Social Question

tranquilsea's avatar

Do you agree with the idea of a monkeysphere (Dunbar's Number)

Asked by tranquilsea (17739points) September 28th, 2010

This concept has been rattling around in my head ever since I read an article on titled, What Is The Monkeysphere?, wikipedia’s article on Dunbar’s Number and Malcolm Gladwell’s, The Tipping Point.

The concept is this: we have a theoretically finite number of people we can care about due to our brain size.

This relates to this question posted here on whether you can care if you are not directly effected.

Do you agree with this concept? Do you think the upper limit of the number of people you can really care about is 150 to 230 people?

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11 Answers

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

How can this be proven, even?

anartist's avatar

Absolutely. Think about the phrases that survive make it into the English [or any] language. One person said them first. Maybe that person had more contacts.
Think about all the religions brewing in the region when Christianity caught hold. Why it, instead of Zoroastrianism?
Thank you for this question. These concepts are new to me but they ring true.

tranquilsea's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir I don’t think it can be definitively proven but, from what I’ve read, people have looked at social arrangements like Hutterite colonies and Roman armies (from the Wikipedia article).

Like I said, this is just something that I’ve been thinking about and it seems to make sense to me.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@tranquilsea Well, I suppose it could be true but it’s iffy to me, still. I think I can care about whole populations.

lillycoyote's avatar

I’m going to try to answer this without reading all of your links because I’m just lazy. But first, as to What Is The Monkey Sphere? I am actually the kind of person that will or at least has carefully packed up broken glass in my trash and sometimes even taped a big note to the trash can that says “Careful: Broken Glass” so the trash guys are aware of the hazard, just like Tim Russert. Either I am a sap or I just have a different kind of brain. I am also capable of moments of selfishness too. I’m conflicted, not perfect, thoroughly human, all those things. I do think human beings may be biologically hard-wired to often view the world in terms of us vs. them, to view the world in terms of “people like me” and “the other” but we also have the capacity to overcome this and have the capacity for empathy and that may be the key.

The example that I like to think about is that of Joe Darby. He is the young sergeant who was the whistle blower in the Abu Grhaib abuses. He was given a CD copy of photos of the abuse and eventually slipped a note under the door of his commanding officer. I remember it hitting me when ABC New broadcast an interview with Darby’s mother. There had been a lot of excuses made for the soldiers involved, how they were reserve soldiers, ordinary people who may not have had enough training and education regarding the Geneva Conventions, but Darby was pretty damn ordinary too and he didn’t need any of that to know that what he had seen being done was just plain wrong and had to be righted. The T.V. interview with his mom made me understand that. She was interviewed in a very simple cotton house dress like my West Virginia grandmother used to wear on the steps of the mobile home that she lived in and she said that she had talked to her son several times and he was just not sure what he should do. Was he betraying his fellow soldiers? But then she said ”He said he kept thinking, what if it was my mom, my grandmother, my brother or my wife. It didn’t matter to him that he didn’t know these people. That is what we need to learn and to teach each other and to teach our children. Empathy.

It can be dangerous for people to look at this kind of research and say “Well, science has found evidence that we are predisposed as a species to something and therefore are at the mercy of it. It is particularly dangerous if it somehow allows us to get ourselves off the hook, so to speak, in terms of our responsibility towards one another. This is not at all true. Humans are not slaves to biology.

I will hopefully familiarize myself better with the science of this another day but it is late and my brain and my eyes are both tired now. Thanks for posting the question and the links though, it, the Dunbar Number, the Monkeyspere, etc.; I have not heard of before.

tranquilsea's avatar

Bear in mind that I am still sorting this out in my own mind.

I agree with you @lillycoyote. I worry that people could use this information as a cop out to explain why they don’t care or fail to act in an empathetic, caring or responsible manner but I have a feeling that people like that would be likely to do that with our without this information.

I don’t believe we are slave to our biology. I think of it more on a passive basis. How many people do I actively follow up with and go out of my way to make sure they are ok? At what point is one empathied out?

It is an interesting concept to me.

lillycoyote's avatar

Yes, it is certainly an interesting question and we are, each and everyone of us, only one person who as one person only has the capacity to do so much. Perhaps the most each of us can ever do is only what each of us can do, according to our own temperaments and capabilities; but, that the very least that each of us can do is to at least not look at the suffering of others and dismiss it by saying “Well, they are only so and sos, they are only what evers, they do not value life they way we do, they don’t share our values, they are not like us so we don’t have to care about them.” That would be a start, I think. A very good start. At least, if we have that reaction to the suffering of those who are not like us, simple human decency should make that a starting point in trying to educate ourselves.

ratboy's avatar

Are you mourning?

* On the average, 1 person dies every second as a result, either directly or indirectly, of hunger – 4000 every hour – 100 000 each day – 36 million each year – 58 % of all deaths (2001–2004 estimates).

* On the average, 1 child dies every 5 seconds as a result, either directly or indirectly, of hunger – 700 every hour – 16 000 each day – 6 million each year – 60% of all child deaths (2002–2008 estimates).


Trillian's avatar

@tranquilsea I can get this concept. It sort of goeas along with what I said in another thread. You can say that you care about something in the abstract, but really there is just too much tragedy going on all around us for us to processit all, much less “care” for each individual in a group.
I looked up the definition of the word care.

care (kâr)
1. A burdened state of mind, as that arising from heavy responsibilities; worry.
2. Mental suffering; grief.
3. An object or source of worry, attention, or solicitude: the many cares of a working parent.
4. Caution in avoiding harm or danger: handled the crystal bowl with care.
a. Close attention; painstaking application: painting the window frames and sashes with care.
b. Upkeep; maintenance: a product for the care of fine floors; hair care products.
6. Watchful oversight; charge or supervision: left the child in the care of a neighbor.
7. Attentive assistance or treatment to those in need: a hospital that provides emergency care.
v. cared, car·ing, cares
1. To be concerned or interested: Once inside, we didn’t care whether it rained or not.
2. To provide needed assistance or watchful supervision: cared for the wounded; caring for an aged relative at home.
3. To object or mind: If no one cares, I’ll smoke.
a. To have a liking or attachment: didn’t care for the movie.
b. To have a wish; be inclined: Would you care for another helping?
1. To wish; desire: Would you care to dance?
2. To be concerned to the degree of: I don’t care a bit what critics think.


[Middle English, from Old English cearu.]
Synonyms: care, charge, custody, keeping, supervision, trust
These nouns refer to the function of watching, guarding, or overseeing: left the house keys in my care; has charge of all rare books in the library; had custody of his children; left the canary in the neighbors’ keeping; assumed supervision of the students; documents committed to the bank’s trust. See Also Synonyms at anxiety.

So, I would guess that the first two are the meanings indicated. A budened state of mind, mental suffering; grief.
So, because of our limited capacity and need to get things done we simply cannot do more than give a passing thought to the myriad unhappy events going on all around us. We can have animal rights activists or womens rights or MADD or whatever special interest groups one can think of who are all trying to stop injustices. But those people are still only focused on a particular injustice. They cannot feel grief and a heavy state of mind for all the wrongs happening or for all the terrible things going on all over the world. It would be incapacitating. You can look at a sad story in the news and say “I care about those people.”
Then what? Do you send money? Do you cover yourself in sack cloth and ashes? Do you immolate yourself? Do you find out all you can about each of those people and updae what you know daily? What about the very next news story? Do you do the same for them? What about the news stories that you missed? If I asked you a month later how much would you be able to tell me about those people about whom you say you care? How much can you tell me now about the individuals in Haiti? I’ll bet not much. We can care in the abstract but not in the pracical. At least, not for ALL of them. We cannot know about all of them, and we do not have the time or capacity to understand and care for a fraction of them all. And we cannot allow our concern to overshadow the daily living of our lives. Do you stop enjoying life? Do you, in the midst of your revels, stop and say; “I cannot be happy now. There are people suffering all over the world.” Do you stop making love to your other? Do you walk with your head down and tears covering your face? Do you say “I cannot run in the park with my child because there are people who cannot run.”?
This is why we have gods. We know that our own capacity for details and others is limited. But god knows where the sparrow falls, and it is a great comfort to have someone who is omniscient keeping track of the details, because we cannot. Distractions fill our days and our lives.
Whether or not there really is a god, we have to have one from the psychological standpoint that we need to know that someone more capable than ourselves has it covered.

tranquilsea's avatar

@Trillian Yes, exactly. GA.

Jeruba's avatar

I think I agree with it. It sounds very plausible to me.

Although the approximate number may remain constant, who’s in it may be dynamic, much like looking at a photograph of a huge crowd and passing a magnifying glass over it so that you can see a few at a time relatively clearly. If there are about 150 at any one time, still, today a third of them may be members of a club I belong to, and next week they may fade while a third of them become members of my extended family or members of the department I work in. Perhaps if I add all those segments together, the number would be greater over time, but—as the author of the article seems to make clear—not all at once. So 150 represents not an actual fixed and itemized list but a shifting population.

I also think (taking an example from the cited article cited) that although in general I would be more upset by the death of my best friend than by that of a dozen unknown kids in a wreck across town, I’d be more upset about the kids if the accident took place in front of me, even though I didn’t know them. Actual proximity can count for almost as much as proximity of relationship.

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