Session Proposal: The Dunbar Number: Implications and strategies for community health

Hi All, Harrison from Biosphere(x) here. Would people be interested in a workshop such as this?

What is a human scale? Our new social patterns brought upon by technology suggest we can be comfortable navigating millions innumerable online profiles and groups, while a culture of quantified self help pushes us towards a solitary pursuit of personal meaning and growth. Far from being disparate issues, this session will establish that the dilution of connections and the anxiety induced by quests of self improvement are 2 sides of the same coin.

In the 1990s, anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed a number which lies between 100 and 250 (150 is commonly used) as the amount of relationships a person can comfortably maintain. As the Dunbar Number is just a suggested cognitive limit, we will explore its implications for well being without wading into dogma. What does awareness for the Dunbar number do for our personal ability to care for ourselves and each other? We will attempt to formulate strategies for healing, learning from ancestral and contemporary precedent, and leave with tools that hopefully can scale in our native environments.


Harrison, love the proposal. I think this is such a great topic for this community as we work with issues around enlarged communities and the balance between hyper-local and international.

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IMHO this session would benefit from data. What has been tried? What worked, what imploded?

Ping @johncoate and @lasindias, who have perhaps the broadest databases on peer-to-peer care (file under “communities”) I know. @lakomaa and @tino_sanandaji might also have insights based on their own work and data.

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My experience living in a large intentional community showed me that you can get that number higher - maybe up closer to 400 or more - if you have a high level of agreement among the people. And there have been large monasteries, Amish communities, and the like that succeed. But such groups sit at the high end of personal and social agreement.

My experience at The Farm was that with fewer than 400 I knew everyone by their first name and I knew something about them and their personalities and styles. If I lived in a household with them or worked with them I knew them still better, as you would expect. As that number went higher our ability to really know each other well diminished.

However, there were benefits to bigger numbers because it meant a greater diversity of skills and community services.

Where it began to really break down was when the population outgrew our ability to improve our standard of living.

I said at one point in this weeks community call that there can be a risk of “biting off more than you can chew.” We did that. It didn’t go well, even though that period (late 70s - early 80s) was also characterized by us doing some of our most valuable contributions to the larger society such as the Bronx ambulance service and the bilingual clinic in DC and the soy protein project in Guatemala. By the way, that clinic and that soy dairy still operate on their own even though we no longer have a direct hand in it.


Hey John, Thanks for sharing experience. The point about the “ability to improve standard of living” is really illuminating. I will chew more on that and incorporate it into the session flow.

My hope for the session isn’t to uncover what the actual numbers are, it’s to establish that there are limits (more like ranges of limits), and what that means for us in terms of organizing and health. 400 is awesome. You guys must have had great systems in place that addressed the local contexts really well.

I would wager that there’s much more to the limit than the neo-cortex. Land carrying capacities and economic conditions should be respected and also addressed. Trying to keep it to community health, so thankfully should be less ground to cover than trying to reframe the whole of this society (though time well tell just how easy it is :wink: health isn’t straight forward at all~)

Yes! And it seems that what has worked worked also wouldn’t have as much data available because many have been erased from our public consciousness.

I’m definitely interested in what would work in the now. I’m game!

What about lower bounds? At The Reef, with 3-4 people, if we want to have a communal dinner we have to make a (small) effort. Exert discipline. But at the unMonastery Matera, with maybe 10-12, this was just natural. Any one person was free to bail out on meals for whatever reason. But everyone knew that they could count on dinner to happen, with 6-10 people. The person on kitchen duty would ask around to get an idea on whether it would be more like 6 or more like 10, but no big deal either way, leftovers would be put away and quickly wiped out by the next hungry unBrethren.

In other words, when you get to 6-8 people the system of communal meals with “kitchen duty” combines conviviality and individual freedom. Also, it is very, very economically efficient: it turned out we had overestimated the running costs by 50%! I see a risk of breakdown by “too few” as by “too many”. I admit never having read Robin Dunbar’s work. Maybe there is something about the optimal size of human groups, not just their maximal size.


Hey Alberto,

Totally on point. My description actually should have been more specific. Definitely need to address lower as well as upper bounds. The way that our technology and myths drive us towards individual pursuits and promised reward/glory is some sort of emergent divide and conquer in my book. Yes, I would like to put forward prescriptive sizing for different types of health scenarios, based in precedent, and backed by data :slight_smile:

Hey @aquamammal
Thanks for the session today. Still chewing on it in an effort to calm my brain enough to sleep…

Some of us are going through the notes that we collaboratively produced, but it was so fast and rich I think they don’t do the presentation justice. Basically people got the bulletpoints on the slides but not much else. So we need to flesh it out. Are you around tomorrow for an interview/chat with me if @SyMorin or @unknown_author can do an audio or video recording (whatever feels most comfortable)?

Also, maybe you have speaker notes to add to the document ?

Yes @nadia & @aquamammal

couldn’t make it yesterday, really want to hear a little about it.

got a recorder (thanks to laurel), I’m in the main hall all day…


Hi Nadia!

If tomorrow works and there is some time I’m totally down. Sorry for the delayed response.