Robin Dunbar (Liverpool, 1947), professor at the University of Oxford and member of the British Academy, an anthropologist and evolutionary biologist of international renown, is known above all for his discovery that the maximum number of individuals that a human being can have a stable relationship with is 150. His most widely known publications, of which there are many, include: Reproductive Decisions. An Economic Analysis of Gelada Baboon Social Strategies (1984), Primate Social Systems (1988), The Trouble with Science (1996), Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language (1997), Primate Conservation Biology (2000), The Human Story (2004) and How Many Friends Does One Person Need? Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks (2010).
«Have you come about the experiment?» I was asked on entering the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford, directed by Robin Dunbar. «Which experiment?» They were trying to use an interactive program to measure the tendency of different subjects to obey orders from supernatural beings rather than responding to other humans’ requests. Before I had time to disobey the ghosts, Professor Dunbar arrived on his bike, gasping for breath he apologized for being late and, seeing the cameras, for the untidy state of his office. «Oh no, there’s a skull here, my wife will kill me if she sees this mess in the photos», he said obviously more afraid of the living.
We shot a video for the Great Ape Project webpage dealing with the most important primatological findings over the last twenty years. Then, we went on to talk about his most recent books, The Human Story (2004 –translated into Spanish as La odisea de la humanidad, by Crítica) and How Many Friends Does One Person Need? Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks, which has just come out.
Darwin said we would learn more about metaphysics by studying baboons than by reading John Locke, and your two latest books, as well as your earlier works, disclose many philosophical concerns. Does this have to do with personality, baboon metaphysics or the link between the work of a primatologist, anthropologist and philosopher?
There are many topics that are of interest to all three fields, like the origin of morality…
And how can biology explain moral behaviour in terms of their beneficial effects for the group, when the only acceptable explanations are those bearing on individual reproductive benefits?
A simpler example is that of maternal devotion, which undoubtedly improves reproductive success. My theory is that not only moral but perhaps also language and technology are derived from the huge task hominid mothers perform.
Evolutionary explanations are generally entertained for morality, compassion and reciprocity. But when biologists try to explain our immorality and criminality in Darwinian terms, as in Thornhill and Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape, then there’s an outcry…
Of course, this is what Thornhill and Palmer sought, that the penalty for rape is such that it outweighs the potential benefits. But what if someone kills his children’s mother and then commits suicide? This is the worst thing you could do in terms of passing on your genes. How could this be explained? Perhaps in terms of the indirect benefit of threat with determination?
Moving from the genocidal psychopath to the international altruist: Do you think the Dunbar number is related to our lack of emotional response to global poverty –more in keeping with the cosmopolitan ethical principles that almost everyone accepts rationally? Are we, by nature, incapable of concerning ourselves much for any more than 150 people, the typical size of a tribe?
So, what has Facebook changed? Can it connect, for example, our different communities?
© J. French
But your book The Human Story: A New History of Mankind’s Evolution ignores gender differences, presenting an almost asexual account –rather odd for a primatologist, even if he is more or less English (Dunbar left Liverpool when he was three months old and was brought up in Australia and East Africa).
And how does religion help you win that race? I’m intrigued by the explanation because one can easily see the origins of humour, language, technology, theory of mind and even aesthetic appreciation in other apes. We’ve seen them talking about death in sign language, burying their dead, visiting the burial place, staying with the dying during their struggle to stay alive, allowing a mother who lost a son to carry its mummified corpse around, even though they are afraid of being touched by a corpse… but we haven’t seen anything akin to religion. Could the idea of the existence of terrible beings be culturally transmitted, and playing with dolls or totems, attributing personalities and intentions to inanimate objects, but knowing it’s just a game?
What if we placed a large mechanical chimpanzee inside an ape’s cage, which gave him fruit if he begged for it? They are good at asking insistently, so they would implore, crossing themselves if they found it worked. And on seeing others crossing themselves, they would know what the others were trying to do and would do it together, if asking all together were more effective. And the ones that had greater influence with the furry Buddha would acquire a higher rank, and access to females…
Like the classic explanation of the Hopi rain dance, which is no good for making it rain, but helps create cohesion…
Again we return to the magic number and an asexual and group-centred explanation that doesn’t take us back to individual reproductive advantage, but rather to collective wellbeing However, humour, which relaxes, unites and reconciles, is noticeably missing from religions. Many religions repress and rebuke humour as well as physical contact and dance. By contrast, religious leaders’ control of sexuality and right to sex as they please is a persistent feature of the most diverse religions and sects worldwide, ranging from Trokosi ritual servitude (in which he who claims to speak to the gods can take any girl he pleases and have up to 100 sexual and agricultural slaves) to the nymphs, sexual and domestic slaves of monks from so many countries, to the prostitutes of the temples, the many sects described in The Human Story, and the sex scandals that constantly appear in the press… And it all fits in with the standard biological explanation of male behaviour: power and control of sexuality and of women…
The faithful would have nowhere to go, without a mate, or any friends…
In many species where males represent more of a threat than a help, females prefer a smaller part of a higher status male than a larger part of a lower status male.
Well, I have survived the physical and social coldness of numerous countries thanks to dancing Salsa. You do exercise, and make friends, you’re part of a group that always seems glad to see you, and you disconnect more easily than meditating, because you have to concentrate on the steps and count them like a mantra. I think the English national health system could save a lot by encouraging Salsa, which doesn’t have the stigma attached to counselling services…
I don’t know whether Dunbar would have been a great philosopher. He is most certainly an interesting scientist, bursting with information, ideas and questions and his sense of humour is catching. Also his ability to decipher the most diverse phenomena, from the size of the neocortex to religious rituals, even the use of Facebook, with a single number, is a fascinating example of scientific parsimony.
Paula Casal. ICREA Research Professor (Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies), University Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona). Vice President of the Great Ape Project.
| © J. French
«We have begun to realise how, in social species, antisocial behaviour may have long-term costs for the individual that outweigh the immediate benefits»
«Sociability is a female reproductive strategy. They are at the centre of primate sociality. Also, the brain size of a species increases in line with the female group size of that species»
«Men are emotional creatures; women are the ones that think. This is in line with what we mentioned earlier: females are the centre of society. Men are like bees around honey –all they do is lurk around waiting for the chance to mate»
© J. French
«Like all primates, we need closeness and contact with our fellows, so, feeling united and supported, we secrete endorphins that help us relax, stimulate our immune system and make us feel good»
«The strong emotional power religion has over people is greater when there are strict rules regarding the distance you must keep from others»