dunbar’s number

in the last post on greece, we saw that one greek man in the village under study had 122 relatives living in the village of 551 persons — and much more than that if his in-laws were taken into account. in fact, he was probably related, in some form or another, to half the village.

the idea of dunbar’s number is that the maximum number of people that someone can keep track of socially is something around 150 (or between 100 and 230):

“Dunbar’s number is suggested to be a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group…. Dunbar’s number was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who theorized that ‘this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.’ On the periphery, the number also includes past colleagues such as high school friends with whom a person would want to reacquaint oneself if they met again.”

i’ve always been a bit suspicious of the dunbar number because, like the man from greece, i have a big extended family — and i can keep track of them all with no problem. on just one side of my family, for instance, i’ve got: 2 grandparents, 10 uncles and aunts, 19 first-cousins and 30 first-cousins-once-removed. and i know them all (some i know better than others ’cause i’ve interacted with them more, but that’s mostly because i don’t live back in the old country and my opportunities to socialize with them all have been limited). that’s 61 people right there. and i’m not even counting my 16 great-uncles and aunts and all their children and grand-children (my second cousins and their children) — about two-thirds of whom i know fairly well.

and that’s just the one side of my family! if i add both sides of the family up (and i might be missing some of the children of the second cousins that i’ve never met), i’ve got ca. 270 individuals in my extended family!

on top of knowing and socializing with your own extended family, back in the old country from whence my people hail, the natives are used to keeping track of all the other extended families in the area as well. and interacting with all of them on a daily basis.

so i really don’t get the dunbar number. maybe it applied to our hunter-gatherer ancestors in the distant past, i dunno. but i’m not convinced it applies to settled agriculturalists. and we’ve been that for quite some time now.

(note: comments do not require an email. family tree.)


  1. Maybe the Dunbar number is the typical number of people a typical individual did keep up with, not the maximum. Anyway you’re a lot smarter than the average person — and I wish I had a big family like that!


  2. @luke – “I wish I had a big family like that!”

    you want some of ’em? i got a couple i’d be willing to part with. (~_^)

    i was thinking, tho, that a lot of extended families in traditional, agricultural societies must be, and must have been, this large. or maybe not. maybe it’s a modern thing with greater survival rates? hmmmm.


  3. My grandmother on mother’s side was one of twelve. And that’s the side of the family where all the good stories come from. Want to hear about the king of Crow Creek? Made his fortune by driving a herd of pigs to Memphis, then bought up the Little Crow Creek Valley. The Chattanooga-Nashville Railroad was going through in the mid-1880’s and the wife of the engineer in charge of laying out the line stayed in the king’s house for a while, until her husband was murdered (?), and tells about it in her memoirs.

    The first morning she woke up a young woman came into her bedroom to a large wooden box in the middle of the floor. She reached in and pulled out a jug of whiskey. “What are you going to do with that?” the lady asked. “Why I’m going to drink it myself,” she replied. The women smoked pipes according to her, and at mealtimes, when all the hands came in from the fields — I used to visit that farm as a boy by the way, and fell in love with my cousin! — there were never less than forty sitting down with a lot of illegitimate children running around. The lady asked the king about them and he replied — the only direct quote of any of my ancestors — “tain’t there fault.”

    Uncle John’s farm. They don’t make em like that anymore, at least in my family.


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