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Has Religion Made Us Human?

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.

On Point

If the Mennonites are marching, things are badI’ve known several Mennonite executives, so I’m not as surprised as the author that they’re moved to activism in light of the president’s anti-immigration stance. But one recent sign, directed toward a local Pennsylvania politician who supports Trump, says it all: “300 years ago our Mennonite family took sanctuary in PA, just like yours did. Lancaster values immigrants.” The Mennonite church typically asks people to steer clear of politics, and believes strongly in a separation of church and state. But desperate times call for desperate measures, says Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce. “The Mennonites are the kind of stubborn people of faith for whom the First Amendment was designed and for whom the American principles of religious freedom was a beacon.”Esquire

How safe do the Jews feel these days?
The members of the Tucson Jewish Community Center celebrated Purim this past weekend with as much fear and sadness as celebration and sweets. They got their first bomb scare on February 27 but were prepared. “We were well-aware and well-informed since mid-January when this wave of calls to JCC’s began,” says Todd Rockoff, President and CEO of the Tucson JCC. “We used those opportunities to continue to reinforce our procedures.” But the day after the presidential election, which also happened to be the anniversary of Kristallnacht, alarming graffiti began showing up around Tucson: “With Jews you lose.” The director of Tucson’s Holocaust History Center said, “The signs are hard to read, but the way that many Jewish people read them–built into that reading is a lot of deep, intergenerational fear.” According to the FBI, more than half of all anti-religious hate crimes in the U.S. target Jewish populations.
Arizona Public Media

World to Rep. Steve King: ‘What do you mean we?’
It was one of the most blatantly racist statements from a public official in recent memory (at least since last September, when he tweeted, “Cultural suicide by demographic transformation must end.”) But Rep. Steve King (R-IA) topped himself yesterday when he tweeted this in support of Geert Wilders, an anti-immigrant hard-liner from the Netherlands: “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” The response on Twitter was swift. Click through for more about the many “sub-groups” King has expressed contempt for in the past.
Think Progress

A resource to grow your business and change your culture
This is the third year that John Maeda has delivered this report to a standing room crowd at SXSW. The former RISD leader, now a Kleiner-Perkins strategic adviser and head of Computational Design and Inclusion at Automattic, has always made the business case for more inclusive design. This report offers hard numbers to help you build your own case by examining M&A activity and making prescient observations how leading companies are embracing design principles for growth. This year’s report charts the rise of computational design, defined as designing for billions of individuals in real time and at scale. Expect lots of dollar signs up front for the “business types,” but he ends on a strong social justice note. I strongly recommend you download, review, share and build on this information. You can review the slides, watch the video or listen to just the audio.
Design In Tech Report

HBR: It’s lonely at the top
It’s not just a trope; the isolation associated with being a CEO or similarly high ranking leader is real and well documented. It’s also dangerous, says Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center. Power and privilege insulate you from the experiences and information you need to solve the big problems and capitalize on the big opportunities. “Ironically, to do what your exalted position demands, you must in some way escape your exalted position,” he says. Gregersen taps a diverse group of CEO-types for tips; all of them in some way say to reconnect to the front lines of your business and “[g]et out of the office today and spend more time being wrong, being uncomfortable, and being quiet.” Why not forward this article to your CEO with an invitation to come visit your team? You can share your new design ideas.

Education reform: More principals needed
Here’s something I didn’t know: Chicago’s high school graduation rate has climbed faster than the national rate, and teens are enrolling in college at a pace almost on par with the rest of the country. Younger kids have made impressive gains in math and reading, all despite a surge in crime and finger-wagging from the president and others. So what gives? A lot of stuff goes into the mix, says the New York Times’s David Leonhardt, like longer school days and more school choice. But what people tell him is that more engaged and better-prepared principals are tipping the scales in the right direction. “Our principals are the most accountable people in this system,” said Janice Jackson, the city’s chief education officer.
New York Times

The Woke Leader

Design challenge: Fighting bias in facial recognition software
MIT grad student Joy Buolamwini was one of the first researchers to notice a problem with certain types of facial recognition software, specifically because it didn’t recognize her own human face. The designers had failed to teach the computer to “see” people with certain skin tones and facial features. It began with interactions gone wrong with social robots, one which was trained to play peek-a-boo, another leading a product demo. Both recognized every face but hers. In this eight minute TED talk, she digs into how she’s solving the problem by giving computers the training they need to “see better.” And she takes on the bias in the face recognition software used by police directly. But her opening line is the charmer. “Hello, I’m Joy, a poet of code, on a mission to stop an unseen force that’s rising, a force that I called ‘the coded gaze,’ my term for algorithmic bias.” Right?

The barbershop as health care provider and counseling center
The barber and their iconic shops have become part of an increasingly popular strategy to deliver important health information to black men within their own communities, both in real life and popular film. But does it work? This study seeks to determine how comfortable black men are with getting health information in this setting and how confident the barbers feel in delivering it. There’s a lot to build on: The barbers tend to have to similar rates of education and poverty as their customers, and most frequently serve men 18-39 years old. But when asked, they’re not sure they have much influence; only 33% said they made a difference in the lives of younger men, and say they’re unlikely to influence anyone over age 40. The paper, published by The Journal of Community Health is from researchers at the University of Chicago and Northwestern. Non-subscribers can download a pdf for $39.95.

An “in your face” supercut of Spike Lee’s films
Lee has forced you to go nose to nose with some of his characters since he was a young filmmaker, and looking back at this extraordinary supercut was a reminder, at least to me, of how powerful these moments have always been. It’s just you and the character, face to face. “Lee isn’t just trying to tell you a story, he’s attempting to relate an experience,” says H. Perry Horton of Film School Rejects, “be it the experience of racial tensions boiling over one summer, or the experience of widespread paranoia and terror spawned by a killer on the loose another summer, or the experience of a young middle-class boy learning the virtues and values of religion and inner-city life yet another summer.” Horton put together the supercut to the smooth sounds of Sam Cooke, to even better amplify the emotional impact. It had been a long time since I’d looked into Radio Raheem’s eyes, which brought tears. Rest in power, Bill Nunn.
Film School Rejects


You gotta make your own way. You gotta find a way. You gotta get it done. It’s hard. It’s tough. That’s what I tell my students every day in class. I’ve been very fortunate. Some people might call me a hardhead, but I’m not going to let other people dictate to me who I should be or the stories I should tell. That doesn’t register with me.
—Spike Lee