I was reminded today of Dunbar’s number– the theoretical numerical limit of people that we can maintain meaningful relationship with- relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person in the group.
The suggestion made is that for groups to be cohesive and integrated beyond this number, then increasingly rules and enforced norms have to be used. Dunbar proposed this number as a result of studying primate groups.
The number has been argued about in anthropological circles, but is somewhere between 100-150.
Strangely this number corresponds to the average number of Facebook friends (I have around 120 I think. Michaela has many more, but then she is a very sociable kind of monkey.) I have written before about how Facebook, useful and clever though it is, can reduce communication to a kind of cyber-autism.
The other figure that is relevant though is the number of people with whom you can sustain intimate, deeper friendship- our close community. This is a much smaller number- usually thought to be between 5 and 10.
Even if these figures are more or less accurate (and we humans form a broad bell curve on just about everything) then so what?
If these numbers are a feature of the limitations of our cerebral cortex as Dunbar suggested, then it would mean that we humans (who are above all things SOCIAL animals) are at our best in small groups.
There are clear evolutionary and anthropological implications for this- but of course, I am interested too in the theological ones. These are the things that seemed important to me-
Jesus called us to live in communities, where we might learn to practice the mysterious and challenging ways of love.
And although this love was never intended to be restricted to our small groups, we simply can not be all things to everyone. Start with were you are, and seek to live graciously and generously. Accepting that you will fail.
And there will be some who we are called towards deeper relationship with- soul friendship.
This kind of relationship requires so much more than informational exchange, status updates and Mafia wars games.
It needs flesh.