Posted by: terrapraeta | January 17, 2008

Touch My Monkey

I feel so extraordinary
Something’s got a hold on me
I get this feeling I’m in motion
A sudden sense of liberty
I don’t care ’cause I’m not there
And I don’t care if I’m here tomorrow
Again and again I’ve taken too much
Of the things that cost you too much
I used to think that the day would never come
I’d see delight in the shade of the morning sun
My morning sun is the drug that brings me near
To the childhood I lost, replaced by fear
I used to think that the day would never come
That my life would depend on the morning sun.

New Order, True Faith

As I wrote The Larch the other day, it occurred to me that there is one truly fundamental issue that I have completely neglected in my series on building a viable community. WHY, Community?

Community itself is at the heart of the vision I m trying to create, here. In our modern world of six billion people, a sense and actuality of community is often the single hardest thing to come by. (Although I fully recognize that the US is far and away the worst place for this.) Without community, we lose one of the fundamental characteristics of the human animal: our social support mechanism.

Previously, I have mentioned Dunbar’s Number. But I have not explored it in detail. It’s time to do so. Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist who correlated the neocortex size in various primate groups and noted the relationship between this physical size and the group size prevalent for the species. Applying this relationship to humans predicted that maximum human group size would fall in the range of 150 persons. Looking at the anthropological record, he found that primitive, hunter gatherer groups always fell well below this figure, while small villages, modern Hutterite communities and Neolithic farming villages tended to splinter into two new communities once they reach the 150 member benchmark.

Malcolm Gladwell popularized this idea in The Tipping Point with a discussion about a New Jersey company that has used this theory within their corporate structure: each facility operated by the company consists of a range of jobs, with limited social stratification based upon position, and an employee limit of 150. As each facility approaches 150 individuals, they have found that both productivity and employee moral begin to drop. Once they divide the workforce into two, smaller groups, both productivity and moral improve once more.

Inside The Monkeysphere is another popularization of the idea, written as a humor piece by David Wong.

All of this provides strong evidence that Dunbar’s Number is a real, biologically driven, limitation on human behavior. There are some cases where it may have been taken too far, however, so let’s consider what it implies in greater detail. First, the limitation does not, in fact, describe the number of persons we can have a relationship with, rather it describes the number of relationships that we can keep track of in our brains. When I was in high school, my graduating class tipped just over 1000 kids, while my entire school had something like 3500 students and 300 teachers and administrators. I can say, with some confidence, that I knew most of the kids in my graduating class, most of the teachers and administrators and a good number of students that were younger or older than I. That is obviously substantially more than the Monkeysphere. So how do we understand this?

It goes back to relationships. Although I was aware of all of these people, perhaps could name them and note some personal tidbit, I really only knew each on a very superficial level. I did not know their family, their personal history, what sort of relationship they had with the other 3800 individuals within the school, nor any details about those various relationships. However, if I look at the friends I had at the time, both within my high school and the larger community of friends I associated with, I can identify a group of people that I can claim that I did know all of those things about. It was still limited, in many ways, because your lives are extremely segmented. I could not know the relationships my non-school friends had with their teachers and other students in their respective schools, nor could I fully understand their relationships within their families. But I had a fair view of each of them as a total person, at least.

So we return to the concept of community. I already discussed Working Together as a vital component of a healthy community. Socializing together, learning together, playing together are also quite important. Because when all of the activities of our normal life take place within the context of the same group of people, then we can truly say that we know that group of people. That is our true Monkeysphere. At this moment in time, my monkeysphere consists of two other people. My son and my honey. Of course, there are parts of both of their lives that I am excluded from, but it is the closest thing I have.

Don’t get my wrong, there are a whole bunch of people that I have great relationships with: there are the other bloggers I am getting to know; there are friends scattered across North America that I communicate with digitally and occasionally interact with ‘in person’; there are friends here in my local region that I see more frequently; and there are the people within my neighborhood that I know. (Oh, yeah, and there’s my extended family… but let’s leave that one out for now…) But in all of these cases, I have relationships that are fractured, I only see ‘one side’ of each individual. Those that I am closest to, I may get to see a second side on occasion, but that is a treat not an expectation.

So what happens when you have a community that works, lives and plays together? The closest to this I can come is the core group of friends from my high school. We spent ¾ of each day together, and knew each other and our inter-relationships more intimately and instinctively than any other social group I have had. In many cases, we even worked at the same after school jobs. It is hard to look back, twenty years later and provide a concise answer to that question. At the time, I did not know what I had, nor that it would ‘go away,’ but I do know that I had a sense in those days of being no more than a step away from whatever support I needed. There was always someone around that I could turn to, someone that I knew would understand and someone I knew I could count on. Including those people that, perhaps, I did not get along with quite so well – because above all, we were together for the long count.

Moving forward in my life, I very much want to reclaim that support network. Previously, I noted that ‘a natural human lifestyle’ seemed to be the best route to finding agape. Community, itself, seems to be very much within the definition of ‘natural human lifestyle’. As described, I would also suggest that community leads to strong, interconnected philia relationships. Perhaps you can see then, why I consider community to be the very core of both this website and the goals I have set for myself with this series.



  1. […] have written quite a bit about Dunbar’s Number and the Monkeysphere. I have suggested that we each need to focus in on our immediate needs: family, friends, community. […]

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