Scaling up communities – Part 1

In the earliest dawns of civilization, humans lived in what we would consider extended families.  These formed the small communities the members of which relied upon each other for survival.

Anthropologists tell us these groups could range from as few as 20-30 people up to about 100-150, depending on the circumstances of that group.  If the group grew larger, it would split into two related groups.  The reasons for this were simple:  in the dawns of our civilization, a specific area could only support a group of a certain size.  This size varied, based on climate, fertility of the land, argriculture and/or hunting opportunities and techniques, and so on.

According to the latest theories, it was under conditions like these that our brains came to be ‘set’ in their current state – and that is why we can feel individually connected to only so many people before they become just ‘statistics’.  This number is called the Dunbar’s number, but the whole concept is really well explained in an article by David Wong called ‘What is the monkeysphere?’.

In a nutshell, the ‘Monkeysphere’ is the collective name of the people we think of as ‘individuals’ – these are the people we are able to ‘care about’ as ‘themselves’, not as just ‘some people out there’.  The more we know about a person, the ‘deeper’ into our ‘Monkeysphere’ they burrow.  It is exactly the same phenomenon which allows us to know that there are hungry people in the world, even kids, and still be able to sleep at night – but show us a picture of one child and tell us its story, and we’ll line up to adopt it and send money to support it.

The reason why this is so interesting to me right now is because I am looking at how we, humans, organize the communities we build. 

While we live in small groups, we can rely on customs and conventions to set our ‘rules’ of behaviour.  We know each other, our idiosynchrocies and can deal with each other by resolving conflicts one on one, with the group being the refs.

Once we live in a community larger than Dunbar’s Number, not all our neighbours can fit into our Monkeysphere… so, we resort to making rules and laws and appointing judges in order to get along.  This is all fine – except that we loose some of the caring which bound the community together while all of it was within our Monkeysphere.

And that is the key in understanding so much of our human interactions…

An employer who does not deal with individual employees who sneak into his Monkeysphere, but with a ‘faceless union’ – well, such an employer will see negotiations as a business transaction, nothing else.  And employess who do not work daily with their employer, but are isolated from the employer by a dam of ‘human resources’ officers – well, they will not perceive a person:  there is no way for that employer to get into their Monkeysphere!  (Yes, there are layers of complexities, but this is a useful reduction tool.)

This works with governments:  small governments interact with their citizens directly – they are inside their Monkeyspheres (that WAS the goal of ‘representative government’).  As the government is scaled up, the Monkeysphere cannot stretch so much – so the citizens become a statistical collection, not inidividuals to care about as individuals. 

In other words, as we become more successful and form larger and larger social groups, we loose the ability to treat each member of the group with as much caring as we would treat an extended family member.  This can leave us all feeling a little ‘disconnected’, at least, at times.

5 Responses to “Scaling up communities – Part 1”

  1. The concept of ‘murder’ is not ‘universal’ « Xanthippa’s Chamberpot Says:

    […] we ’scaled up’ our communities and instituded rules/laws – rather than direct resolution of specific actions – to govern our behaviour, we have moved from […]

  2. ‘Hoodwinked: The Spy Who Did Not Die’ « Xanthippa’s Chamberpot Says:

    […] The characters seem very human, very real.  They get inside your ‘monkeysphere’. […]

  3. Emma Says:

    I feel so much happier now I uendrsatnd all this. Thanks!


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