Robin Dunbar is Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford and his research is concerned with trying to understand the behavioural, cognitive and neuroendocrinological mechanisms that underpin social bonding in primates (in general) and humans (in particular). He formulated the Dunbar’s number, a measurement of the “cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships”.
Many intellectuals are against the Green Pass or the mandatory vaccination. What do you think about that?
I don’t understand the position of people who do not want to either be vaccinated or have a certificate: we’ve had to do this kind of things for almost 100 years when we travel. I think the big issue here is a moral one: do your personal rights override the collective rights of the wider community? The whole basis of human sociality and our success as a species stem from the fact that we have developed the capacity to cooperate with each other and to agree to abide by the rules of the community to be able to live together. If we don’t, then the community becomes fractured and breaks apart. And this is a problem that not only humans but our nearest relatives, the monkey and apes, have had for millions of years, and their solution has been to evolve the capacity to agree to abide by the general rules of the community. If you don’t want to be in the community, go and live somewhere else, you are banished. It’s not a verbal agreement in their case, but it’s an important agreement. These are what the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau would have referred to as social contracts: you agree to surrender some of your rights to be a member of a community, to benefit from being in that community. If you don’t want to be in the community or don’t want to surrender your rights, it is your free choice to go and live somewhere else.
Why do you think there is so much struggle between no-vax and pro-vax, no-green pass and pro-green pass? Why now is there such a heated debate?
My view is that a lot of problems are a consequence of the size of our communities: if you live in the small community – like a few hundred village in the old days –, there is much more pressure from everybody you live with for you to conform and to fulfil the obligation you have to them and so you are much more willing to abide by the rules of the community in order to benefit others. As community size increases, people become more and more anonymous and there is less and less feeling of obligation to strangers and peer pressure doesn’t work anymore, so you get a shift towards individualism from a collectivist view. This is not a new problem, it’s a problem we’ve had ever since people moved into villages from nomadism stage, 10,000 years ago. The way this problem is solved is to try and create a sense of belonging to a community: we have flags, national songs, and stories about how we came to be. For example, one thing that seems to have made America survive when you would expect it to collapse because of the Pledge of Allegiance ceremony performed in many schools on every morning.
So in old small communities there was a more altruistic, collectivist approach, that now we have lost. How do we to go back? Is there any solution?
This is a big problem. We’re sort of dimly aware of it, but we have not found any solution to deal with it. I don’t think we are even close because the population has increased so fast. Up to the middle of the 19th century the size of the grazing associations in the Alps remained very constant at about 150 people, despite the fact the population was increasing. When there were too many people in one community, the grazing association was split. The problem is that you can only do that if you have a small population and lots of empty land. Our problem now is there are too many of us and there isn’t any spare land.
There has been a movement among urban designers to create what they call “15 minutes communities” where everything is within 15 minutes of your house. This might help enormously but, of course, it would be very difficult to create those in big cities which evolved without a proper urban plan. It is something that might be possible in America because there is much empty land and you can build a new community from zero, but in most of Europe, where the population density is very high, you would have to knock the whole city down and start again. Something like that happened in France when Paris was re-designed by Haussmann in the 1850s, partially to allow the army to easily enter the city but also to improve the quality of life. You can do it, but you must have an authoritarian government.
In Europe we have the green pass to prove we have been vaccinated and to enter numerous public places, while you live in the UK where you get vaccinated but there is no certificate, and nobody is going to check. Is it a matter of trust in people or what?
The UK government wanted to introduce certificates of some form: many people think that’s a sensible idea but there’s also many who are complaining. We, as English people, don’t have identity cards unlike the rest of Europe; we have passports but not everybody has one; we have driving licences but, again, not everybody has one. In the UK, some people have a deep resistance on personal civil rights grounds not to carry identity cards. Most people think this is absolutely insane, however the number of people who refuse to have identity cards is sufficient that even when governments have tried to introduce them, they had to give up. And it’s the same with vaccination certificate: it has nothing to do with vaccinations themselves, this is resistance to the idea of having to carry an identity document.
Politicians are divided too. And that’s not one party against another party; each party is half and half, some want it and some don’t.
You formulated the Dunbar’s number, and I was wondering how did the pandemic impact the number of people with whom any person can maintain a stable relationship with?
My guess is it’s not going to have a big effect for most people because it hasn’t really gone on long enough: if the lockdown had gone on for several years, I think we would start seeing a very serious effect. But because we have been going in and out and because we’ve had social times, people have been able to keep up most of their relationships. The most effected people are the elders: from 70 onwards the size of your social network contracts because when you lose a friend you haven’t the energy or the motivation to replace them and you don’t know where to go to meet new people.
On the other end of the scale, I think for teenagers there will be some cost in terms of lack of opportunity to interact. Managing this social world we live in is so complex it cannot be done by our genes alone: all our genes can do is give you a big computer (a big brain), but you have to put software in it. Our social world is unpredictable, which means we have to learn how to adjust our behaviour to it. And it takes a very long time to learn those skills, about 25 years, from practise and examples that you encounter, from discussing with your friends and other people how to handle different kinds of situations. What you are learning is rules that you can apply in any context, not a specific rule, but subtle rules of behaviour. We did a brain scanning study of this many years ago and showed that around about 25 where your processing of visual cues of emotion becomes automated.
Talking of children, they are designed by evolution to be very resilient because the world is unpredictable. So, lockdown may represent only a miss-opportunity to play with each other in school, but they can catch up on that later.
Changing topic but still talking about individualism and collectivism, traditionally in the West people are much more individualistic while in the East they tend to be more collectivist and have a strong sense to family. Why?
There are two possibilities. The first is cultural and consists of Confucian philosophy which is very family oriented and helped to maintain a deep sense of commitment to the wider community. In addition to that, they seem to have more of a certain endorphin gene than we in the more individualistic West do. This we know from studies of the genetics. And the reason why that might be is because of their ancestors had come down from Siberia where you have to have a very strong sense of community and bonding to survive.