Science fiction and fantasy                                            

How Many Friends Does One Person Need?

by Robin Dunbar


We tend to think of evolution in terms of the way it shapes our bodies, and not so much about the impact it has on our culture and societies. After all, how can something that plays out over thousands of years affect the ever-changing realms of music or language, and what can it possibly have to do with religion? In this series of essays Robin Dunbar examines evolutionary biology and what it can tell us about many of the quirks of our behaviour.

The book looks at the size of our brains, and how that affects the size of our social groups. There are common limits to group sizes that crop up time and again around the world, but why is this? Our brains are expensive in terms of the energy they take to run, and there are other limits to how large they can grow. The author explores why we can't keep adding real friends to our networks, even though larger communities could theoretically offer a support network that could increase our chances of survival.

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

Book Details

Year: 2010

Categories: Books


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4 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson