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the Complete Review
the complete review - science


How Many Friends
does One Person Need ?

Robin Dunbar

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase How Many Friends does One Person Need ?

Title: How Many Friends does One Person Need ?
Author: Robin Dunbar
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 292 pages
Availability: How Many Friends does One Person Need ? - US
How Many Friends does One Person Need ? - UK
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How Many Friends does One Person Need ? - India
  • Dunbar's Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks

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Our Assessment:

B : entertaining collection, but nowhere near enough in depth

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 15/2/2010 Emmanuelle Smith
The Guardian . 12/6/2010 Steven Poole
Sunday Times . 31/10/2010 Bee Wilson
Times Higher Ed. . 25/2/2010 Steven Rose

  Review Consensus:

  Well-written and entertaining, but too simplistic and summary

  From the Reviews:
  • "Though engaging and funny, Dunbar’s collection of essays is light, even for a popular science offering. Interesting theories are put forward but not explained in much detail, as the author flits rapidly between subjects, giving none the attention they deserve." - Emmanuelle Smith, Financial Times

  • "It is an elegant and often funny example of the genre, but the wary reader will take much of it cum grano salis." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "Unfortunately, this is a collection of essays, with all the bittiness that implies, so the full implications of the number are never developed. Just as Dunbar whets our appetite, he is on to one of his other subjects" - Bee Wilson, Sunday Times

  • "This confusion of anecdote with evidence, and rejection of the proximate in favour of the distal, is typical of Dunbar's approach. The essays in this short book are replete with speculative hypotheses masquerading as established facts. He is -- I should say in common with many others who brand themselves evolutionary psychologists -- ever willing to generalise out from what he regards as a feature of current Western industrial society and culture towards a claimed human universal, programmed into us by our evolutionary history. (...) There's a slightly smutty, all-boys-together feel about the writing that would make me long for Haldane's austerity, even were I not so under-convinced by the argument. Entertaining they may be, but I wouldn't recommend taking many of these just-so stories as either evolutionary or social gospel." - Steven Rose, Times Higher Education

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As Robin Dunbar explains at the beginning of How Many Friends does One Person Need ? this collection "had its origins in a series of popular science articles" that he wrote, mainly for New Scientist and The Scotsman. The twenty-two pieces collected here retain much of that popular-science-article feel to them, each focusing on one area (though often ranging quite far in it), and with limited connections from one piece to the next.
       Much, however, is also a variation on a theme, as Dunbar repeatedly shows (or claims) how parts of our basic biology -- what's been hardwired into our genes, as it were -- came about, and what the consequences are regarding human behavior in the contemporary world. First and foremost -- and revisited in a few variations -- is 'Dunbar's Number' (yes, his very own), as he posited -- and finds considerable supporting evidence -- that there's a: "cognitive limit on the size of human groups". The magic number is 150, and it turns out that represents a general and widespread limit of human groups -- not so much the number of friends you might need, but rather the number you can handle, as well as the maximum number which many organizations can usefully function with.
       Here as elsewhere Dunbar moves easily back and forth across many species and eras, finding Darwinian explanations and support for why specific traits developed and have survived (in humans as well as animals). At times -- far too many times -- he is rather lax in supporting his claims -- and stretches these too far. Evidence that those who are taller and have more 'facial symmetry' fare better is plausible and interesting, but even the statistic that in American presidential elections, "where we have height data for the two candidates, the winner has been the taller in seventy-one per cent" is not nearly good enough to explain any individual election success -- such as that of current American president Obama (as Dunbar -- only somewhat tongue-in-cheek -- suggests).
       There are many fascinating traits and examples in this book, and it is an entertaining tour; the juxtaposition of the reasons why a trait (might have) developed and its consequences in the modern era (where circumstances as well as the nature of 'success' of individuals and species have often changed radically) is often fascinating. Still, Dunbar reaches -- both in his examples and conclusions -- quite too far quite too often. Sure, this isn't meant to be a fully sourced scientific text, but the line between speculation and fact isn't drawn nearly clearly enough here, and so the entire package has to be consumed very carefully (even as it's tempting to spout many of these examples and claims at cocktail parties). Nevertheless, even the speculation is intriguing, and so the pieces do serve as a good, suggestive starting point.
       How Many Friends does One Person Need ? can't be taken too seriously, but there's lots of food for thought (and more careful study) here, and it is an entertaining and very accessible read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 31 July 2011

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How Many Friends does One Person Need ?: Reviews: Robin Dunbar: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Robin Dunbar teaches at Oxford.

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© 2011 the complete review

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