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How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar's Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks Hardcover – 2010

4.0 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Hardcover
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber (2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571253423
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571253425
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1.1 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,639,039 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition
I first encountered Robin Dunbar with his excellent book* "Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language", where he put forth the theory that gossip replaced grooming as we evolved from ape to human, thus allowing larger social groups to form. (This, in fact, is the topic that inspired the title of the current book. His answer is about 150, "Dunbar's Number".)

This book is a collection of previously published articles which have been updated for the book. As such, it doesn't have a strong, integrating theme. But it does provide a series of provocative insights into why we are as we are. Dunbar explains how our evolution has shaped how we are, what traits we share with the great apes and where we have surpassed them, and why we act as we do.

In a lively skip through many topics, Dunbar covers topics like why gossip is good, why we like presidential candidates who are tall and have symmetrical faces, and why kissing may be an adaptation for choosing mates with desirable immune systems. (Yes, really.) He even considers why humans are such religious critters. All-in-all, a highly engaging and thought-provoking book.

* Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I thought it was a very good book. I found it very enjoyable to read. I also thought that it provides a lot to think about.

However, I didn't give it 4 or even 5 stars, because it has major flaws.

For one thing, at least in the Kindle edition, the author doesn't cite any references.

More seriously, a lot of the author's statements are just wrong.

For example:

In chapter 10 'The Darwin Wars', it's stated, "Chris Organ from Harvard University and his colleagues carried out the first successful extraction of DNA from a 65 million year old Tyrannosaurus rex ..." Well, no actually, it was collagen protein. DNA is so fragile that around 100,000 years remains its limit for recovery. The only reference to dinosaur DNA and Chris Organ I can find is his observation that the lacunae in fossil T rex bone (which previously contained the bone cells, osteocytes, are smaller, so therefore the osteocytes were smaller, so therefore the nuclei were smaller, so therefore the genomes were smaller (with less 'junk' DNA)-like contemporary birds (there might be one or two 'therefores' too many).

In the very same chapter, it's stated, discussing Kennewick Man the 9,000 year old remains found in Washington state, "There is now compelling evidence to suggest that the earliest inhabitants of North America did in fact come from Europe (the vicinity of Spain, as it happens)" sometime around 20,000 years ago". Again no; extraordinary claims (humans managed to cross the Atlantic, in a glaciation, and then crossed the entire North American continent?) need extraordinary proof. The alternate interpretation that Kennewick Man more closely resembles the Ainu of northern Japan and came from there is more plausible.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a collection of previous material from New Scientist, The Scotsman, and other periodicals. Stylistically, this makes it quite repetitive. For example, he says several times within a few pages that babies are born "wildly premature". A little more tight editing would make it feel like a cohesive whole.

What I find more grating is how he continually speaks as if our ancestors, and their genes, had changed behaviour based on knowledge of future hardship:

"... their descendants decided to increase the size of their brains dramatically ... The inspired solution our ancestors eventually came up with was ..."

Maybe I'm going a bit Dawkins, but this is not how it works. I know Dunbar doesn't think anything other than evolution is involved here, but it'd be far better if his wording reflected this. I know this is hard to do, and I struggle now to think of an alternate wording, but the assignment of intentionality should be avoided if possible.

Factually, it raises itself above a lazy New Scientist article by delivering an occasional nugget of information you wouldn't often see. For example, men have only one X chromosome meaning they have a heightened chance of colour vision defects arising from mutations, compared to women who have two X chromosomes and hence a backup copy. This also means that mutations in one X chromosome can lead to extra receptor types in women. In a very real way, women may see differently than men. I don't buy his followup argument that this is why women are supposedly more colour conscious than men. Still this is populist science, and a nice hook.

I've previously read Dunbar's
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, offers a fascinating collection of essays about the evolution of humans and human society. The answer to the book's title, "How Many Friends Does One Person Need?", is somewhere around 150 (Dunbar's Number). From groups of hunter-gatherers to well-run corporations and armies, the number 150 is a basic (and maximum) building block for human organizations. Groups with fewer than 150 individuals can generally function on a first name basis--members can actually know, to one degree or another, everyone in the group. Groups larger than 150 tend to exceed the capacity of individual members to keep track of social complexity, which means that, like large corporate enterprises, they need heirarchy and management to preserve manageable group structures.

According to Dunbar, the complexity of human society--not tools, or walking upright, or hunting--it the primary force driving the growth of the human brain. Our brains enable us to speak and sing and otherwise communicate with each other without actually touching, so we can groom each other at a distance, so to speak. Because our social interactions don't require one-on-one contact, human groups can be larger than the groups of our primate cousins--but group size still has a limit, which appears to be about 150.

Dunbar's book is very readable and is filled with fascinating tidbits, like the fact that all human infants (even the ones who are carried to a full nine month term) are born premature. For our children to be born at the same level of development as, say, a chimpanzee, the gestation period would need to be about 22 months.
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