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How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar's Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks

Overview

Why do men talk and women gossip, and which is better for you? Why is monogamy a drain on the brain? And why should you be suspicious of someone who has more than 150 friends on Facebook?

We are the product of our evolutionary history, and this history colors our everyday lives—from why we joke to the depth of our religious beliefs. In How Many Friends Does One Person Need? Robin Dunbar uses groundbreaking experiments that have forever changed ...

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How Many Friends Does One Person Need? Dunbar's Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks

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Overview

Why do men talk and women gossip, and which is better for you? Why is monogamy a drain on the brain? And why should you be suspicious of someone who has more than 150 friends on Facebook?

We are the product of our evolutionary history, and this history colors our everyday lives—from why we joke to the depth of our religious beliefs. In How Many Friends Does One Person Need? Robin Dunbar uses groundbreaking experiments that have forever changed the way evolutionary biologists explain how the distant past underpins our current ­behavior.

We know so much more now than Darwin ever did, but the core of modern evolutionary theory lies firmly in Darwin’s elegantly simple idea: organisms behave in ways that enhance the frequency with which genes are passed on to future generations. This idea is at the heart of Dunbar’s book, which seeks to explain why humans behave as they do. Stimulating, provocative, and immensely enjoyable, his book invites you to explore the number of friends you have, whether you have your father’s brain or your mother’s, whether morning sickness might actually be good for you, why Barack Obama’s 2008 victory was a foregone conclusion, what Gaelic has to do with frankincense, and why we laugh. In the process, Dunbar examines the role of religion in human evolution, the fact that most of us have unexpectedly famous ancestors, and why men and women never seem able to see eye to eye on color.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In an entertaining and informative new work, evolutionary psychologist and Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford, Dunbar (Evolutionary Psychology) investigates the ways in which evolution is still at work in homo sapiens, and the brain functions and abilities that separate us from other species. Covering an impressive breadth of topics and disciplines, Dunbar explores the ways in which our brains control every aspect of our social lives (surprise, we are less complicated than we think). Our needs, preferences, and commonalities are a function of what—not who—we are. Dunbar addresses the unusually large size of the human brain and concludes that monogamy is at fault; the brains of more promiscuous species are much smaller. Comparing the length of pregnancy in various species, he states that "human babies are born wildly premature"; in mammals, gestation time is dictated by the size of the brain, and humans "ought to have a gestation of twenty-one months." Full of interesting facts and Dunbar's winning personality, his effort reads like a fascinating lecture that most readers would be all-too-happy to attend. (Nov.)
Booklist

Lucid and provocative.
— Bryce Christensen

Los Angeles Review of Books

For the past thirty years [Dunbar] has conducted research designed to uncover the workings of our ancestral hardware: to decode the scripts that drive much of our behavior and make us what we are as a species. Although Dunbar emphasizes the value of kin, he is anything but a sentimentalist. In this book, he chases after averages and patterns, after predictive links between current behavioral and physical traits and what, in the Pleistocene or Neolithic past, would most likely have been mating or survival advantages...In general, understanding the Darwinian back-story of our species is arguably a way to short-circuit the infelicities of our gut responses: a way to combat gut-level racism, sexism, beauty/symmetry biases, height biases, ageism, and the many variants of tribalism and jingoism...Dunbar shows that, if we go far enough back in our family trees, we are all the product of a tangled skein of heroes and villains, of conquering populations and conquered ones, of dominant and minority races, of in-groups and out-groups. Whether we as individuals call ourselves one or the other is often just a matter of how far back in time we set our stakes combined with the limits of our instruments for probing ourselves. Knowledge such as this may well be the only way out of the ancestral cave.
— Michele Pridmore-Brown

Portland Book Review

It is an entertaining as well as informative read.
— Rosalie West

Barnes & Noble Review

[A] fascinating volume that ranges widely across time, space and human practices...Tossing off light-hearted examinations of such fairly innocent topics as why we kiss and why all babies look very much alike, Dunbar is unafraid to tackle sensitive and controversial issues as well. These essays deal with race, gender, intelligence, class, and nationality in dispassionate and unflinching ways that do not seek to cushion hard facts with mealy-mouthed sanctimony...Far from being a catalogue of gloom and doom, this book leaves the reader marvelling at how far homo sapiens has come, and how far we might yet ascend.
— Paul Di Filippo

Kate Douglas
An eclectic collection of essays on humanity and evolution with something for everyone. Dunbar explains, among other things, why monogamists need big brains, why it is worth buying a new suit for an interview, how to interpret an advert in a lonely hearts column, the perils of messing with evolution and, of course, how many friends one person needs (150 as it happens, aka "Dunbar's number"). He speaks with authority and seduces us as only a master storyteller can.
Booklist - Bryce Christensen
Lucid and provocative.
Barnes & Noble Review - Paul Di Filippo
[A] fascinating volume that ranges widely across time, space and human practices...Tossing off light-hearted examinations of such fairly innocent topics as why we kiss and why all babies look very much alike, Dunbar is unafraid to tackle sensitive and controversial issues as well. These essays deal with race, gender, intelligence, class, and nationality in dispassionate and unflinching ways that do not seek to cushion hard facts with mealy-mouthed sanctimony...Far from being a catalogue of gloom and doom, this book leaves the reader marvelling at how far homo sapiens has come, and how far we might yet ascend.
Los Angeles Review of Books - Michele Pridmore-Brown
For the past thirty years [Dunbar] has conducted research designed to uncover the workings of our ancestral hardware: to decode the scripts that drive much of our behavior and make us what we are as a species. Although Dunbar emphasizes the value of kin, he is anything but a sentimentalist. In this book, he chases after averages and patterns, after predictive links between current behavioral and physical traits and what, in the Pleistocene or Neolithic past, would most likely have been mating or survival advantages...In general, understanding the Darwinian back-story of our species is arguably a way to short-circuit the infelicities of our gut responses: a way to combat gut-level racism, sexism, beauty/symmetry biases, height biases, ageism, and the many variants of tribalism and jingoism...Dunbar shows that, if we go far enough back in our family trees, we are all the product of a tangled skein of heroes and villains, of conquering populations and conquered ones, of dominant and minority races, of in-groups and out-groups. Whether we as individuals call ourselves one or the other is often just a matter of how far back in time we set our stakes combined with the limits of our instruments for probing ourselves. Knowledge such as this may well be the only way out of the ancestral cave.
Portland Book Review - Rosalie West
It is an entertaining as well as informative read.
Booklist
Lucid and provocative.
— Bryce Christensen
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674057166
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/2010
  • Pages: 312
  • Sales rank: 1,285,885
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Robin Dunbar is Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and Director of the Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements 1

1 In the Beginning 3

2 The Monogamous Brain 11

3 Dunbar's Number 21

4 Kith and Kin 35

5 The Ancestors that Still Haunt Us 47

6 Bonds that Bind 61

7 Why Gossip is Good for You 73

8 Scars of Evolution 85

9 Who'd Mess with Evolution? 99

10 The Darwin Wars 113

11 So Near, and Yet So Far 127

12 Farewell, Cousins 143

13 Stone Age Psychology 161

14 Natural Minds 175

15 How to Join the Culture Club 191

16 Be Smart...Live Longer 203

17 Beautiful Science 215

18 Are You Lonesome Tonight? 227

19 Eskimos Rub Noses 243

20 Your Cheating Heart 253

21 Morality on the Brain 267

22 How Evolution Found God 279

Index 293

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 14, 2011

    Recommended, even if you don't believe in evolution

    I have to say from the start that I am a 'religious' person, and this is a book purely from an evolution point of view. While I do believe in God, I also believe in critical thinking (I don't see why God could not as easily used evolution as a tool for creation vs. us being 'poofed' into existence). I don't want to start a debate, I just want to say that this is not a book that is an attack on the belief in the existence of God. In fact, I see a lot of merit in the last chapter, which is about the evolution of religion (okay, I admit I found that concept in itself funny). I recommend this book because the subject is easily digestible by a lay person (such as myself). The first few chapters explain the Dunbar number in an entertaining and educational way (the author is smart, but not 'dry'). The majority of the book does talk about evolution; I started to think the author had gone off the runway and was headed God knows where, but the last few chapters neatly wrap the concepts together. So if you like the beginning and feel the way I did ("what does this have to do with the Dunbar number?"), definitely hang in there for the well-crafted finale. There's some really good advice for lonely hearts in there too...

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted May 4, 2012

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    Posted December 27, 2011

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