By Ellen McGirt
March 13, 2017

One of the most famous social scientists in the world has a new theory for why humans became intelligent, socialized creatures: Religion.

Oxford anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar is most famous for his “Dunbar’s number,” a quantifier of the social capacity of an individual based on the size of the human brain. According to the academic, a person can have about 150 in his or her larger social group, an ideal “dinner party” crowd of 50, and a more intimate circle of 15 (the people you’d turn to for support and sympathy). As for the group closest to one’s heart? It’s around five people.

Dunbar, an evolutionary thinker, has been noodling on these numbers for years. His current theory about religion came from his quest to understand why the biggest number is so high. What binds large groups of people together? “Most of these things we’re looking at, you get in religion in one form or another,” Dunbar told the Washington Post in a recent story.

He’s not alone. There has been a new surge in scientific thinking about religion, and why—despite the many conflicts it continues to cause—it has lasted for so long. The answer: It may very well be that it is a key element in driving social connection, which, in turn, has helped societies grow.

“You need something quite literally to stop everybody from killing everybody else out of just crossness,” he said in the same Washington Post story. “Somehow it’s clear that religions, all these doctrinal religions, create the sense that we’re all one family.”

Dunbar has other research showing how some of the specific elements of religion help reinforce social bonds – like dancing, singing, ritual and storytelling. But it’s the spiritual element that that amplifies it all. “Once you’ve triggered that, you’re in, I think, a different ballgame. It ramps up massively. That’s what’s triggered. There’s something there.”

Dunbar and his team are starting a three-year research project to study this theory. They plan to use statistical modeling to chart the evolution of religion and identify when and how religions overlap, which should be a fascinating conversation on its own.

But all of this makes the obsession that founding engineers at Facebook, Twitter and the like had with using Dunbar’s famous number to scale their platforms seem like an even bigger missed opportunity. Is all the current abuse and misinformation a design flaw, or just human nature armed with digital megaphones?

While that may be an overdramatic framing, here’s what isn’t. The way we’re keeping the faith, whether it’s spiritual or secular, is changing. Here’s just one example – according to Pew Research Center, nearly 40% of marriages since 2010 are interfaith, as opposed to 19% for those married before 1960. That feels like hope to me. But letting everyone’s little light shine can be hard work, particularly in the digital age. Maybe in a few years, we’ll get a cool-sounding phrase from the Dunbar team to help us all get along.


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