First, what's a monkeysphere and why does it have such a dumb name? Well, the term itself is just another name for Dunbar's Number. See, this anthropologist Robin Dunbar did a study back in the early 90s, involving some of our primate cousins and a bunch of mathematical figurin', and came up with a theory about why we humans can be such assholes to our fellow humans. The basic idea is that we can only conceptualize a certain number of people as real people and then the rest just become a vast group of "other". The size of our brains decides this number for us. As humans, we can apparently handle a group of perhaps 150 - 300 people as real individuals. Our lesser cousins can only recognize, and thus peacefully live in, much smaller groups. Chimps and such maintain these groups by social grooming and there's even a theory that human speech developed because our groups kept growing and we simply didn't have enough time to socially groom each other. So, we started talking to maintain social bonds. Verbal communication replaced grooming, how 'bout that?
Anyway, back to the theory. Since we can only conceptualize a certain number of people as real individuals the rest are little more than walking statistics. For instance, we are deeply disturbed if someone we know and love is killed in an accident. But if a thousand people are killed somewhere in the Pacific by an earthquake we aren't all that bothered by it. We might say something like "oh, that's awful" and perhaps donate some money to the rescue efforts but that's about it. We aren't all that broken up by it even though many, many more lives were lost. And why is that? Those thousand people killed in that disaster are just as real as you and me. They were just as alive as we are now. And now they are just as dead as our loved one killed in the accident. But because they are outside our little sphere they don't matter as much. We don't know them personally, we can't recognize them as real people and so we don't feel as bad.
Or think of it this way.
Remember how yesterday you got cut off in traffic and flipped the bird and shouted several vile things at the offending driver? Think about what you said and did. Would you feel comfortable saying such things to someone you actually know? Probably not. And why? Because you know them and you know how much it would hurt them. And you also know that, if this someone you knew did something to piss you off, they were probably distracted by their own problems and didn't realize they were wronging you. But you could easily say horrible things to the jerk on the freeway because you don't have the concept of him/her as a real person in your mind. Why? Because that stranger on the road is outside your monkeysphere and doesn't qualify as one of your group.
Now, about us being total assholes to our fellow humans. Ya know how we always wonder how terrorists can do the horrible things they do? Well, it's because they don't see anyone outside their little sphere as real. So, it's kinda easy for them to do the things they do as they only conceptualize a few hundred people as real, as relevant. They can easily arrange the deaths of thousands because none of those thousands are real. The same goes for us when we think of them. We don't know them, they aren't real people. They are simply listed under the heading "terrorist" and that's it. I'm not equating ideologies here, just relating how the monkeysphere phenomenon affects all of us regardless of our politics or views on wholesale murder which is, obviously, the business to which most terrorists are devoted.
Where am I going with this? I don't know. I've just been wondering about the nature of human cruelty lately and how the monkeysphere theory relates to it. The psychiatrists of the world say that certain types of people lack the ability to see others, even those who should be within their monkeysphere, as real. That's why some violent criminals lack empathy for their victims; they aren't real in their eyes, which I guess makes some sense. If you don't see anyone as a real person it would be a lot easier to rape, beat, torture and kill them.
And I wonder if our constantly growing populations are only making the asshole behavior worse. If there are more and more and more of us there's too many to recognize and so we become more and more discourteous to others because they aren't real people. They are "other". And this lack of courtesy become rudeness and agitation, disdain and can eventually lead to outright cruelty and violence. I can't prove any of this of course. I can only use myself as an example. You see, I am not a social person, never have been. I am a hermit by nature and I rarely leave the house (and by rarely I mean I leave the house twice, maybe three times a month) so my monkeysphere of people I physically interact with is very small. I believe this is what enables me to be much more courteous to others who often receive abuse, like cashiers and others in the service industry. My monkeysphere is small so I find it quite easy to recognize pretty much everyone I come across as a real, genuine, feeling, thinking, breathing, living, growing, aging individual. And I know this hasn't always been the case.
For instance, when I worked in a busy hospital, and came across hundreds of people each day, I was much more likely to see patients as faceless, nameless numbers. There were simply too many to include in my personal monkeysphere. This helped me maintain my sanity to a degree by allowing me to distance myself from their pain and discomfort. But it also hurt me, and them, in the sense that I wasn't always as compassionate and understanding as I could have been. I wasn't trying to be insensitive; I couldn't help it. Simply put, my monkeysphere was full to max capacity leaving little room for compassion.
So perhaps our exponentially growing population is doing more damage than we realize at first glance. We're not just straining our resources to the breaking point. We're not just damaging our environment, perhaps irrevocably. We're not just mismanaging food and social services leaving many out in the cold and starving. If this monkeysphere idea is the real deal we are forcing ourselves to relegate most of the world into a realm where they don't exist as real people.
I'll have more to say about the monkeysphere theory in forthcoming bloggings. I'm especially interested in how it relates to our wild and wonderful internet world and the somewhat bizarre communications and relationships that spring from it.