How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks by Robin Dunbar
This book was recommended to me off of Amazon, and it seemed a sure bet: pop science, original research, and heavy on the sociology. The title refers to Dunbar’s number, the maximum number of people that a person can reasonably be expected to know socially. I’ve heard of this number, and knew something of its background (results from maximum hunter-gatherer tribal sizes and proves that people who have a gazillion friends on FB are just silly). I’d hoped this book would explore similar topics.
The good news, it does. As the cover text promises, it covers many aspects of sociology, from lonely hearts advertisements to job seekers to why most voters pick taller presidential candidates. The subjects are varied and sundry, and presented in such a way that people who have never heard these ideas can understand them.
I did have a few problems with this book. Firstly, I get a little irritated with the Fred Flintstone myth. I made that term up, but you know what I mean. When they say “back when our ancestors were on the savanna” or “back when our ancestors had to hunt mastodon for dinner.” I dislike this because it’s a readily accepted, easily recognized myth, but I’m not sure of its veracity or significance. There’s this idea that evolution only happened in a specific period of time, and then it stopped.
For example, I have a hard time picturing people as being wanderers on the savanna, because no one lives on savannas today, they live on coasts. Look at a map of the world. Where do people live? Coasts and rivers. Where do people not live? Grasslands. (read THE DESCENT OF WOMAN for some interesting insights into this) and I kind of roll my eyes at the notion of all men’s spear-chucking prowress (and language, and god knows what else) being attributed to needing to take down mastadons. I cry shenanigans. 1. there are much easier ways to hunt if you aren’t concerned about sport, for example, deadfall traps, brush fires, chasing animals off cliffs, etc. and 2. the animals people are most likely to kill are other people. (read CONSTANT BATTLES for insight into this) Cavemen and cave women and cave children rodents and monkeys into a pit of spikes isn’t as sexy as brave spearmen carrying home a mastodon. Fred bashing Barney over the head with a rock doesn’t fit the Fred Flintstone myth. The Fred Flintstone myth is familiar and easy, which makes it a good tool for explaining things to junior high school kids who don’t know about evolution, but I want a few more facts to back things up.
Which brings me into my other complaint about the book. I guess it’s nice that it’s easy to read and touches on a lot of different topics, but, again, I want something a little meatier. I wanted something that elucidated something I didn’t already know about the subject, and I wanted suppositions supported by facts. These read more like articles that were published in a for-public-consumption magazine, where most readers have only a cursory interest in science.
I recommend this for people who are mildly interested in evolutionary sociology, but who want it sexy and watered-down.
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