Science fiction and fantasy
How Many Friends Does One Person Need?
by Robin Dunbar
The book delves into the importance of touch when it comes to bonding with people, the rich variety of languages and dialects we use, the value of social laughter and the biological importance of music. The author sees pretty much everything we do through the lens of evolution. He puts morality, religion, kissing, colour vision, and even poetry under the microscope. Dunbar seems to take the view that if something has survived well enough to play a large part in our lives it must have some function with regard to the survival of our species. The way so many topics can be tied back to our over-arching need to pass on our genes is fascinating. He's asked the kind of questions that few others have thought to, by going into the world of the arts and into trivial subjects as well as looking at more well-trodden areas of enquiry.
There's also quite a lot in this book about how we choose our partners, and whether we're inclined to stick with them or cheat on them. As a species we're often monogamous, but for humans and even those birds known to mate for life there are exceptions. It's a complicated situation, and the author resists giving a definite argument for one default state or the other. There's an interesting section about the difficulty we tend to have when it comes to conceiving of fuzzy solutions to problems like this one, and our tendency to fall back on dichotomies. "Our problem is that our minds just lack the intellectual capacity to deal with continua," he says in chapter 14.
The discussions on the importance of theory of mind, and the bearing this has on the evolution of both literature and religion is an eye-opener. Theory of mind is what allows us to imagine the world as others might see it. And also as others might imagine that we believe that they think that we think, and so on. Without it we can't make up stories, tell lies, or predict how other people might react when they don't have the same information as us.
However I did have a problem with the author's statement in chapter 21 that "Autistic people lack theory of mind: indeed, this is the essential defining characteristic of autism." This is inaccurate. As anyone who has been lied to be an autistic person can attest, lack of a theory of mind isn't a necessary feature of this condition. It's one of the common traits of autism (itself a condition that lies on a continuum) rather than a defining one.
That's the only fault I found, and it's the result of an oversimplification more than anything. On the whole I found this book very accessible, clear and free of jargon. It skims over a wide range of topics and therefore doesn't go into any of them in exhaustive depth. The author's style is engaging without being over-dramatic, so I found this a very quick and enjoyable read. If you're curious about the startlingly long reach of evolutionary biology and want to learn more, this is a very good place to start.
8th February 2012
If you like this, try:The Incredible Unlikeliness Of Being by Alice Roberts
Alice Roberts looks at the amazing journey of human development and why our bodies have evolved in the way they have.
59 Seconds: Think A Little, Change A Lot by Richard Wiseman
Professor Richard Wiseman discusses the science around self-help and presents lifestyle advice based on scientific studies.
How To Think Like A Neandertal by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge
The Neandertals were an evolutionary offshoot that died out. But what did they have in common with us, and what were they really like?
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