Posted by: terrapraeta | January 20, 2008

Beyond the Monkeysphere

Walking side by side with death
The devil mocks their every step
The snow drives back the foot that’s slow
The dogs of doom are howling more
They carry news that must get through
To build a dream for you and me
They choose the path where no-one goes
They hold no quarter, they ask no quarter.

Led Zeppelin, No Quarter

In one sense everyone, every community, every individual for that matter, lives in their own unique universe. By “blowing up walls,” I mean most of all, blowing up the arrogant, unreflecting assumptions which tell us we have nothing in common with 98% of people who ever lived, so we don’t really have to think about them. Since, after all, if you assume the fundamental break, the only theoretical question you can ask is some variation on “what makes us so special?” Once we get rid of those assumptions, decide to at least entertain the notion we aren’t quite so special as we might like to think, we can also begin to think about what really has changed and what hasn’t.(Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology
David Graeber, PHD, p47)

Last week, I delved into the concept of Dunbar’s Number and the Monkeysphere, from the inside. I talked about the wonderful ways people can and do interact when they are with people that they truly know and understand. But I only touched on the full value of the monkeysphere concept.

To really explore both the possibilities, and limitations, inherant in Dunbar’s number, we first need to more fully explore the idea of relationships.In Touch My Monkey I wrote:

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.

If I am part of a group of three people, there are three relationships to track. In a group of eight, however, that number blossoms to twenty eight relationships, while a group of fifty incorporates one thousand two hundred and twenty five relationships. So if we take Dunbar’s Number at face value, that means that the average human can track something approaching eleven thousand one hundred and seventy five relationships. I don’t know about anyone else, but I find that amazing.

And I have to say, that gives me more hope for the human species than most of the other facts and ideas I have run across in this journey. After all, we look at Dunbar’s Number and decide (assuming we embrace the idea, itself) that our future is pretty limited. But there is nothing limiting about it, save that we need to find ways to work with our nature rather than against it.

So let’s look at our group of eight friends, once more. Between them, they each have twenty eight relationships. Now imagine each of them has an equally strong relationship with one person in another group of eight. At this point, we have created a network of seventy two people, although of those seventy two individuals, fifty six have only twenty eight relationships while the other sixteen have twenty nine.

Of course, eight people do not make a community. If we applied the same mathematics to a community of fifty adults, we would have a network of 2550 people just on the first layer. (IE, with only 100 people involved in bridging between the groups) And yet, the individuals involved are still well within their comfort level and ability to conceptualize and understand everyone they know as individuals. Obviously, no one person knows everyone in the extended network – but everyone knows someone that they trust implicitly, that knows someone whom they trust implicitly. It won’t work for many layers, but if it is enough to maintain a co-operative trade network, amongst a few thousand people, without hierarchy or coercive forces then it may be just enough to build more complex societies that still work within the context of human co-operative adaptive behavior.

Of course, all of this math calculation has little to do with how real people and communities build relationships. But once we look at the mechanics, we can begin to imagine behaviors and cultural norms that would allow an integrated network to form. The first, and most obvious, would be mating behaviors. A girl grows up in a community and then leaves to join another on marriage. Most of the relationships from her birth group would gradually fade, yet with modern communication, there will continue to be a few relationships that she invests enough time into to maintain. Another possibility might be juvenile apprenticeship programs: at some given age, kids leave their home community and live with another for year, learning new skills and, of course, building relationships within the apprenticeship group. Again, after that year, many of the relationships will fade, but it can be expected that most individuals would have one or a few strong relationships that they would want to maintain.

Beyond that, various relationships would develop between groups on the basis of trade relationships, regional ‘councils’ (or other political affiliation), regional fairs and other social activities. I’m sure there are many other ways individual cultural groups could forge relationships. The key, however, would be to maintain autonomy between the various communities and internal cohesiveness within each community.



  1. […] Humans (and many other species) have the ability to exhibit altruism. Most of the Utopian Ideals that have come along depend upon this altruism. Or, conversely, like the Enlightenment, they depend upon Rational Self Interest. Yet, the Western World, embroiled in the ideals of the Enlightenment, shows a distinct lack of improvement on the basis of Rational Self Interest while altruism is present but still less than enough to really make a difference. The Tragedy of the Commons and The Prisoner’s Dilemma combined, effectively explain why this is the case. So the next question, in my mind, has to be “What tools do we have available to move beyond the Tragedy of the Commons and the Prisoner’s Dilemma.” The most important tool I have found, so far, is Dunbar’s Number and the Monkeysphere. […]

  2. Hey tp, would ya drop a line? I would but I can’t find a contact page here…


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