deconstructing monkey politics 5.30.2005

Inside the Monkeysphere

The thesis of the above linked essay can be boiled down to the following: there seems to be a direct correlation between brain size in primates and the size of a typical monkey troop. When the same rough formula is extrapolated to human beings, it turns out our brain size gives us an ideal "troop" size of around 150.

This is the "monkey sphere." It is the sphere of people that we are able to conceptualize as other people. Beyond the monkey sphere are other people who we are simply incapable, due to biology, to conceptualize as real: they become what a friend of mine once called (of other people) "non-player characters." It's not that they aren't real; it's that our biology prohibits us from actually visualizing them as real people.

So, for example, the trash man, if he lives outside our individual "monkey sphere", isn't a real person who gets up in the morning, showers, gets dressed, kisses his wife and children on the way out the door, knocks off for beer afterwards with his buddies or roots for the home town team while munching popcorn. Instead, to those of us whose trash he collects, he is "the thing that makes the trash go away."

Here is an example of the nature of the monkey sphere as it applies to our understanding of the news. Which would hit you harder? Your brother dying of some disease, or a bus full of Russian school children coming to a terrible end because of a faulty brake line? Your mother finally succumbing to old age, or a bunch of soldiers in Bosnia being ambushed and shot through the head?

Honestly? My brother or my mother reaching an untimely end would be harder on me.

They're in my monkey sphere. The Russian school children are not. And they are immediate family, which inhabits the perhaps 20 or so people who is our biological upper limit for "close confidants", as predetermined by brain volume for primate species.

So what does this have to do with governmental politics? Everything.

Fundamentally anyone outside our own individual "monkey sphere" cannot really be real to us: they are those "others" who inhabit the shadows on the fringes of our reality. And because they aren't real, it is easier for us to ascribe negative attributes to them than it is to those we actually know, and those who are close to us.

And this has an impact on democracy, which requires to some degree an implicit trust in those who we are biologically incapable of perceiving as real honest-to-God human beings. After all, it's one thing to trust your friend, your neighbor or your co-workers. It's another to trust an anonymous mass of people.

This is perhaps why Native American tribes and African villages and ancient Welsh settlements tend to be roughly the same size in population. This represents our "monkey troop", the maximum size by which we are biologically capable of comprehending and coming to some degree of understanding with. This is why Roman centurions are known as "centurions"; because their military unit size of 100 (a "century") is roughly the same order of magnitude as our monkey sphere. This is even why larger governmental organizations evolved the way they did; a representative from one smaller organizational unit (an ancient tribal village, a small Welsh settlement, a neighborhood watch committee) would come together in a higher organizational unit (the tribal elders, the Welsh county seat, the city representatives) to settle resource allotment to the lower group: each group everyone deals with is within the size of the monkey sphere, even though decisions eventually were being settled for groups many orders of magnitude than the monkey sphere would allow.

There is one thing that separates us from the monkeys, though that thing has really only helped separate us for maybe 1/10th of the time human beings have actually been walking the earth. And that is a coherent system of philosophy and thinking which allows us to overcome the monkey sphere. Governmental organizations first may evolved out of necessity and out of the reality that while we can only comprehend a monkey sphere full of people, it takes more than a monkey sphere for us to survive: it certainly took more than a village to settle and use the Nile, Mesopotamia or Mexico. But key to the evolution of such larger structures was the realization--and corporate memory of the realization--that such larger structures are worth creating, even if it means trusting people outside our monkey sphere.

It took those two things coming together: a method of preserving and passing down corporate (or group) memory through writing, and a realization that it takes more than a village to survive, that allowed us to leap from isolated tribes (that we had for the first few tens of thousands of years of existence) to large governments and bureaucracies and cooperation with millions of monkeys, rather than the hundred and fifty we can comprehend.

This need for survival and comfort afforded to us by structures too large for us to comprehend places us forever in conflict with our monkey brains. And it is that conflict, between our monkey brains which cannot see anyone outside of our monkey sphere as real human beings, and our need to form larger organizational units in order to assure the continued survival of our species, which leads to great uncertainty as to how we should form those organizational units.

posted by William Woody at 1:17 PM

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A moderate conservative living in the left coast, surrounded by the sureal, wonders if there is a sane life living amongst those who have lost touch with reality.

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