Briefly stated, there is a cognitive maximum size of a 'tribe' the human monkey-brain has evolved to credibly cope with and manage: that number is 150. Beyond that, we need systems, formalized codes of conduct to deal with those outside whatever we classify as our own tribe - and our capacity for empathy drops precipitously for those who do not live within that sphere.
David Wong, whose hysterical Ultimate War Simulation I first came across a few years ago, wrote on the subject of Dunbar's number in The Monkeysphere.
Famous news talking guy Tim Russert tells a charming story in his book Big Russ and Me (the title referring to his on-and-off romance with actor Russell Crowe) about his father, who used to take half an hour to carefully box up any broken glass before taking it to the trash. Why? Because "the trash guy might cut his hands."
That this was such an odd thing to do illustrates my monkey point. None of us spend time worrying too much about the garbage man's welfare even though he performs a crucial role in not forcing us to live in a cave carved from a mountain of our own filth. We don't usually consider his safety or comfort at all and if we do, it's not in the same way we would worry over our best friend or wife or girlfriend or even our dog.
[O]ne way or another we all have limits to our sphere of monkey concern. It's simply the way our brains are built. We each have a certain circle of people who we think of as people. Usually it's our own friends and family and neighbors and classmates and coworkers (or at least the ones in your department) and church or suicide cult.
This is literally the reason society doesn't work quite right. The people who exist outside that core group of a few dozen people are not people to us. They're sort of one-dimensional bit characters.
Remember the first time, as a kid, you met one of your school teachers outside the classroom? Maybe you saw old Miss Puckerson at Taco Bell picking up and eating a whole Taco Salad with her bare hands? Or you saw your principal walking out of a dildo shop?
6. That's not my fault! I don't know those people!
Right. And they don't know you. That's why they don't mind stealing your stereo or vandalizing your house or cutting your wages or raising your taxes or bombing your office building or choking your computer with spam advertising diet and penis drugs they know don't work. You're outside their Monkeysphere. In their mind, you're just a vague shape with a pocket full of money for the taking.
That's the whole thing, right here. Life on Earth, in a nutshell. We are hard-wired to have a drastic double standard for the people inside and out of our Monkeysphere and those outside make up 99.999% of the world's population.
- Inside the Monkeysphere
The problem for me is there is no one single easily-identifiable 'tribe' I feel fully at home in - for most of my life, I've felt like an outsider in nearly social group I was putatively a member. Whether it's the community of free-market libertarians, sleight-of-hand magicians, vegetarians, gun owners, film enthusiasts or Chinese-Americans, I never felt fully comfortable within the Venn diagram of any of these worlds, even though I find myself actively participating in all of them.
Perhaps my tribe is elsewhere - another world, another time, and this is just a way-station en route.
P.S. There were a few technical glitches in the audio of my interview with Asian Playboy; will be cleaning up those files this afternoon and posting it by Tuesday.
Until then ...