Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The MPS in the Galapagos (4): The Social Brain

The afternoon session for June 24 began with a lecture by Robin Dunbar on "The Social Animal in Evolutionary Perspective."

Dunbar is a Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford University.  He is best known as a proponent of the "social brain hypothesis"--the idea that the evolutionary expansion of the human neocortex was an adaptation for navigating the complex world of social relationships.  He has argued that there is a cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships--roughly 150, which has become known as the "Dunbar number."  His explanation for this is that human beings evolved mostly for life in small hunter-gatherer bands of 100-200 individuals.

He began his lecture by mentioning an obvious objection to his theory--hasn't modern communications technology (such as the Internet) expanded our social world well beyond the local band or village of our ancestral past?

His answer was that his research into the world of "Facebook" shows that the number of true "friends" that one can have is 150-200.  Although some individuals might have been "friended" by hundreds of people, the actual traffic on these "Facebook" pages is limited to a smaller group.  On "Facebook," all "friends" are not the same.  He argued that this confirms his theory that human social groups all have mean sizes of 100-200.

Dunbar quoted from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics about how true friendship is possible only with a few people.

He then projected a slide with "The Expanding Circles" of social relationships--circles of increasing size but decreasing intensity.  At the center of the circles is "ego," because one's care for oneself comes first, and then one extends care to a few others to whom one feels some attachment--particularly, family and friends.  The attachment to family can be strong even when you don't see them very often.  But the attachment to friends weakens when you don't see them.

He argued that primate social relationships depend on both emotional and cognitive capacities.  One can see the emotional component in the activation of endorphins in humans that comes from light stroking.  The cognitive component is manifest in the human experience of "mind reading"--imagining what other people are thinking or what they might think in various circumstances.  These emotional and cognitive capacities set the limits of group size.

He explained his research showing that friendship depends on shared traits--such as similarities in language, education, worldview, and sense of humor.  When such friendship is established, we are more likely to behave altruistically towards our friends.

The general message from all of this is that face-to-face relationships in small groups are essential for a healthy social life.

Dunbar concluded by warning that as the modern world becomes more global, so that we find ourselves in global networks of relationships with strangers whom we cannot know by face-to-face exchanges, we are likely to become more and more disengaged from social life, because we are evolved for bonding in small groups based on personal ties.

In my lecture at the conference, I reminded the audience of Dunbar's "Expanding Circles" diagram, and I noted that this is exactly the image that Adam Smith uses in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to explain the expanding circles of human attachments with care for oneself at the center.  Moreover, Smith saw this as a biological adaptation for the social bonding of mammalian animals like human beings.

I also indicated that Dunbar's evolutionary account of human sociality explains some of those desires on my list of 20 natural desires--including familial bonding, friendship, and social status.

I argued that this "social brain" conception supports the liberal idea that social order arises largely as a spontaneous or unintended order in civil society.  This sustains Hayek's insight that we have evolved for life in small foraging bands based on familial bonds and personal relationships of exchange.

I am not persuaded, however, by Hayek's claim that a modern extended society based on impersonal, abstract relationships requires a Freudian repression of our social instincts for life in small foraging groups.  The atavistic yearning to return to those primordial groups explains the appeal of socialism, Hayek thought, and the widespread discontent with the impersonality of modern market relationships.

Dunbar and other evolutionary psychologists seem to agree with Hayek about this, when they warn about feelings of disengagement in the modern world, because that world is "mismatched" for our Stone Age minds that are adapted for life in small foraging bands.

Doesn't Dunbar's research actually show that even in the modern world of global exchange, we naturally break up into small groups in which we satisfy our innate social instincts for face-to-face personal relationships?  A liberal society can have hundreds of millions of members who cannot know one another personally.  But the freedom of a liberal civil society allows people to organize their social lives in a multiplicity of natural and voluntary associations.

Moreover, doesn't Hayek exaggerate the abstractness and impersonality of modern exchange relationships?  Yes, of course, when I go to my local grocery store, I have no personal contact with all of the people around the world who might have contributed something to the goods in the store.  But I can have personal contact with the people in that store, and if I am disappointed by their service, they will lose my trust.

When I travelled to the Galapagos Islands and other places in South America, my wife and I dealt with many strangers through the Internet in planning our trip.  But the success of the individuals who dealt with us--travel agents, travel guides, hotel employees, and so on--depends on maintaining their reputations for good service.  In touring the Galapagos Islands on a tourist yacht, my wife and I developed personal relationships with the crew of the ship and our fellow tourists.  Our satisfaction was reflected in the tips we gave the crew members and in the recommendations that we will give to family and friends about the trustworthiness of the people who served us.  We will go to the Internet and write a testimonial to the good service we received.  People that do business on the Internet rely on this.  Thus it is that our world of global exchange is broken up into small groups of people who build personal relationships of trust, and who punish those who prove untrustworthy.

The Internet has created a phenomenon that we might call "Reputation.com," which is actually the name of a business that provides the service of monitoring one's reputation on the Internet and correcting any harmful misrepresentations.  Here we see a modern manifestation of our evolved propensity for cooperation based on "indirect reciprocity"--judging people by their reputation for being trustworthy or untrustworthy.

We should also remember that despite the efficiency of global electronic communication today, business people everyday are investing their time and money in travelling around the world for business meetings, because they instinctively sense that there is no substitute for the personal relationships that come from face-to-face interactions.

The size and complexity of our human neocortex make this possible.


Troy Camplin said...

You are right that we are able to create "temporary" small groups, but is it also not correct that we are able to specialize our groups and create spaciotemporal groups fo 150 with which we regularly engage? We have our 150 family members and friends, 150 work associates, 150 fellow church members, etc. The socialists seek to break these units up precisely because without them, we are more likely to look to government for our collectivist longings.

Doug1943 said...

I don't believe that 'the socialists consciously seek to break these units up', although it's a natural effect of many of their policies.

Rather, the evolution of modern society broke these units up, and the socialists seek to substitute statist replacements for the functions that these units once provided.

The evolution away from the rural extended family in the small community is the classic case. But we may be moving away from the sort of economy which encouraged the disintegration of the extended family.

Conservative social policy should seek to re-invigorate those small extended-family units, which have many advantages over faceless mass bureaucratic statist arrangements.

For instance, planning laws, where they exist, should not discourage the building of 'extended-family' housing -- housing which, like the rural farmstead, could be owned by a whole extended family, with grandparents, two or three of their married children as married couples, single aunts and uncles, could all live in various physical housing units on a small plot of land, with appropriate legal ownership structures.