns out to have been an April Fool’s prank published in the Austrian gay magazine Lambda Nachrichten. The joke about our ancient uncle being penetrated deep in the Alps was then picked up by other periodicals, but with a straight face.

Twenty years later it appears that little has changed. Last week Czech archaeologist Katerina Semradova spoke with the Iranian news service PressTV about their ongoing excavation of a burial in Prague that contained evidence suggesting a “third gender” identity. Dated to approximately 4,700 years ago, the archaeologists found what they said was a man from the Corded Ware culture who had been buried in a way that was highly uncharacteristic for the time. Typically, males from this Chalcolithic society were interred laying on their right side facing east while women were placed on their left side facing west. Accompanying the bodies would be gender specific grave goods that the deceased individual would presumably need in the afterlife (weapons or tools in the case of males and jewelry or domestic jugs for women).

“We found one very specific grave of a man lying in the position of a woman, without gender specific grave goods, neither jewelry nor weapons,” said Semradova. “[I]t could be a member of a so-called third gender, which were people either with different sexual orientation or transsexuals or just people who identified themselves differently from the rest of the society.”

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A TED Talk to Open Your Eyes to Open Science

Despite ‘open science‘ getting a lot of play lately, many people don’t quite get what it is. That’s understandable, because people use it to mean many things — open access to science publications; open sharing of data; open protocols of communication; open everything. Can get a little fuzzy.

It takes a good story to pull it all together, and that’s what Michael Nielsen delivers here: A nice, short, TED-sized story about a slick project that shows the power of open science’s main principles. Nielsen gave the talk a few weeks ago at TEDxWaterloo, one of the independently organized TED events, in this case, at Kitchener-Waterloo, Canada. I give the flagship TED some grief now and then, when its hunger for powerful ideas gives air to expressions of scientific claims that walk too far out beyond the evidence. Here we see the redeeming strength of the TED format: It generates concise stories illuminating the firm frameworks of complexity.

Those who follow Nielsen aren’t surprised to see him talk so engagingly about open science. He’s consistently one of the clearest writers on the subject. After you watch the vid — or even if you don’t — you’ll want to follow him at his blog and on twitter. I suspect the move to open science will increasingly shape science over the next decade. If you want to track it, Nielsen should be on your short list.

See Also:

  • How to Crack Open Science – from ScienceOnline


Apr 9, 2011: Added sentence about TEDxWaterloo. Changed ideas to claims.

The Independent Sells Some Ed Space

Quick! News, or ad?

Last summer I and many others left ScienceBlogs, our blog host, because its publisher had sold to Pepsi a blog slot that looked in every essential like the a normal blog slot written by people who were there — and assumed to be there — to communicate rather than sell. This little but important tempest was inevitably labeled PepsiGate. The key issue, at least to me, was that the bought advertorial content (that is, bought by the company that was writing it) was presented in a way that invited readers to mistake it as editorial content (that is, content written by people hired and published because they brought an outside view to things they wrote about.) The incident sparked a lot of discussion about how to distinguish, as good publications always have, between material written from a roughly disinterested and critical editorial point of view and what are essentially ads or PR written by people tooting their own horns.

Yesterday’s Independent  ran a piece that violates those editorial principles. Apparently someone wasn’t paying attention. They ran a piece that the Open University  wrote about research done by Open University researchers. It’s actually an interesting piece, but it’s still a piece of publicity masquerading as news, and it sets a terrible precedent.

The only indication that it is not news written by reporter is a very small and easy to miss line that says Sponsored Content. It doesn’t exactly jump off the page at you (see below).

Does this fool people?  Yes. In fact, this came to my attention when a perfectly savvy media person, the editor of Research Diggest, published a tweet about the piece because he’d failed to notice it was sponsored content. I am sure it is fooling more readers right now. If it were April Fools Day, I would suspect we were being presented a joke drawing on puns about terms like Independent and Open University and reliability of information. But that’s not what were seeing. We’re seeing something much darker.

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iPod Touch + Chimps + Clever Idea = Science

Oji zoo, Kobe, Japan

Over at The Thoughtful Animal, which thoughtful animals should read regularly, Jason Goldman covers a clever study on contagious yawning in chimps. It’s a small study, so apply the appropriate dose of of salt. But it’s an interesting little study, and I especially like the methodological efficiency here, in which the researchers use two simple instruments, a video camera and an iPod Touch, to quickly test two interesting questions:

1. Do chimps do contagious yawning?

2. Do they do it more so if the yawner is a friend?

The clever experiment they developed, reports Goldman, “provides strong evidence that empathy does underlie contagious yawning, and that contagious yawning is dependent on social group membership.” There are, of course,  caveats, complications, and delightful wrinkles. Those, as well as the clever methods, are covered ably over at The Thoughtful Animal.

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Really Big Puppets Come to Berlin

The Little Giantess on Berlin's Friedrichstrasse

Berlin is a good place for reunion stories, and this typically lush curation of photos from Boston Globe’s Big Picture documents a several-day long performance put on in October 2009 by France’s de Luxe, called “The Berlin Reunion.”

The storyline of the performance has the two separated by a wall, thrown up by “land and sea monsters”. The Big Giant has just returned from a long and difficult – but successful – expedition to destroy the wall, and now the two are walking the streets of Berlin, seeking each other after many years apart.

The photos tell the rest of the story. Wonderful viewing, and the sort of adept aggregation and curation that has made the Big Picture a go-to spot.

Why Koufax and Curveballs Reign

Koufax, bringing the four-seamer. God save the guy at the plate.

In honor and anticipation of Opening Day, I bring you Sandy Koufax, which is really all any baseball fan should need.

This post mashes up two separate entries I filed two years ago about Sandy Koufax, who is — don’t argue, you’re wrong — the greatest pitcher ever.* I’ve taken parts of both those posts, one on the curveball, one just on Koufax, and combined them.

There’s some science in here. If you want just the Koufax stories, scan down and look for the bold print that marks the beginning of each.

From Post 1: The Curveball Illusion, September 2009

I always look forward to the Illusion of the Year contest, but this year brings a special treat: a new explanation of how the curveball baffles batters.

Just a few days ago, during BP, my friend Bill Perreault threw me one of those really nasty curves of his, and though I read it about halfway in, I was still ahead — and still unprepared for the sudden slanting dive it made at that last crucial moment. The good curve doese that: Even when you have that millisecond of curveball recognition beforehand, it still seems to take, atop the curvy movement you’ve already detected, a sharp, sudden bend just before it reaches the plate, as if some invisible hand gave it a tap.

This wonderful “illusion” put together by Arthur Shapiro, Zhong-Lin Lu, Emily Knight, and Robert Ennis explains how that happens. I can’t link to the illusion, so for the full story you have to check it out yourself. But the gist is that  the curveball kills you two ways: first, through actual movement; and second, through an extra perceived movement — illusory — that further complicates the task of getting the tiny strip of sweet spot on your bat onto the ball. (The sweet spot on a bat is about a half-inch tall and maybe 4-6 inches long. You have to get that tiny oval, which is over 2 feet away from your accelerating hands, onto the ball …. at just the right moment, and with the bat accelerating, or you’re probably out. Which is why you’re usually out.)

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