Robin Dunbar vs. Pop Dunbar
This post is part of a Webinar, Debating Dunbar's Number.
While reading the stimulating critique of Robin Dunbar's social brain hypothesis recently published by Jan de Ruiter and his colleagues, my first reaction was: "Straw man!". On second thoughts, it wasn't fair. The author that Jan de Ruiter and his colleagues criticize is sometimes a caricature of Robin Dunbar. Yet he resembles another important author — let us call him Pop Dunbar. Pop Dunbar stands for many things that have been said in Dunbar's name by the popular press. Robin Dunbar has often distanced himself from Pop Dunbar's ideas, but many of us got interested in his ideas through the Pop version. Pop Dunbar’s ideas are not trivially wrong, and, as Jan de Ruiter and colleagues note, his influence is enormous. For some people, Pop Dunbar holds the truth on what friendship should be.
So, in this post, I thought I would follow in the wake of Jan de Ruiter and colleagues, and explain what I find wrong with some ideas that I attribute to Pop Dunbar. While writing this text I realized that I often (though not always) seemed to find the real Dunbar on my side.
Pop Dunbar's theory says that, in primates, brain size forbids any individual from having more than a certain amount of friends. Because of this limit, primate societies, including ours, cannot go beyond a certain size. This pop theory is simple, powerful, fascinating — and probably inaccurate.
1. The size of primate societies (humans in particular) is not constrained by the size of the groups of friends they contain.
Social life on a large scale is possible without much friendship. Not a picnic, perhaps, but possible. Fear of predation often pushes herding animals together, with very little bonding taking place. Human societies, too, can make do with little bonding: capitalist welfare states make it possible for a big minority to live utterly without friends. Loneliness (defined as having no one to discuss things that matter with) is steadily rising, affecting an important minority of the population in most industrialized countries. We have solitary crowds, "bowling alone", otakus, and Facebook love affairs.
Yet it would be weird — wrong, perhaps — to say that our societies are "smaller" as a result. Being without friends and relying on a corporation or a state for one's living requires more social complexity, bigger cities, powerful states and corporations. Bigger societies do not necessarily mean bigger friendship networks. As Robin Dunbar notes, this is also true of other primate societies. After a certain threshold, grooming cliques may get smaller as groups get bigger overall.
So it would seem that every sensible person, including Robin Dunbar, agrees: there is no necessary link between the size of friendship groups and that of large human societies; at least, such a link exists only up to a point, and most human societies today have moved well beyond that point.
2. There is no strict, fixed and known upper limit on the amount of friends that a primate can make.
Of course, one can only have so many friends; yet that "so many" is not the same for everyone in a given species, and some people go well beyond the mean. The average number of friends per individual is just that, an average – not a limit or a ceiling. There can be much variation, and many outliers. So much so that speaking of "outliers" may be misleading. The variation may be distributed in a non-normal way, with many people having no one to talk to, and a few people having impressive clout. How popular can those exceptional individuals become? We really do not know, but people with much more than 150 friends certainly exist (more on them later).
3. Brain size is not the most important constraint on the size of friendship groups.
Dunbar has argued that brain size puts a tight limit on the size of our circle of friends (see my fifth point). Yet he knows that this limit is not the most important one, far from it. There are more pressing constraints. Many people may never reach the limit allowed by the size of their brain, simply for lack of time.
Humans, Robin Dunbar argues, cannot spend more than 20% of their waking time on face-to- face interactions (this, he claims, applies to the great majority of societies). Making friends is an affective process, one that should be accompanied by changes in our endorphin systems. Dunbar acknowledges three (sometimes more) ways of obtaining somebody's affection: grooming (in non human primates), gossip, laughter, and (maybe) music and rituals. You can only groom one person at the same time, and (the theory goes) you can only exchange gossip and laughter with four or five people at the same time.
In Dunbar's most recent writing on friendship, great emphasis is laid on time and bonding; brain size has all but disappeared from the theory. At the same time, Pop Dunbar’s brainpower— friendship—group size nexus is invading the media.
4. We can establish and maintain bonds with many people.
Close, face-to-face conversation is not the only way we can bond with other people. We have gift-giving. Dancing. Praying. Demonstrating. Mass weddings. Mass huggings. Crowd-bathing. And so on. Those forms of bonding consume much less time per target than grooming or face- to-face conversation. They allow us to reach many more people (albeit in a less powerful way) during the 20 % of our waking time that we devote to social interaction (according to Robin Dunbar).
This twenty per cent average is dubious anyway, since it neglects potential "outliers": hyper-socials, professional communicators, lawyers, therapists, con men, prostitutes, comedians, priests, socialites of all stratas of society… All those who trade in persuasion, contact and networking for the best part of their waking time. Not only can those specialists of social ties build impressive networks for themselves, they build networks for others too. They are go-betweens. A few people devoting most of their waking time to building friendships coalition could make a big difference to the shape and size of our social worlds.
Robin Dunbar occasionally rejoins that those way of bonding have two fatal flaws. First, they are simply too weak: they do not bond us well enough. Second, they often fail to create reciprocal relations. As a result they do not make "true" friends.
I find these objections unconvincing.
First, why should reciprocity be so important? Major social coalitions are sustained, in part, by unilateral interactions. Ask campaigning politicians as they rush from one rally to another. Ask Mata Amritanandamayi, a.k.a. Mother Amma the "Hugging Saint" who hugs thousands and thousands of followers in stadiums. Ask the pope. There can be intensity in unilateral bonding, and those links can be put to use for political or social purposes. Why dismiss them?
Second, weaker forms of bonding can make up for in quantity what they lack in quality. A politician shaking hands may not be bonding with his audience as efficiently as he would be with a long conversation. Granted. Yet just think of the number of hands he can shake! Why should shallow forms of bonding, applied frequently to many people, be less efficient than one conversation every five years?
Yet this kind of unilateral interactions, one may reply, fail to build "true" coalitions of friends. But wait a minute! Aren't churches “true” social coalitions? With reciprocated feelings of attachment (yes, even between strangers), mutual exchange of favors, and a common history of life together? What about cults? Political parties? Supporters of a football team? Why dismiss them?
5. The size of our brain directly does not directly determine the size of our circle of friends.
Robin Dunbar and his team have shown that there is a correlation between the size of brain areas devoted to social cognition and the size of one’s social network. The correlation seems to hold independently of memorization capacities. One could be tempted to conclude that the number of one’s friends is directly determined by the size of one's brain, at least as far as social cognition areas are concerned.
Do we have to accept this conclusion? No.
Taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus (a brain area linked to orientation navigation through space). Is it because people with a large hippocampus are more likely to become taxi drivers? Or is it because taxi driver just develop a bigger hippocampus, for the same reason that ballerinas get strong toes — because of practice? No amount of correlational data can settle such matters. It is quite likely that people who interact with lots of friends get more training in social cognition, and their corresponding areas grow as result. The causality probably runs both ways. In any case, there is no reason to think that small brain areas condemn you to a small social network. Most likely they’re a result as much as a cause.
Indeed, when you think about it, it’s hard to see why brainpower should be such a powerful constraint on social life. We do not have so many problems learning social networks. The average reader of this site can probably remember dozens of novels, scores of movies, tons of historical and political characters great and small — all this in addition to their friends, neighbors, family, coworkers, pets, gods and saints, imaginary friends, etc. You know why Obama hired Hillary Clinton although he disliked her. You may know how Harry Potter felt about Ron’s relationship with Hermione. You could predict with reasonable accuracy what may or may not happen in the next episode of your favorite TV series. Hundreds, thousands of characters, relations, thoughts and reputations are in your head right now, not just to be remembered, but also to be predicted, imagined, toyed with.
Of course, our brains must fail sometimes; but then (as de Ruiter et al. note), we don’t have to rely on our brain for everything. Cognition is distributed. We have computers, books, journals and photo albums. More importantly, we have other people.
An anecdote comes to mind. As he was running for MP in the rural district of Corrèze, François Hollande (now French president) had his staff prepare notes on every person that mattered in his constituency. Once, after a rally, Hollande came across a supporter, Suzanne. The note in the MP’s pocket only mentioned the woman’s name and that of a relative.
Hollande: Suzanne, what a pleasure! How’s life? How’s our dear old Martin?
Suzanne: François… Martin’s dead. (silence) He died last year. I thought you knew. You sent me a letter, back then.
Hollande (after two short seconds of awkward silence): I know, Suzanne, I know. As you can see, I just cannot get used to it.
A good staff and a knack for improvising go a long way. Some may reply that we are not dealing with “true” bonding, or with a “true” coalition here. Or they may dismiss the MP as an “outlier”. I suspect the man who became the French president after so many handshakes would beg to differ.
* * * *
At the risk of sounding optimistic, I think we can all agree that there are very big societies where groups of friends are small; that there is no strict upper limit to the number of friends we can have; that the size of our brains is not the most important constraint on the number of our friends, and does not determine it; that some people can maintain strong ties with thousands of people. While those claims may look like an argument against Robin Dunbar’s hypothesis, I find them coherent with many things he wrote — and above all, obvious.