Zoom Meeting Sermon August 21 2022


Topic: Tribalism and the Dunbar Number

Today we’re going to be talking a little bit about neuroscience, human nature in general, and archaeology. More specifically, we’re going to be talking about Robin Dunbar, and the Dunbar Number, and what it means for humanity.

Robin Dunbar (b. June 28, 1947) is a British anthropologist and an evolutionary psychologist. In 1992, he proposed a theory that the human brain has limits on the number of social relationships we can maintain at one time. Dunbar’s Number is actually a series of numbers that can be expressed as a set of concentric circles, each representing a level of social intimacy and indicating how many people we have room for at that level. For meaningful contacts, that number can range from one hundred to two hundred fifty people, with extroverts generally maintaining a larger, looser group of friends, and introverts having a smaller circle of close friends. In order for all the members of a community to know and trust one another, the ideal number of people in a society is about one hundred and fifty. More than that, and it becomes harder for individuals to form and maintain mutually beneficial relationships. While it is possible to have hundreds or even thousands of “friends” on social media, those relationships are on the outer circles of the Dunbar order.

This hierarchy comes about because we only have so much time, energy, and attention to go around, so we must ration it carefully. It makes logical sense, as well; we know that, although the human imagination may be infinite, the human brain itself has physical limitations. The Dunbar layers go from loved ones to close friends to acquaintances to faces we recognize. People may move from one layer to another, as we spend more time with them and invest more energy into the relationship. For example, Courtney moved from “good friends” to “loved ones” in my personal Dunbar dynamic.

In the Ender’s Game series, Orson Scott Card describes a Hierarchy of Foreignness that expands upon the Dunbar levels to describe those who are foreign to us. Although Card describes beings from other planets in his books, we can translate those levels into Earthbound human circles:

First is Utlanning, a stranger recognized as human from the same planet but of a different nation or city. This is the outer layer of the Dunbar Numbers: faces you recognize. They may not be of your tribe, but they are still people and are usually treated as such. Meaningful communication is possible.

Next is Framling, a stranger recognized as human, but from a different planet. This may be how many of us view those from other countries. We can communicate, although it becomes more difficult due to language barriers.

Then comes Ramen. These are strangers recognized as “human” but of another species. I would say that this is how many of us think of our pets.

Last is Varelse, which are true aliens. They may or may not be sentient, but they are so foreign that meaningful communication is impossible. This is the category into which most of us have placed our political opponents, because there can be no meaningful communication with somebody with a completely different perception of the same objective reality. I saw a video of a man who blamed gun violence on trans rights and the pro-choice movement. How he pulled off the mental gymnastics to come to that conclusion is anyone’s guess, but there’s no reasoning with that kind of mentality. We may be using the same words, but we’re not speaking the same language or even describing the same reality.

These layers of social intimacy and foreignness can be observed in every society, to some degree, and they come with interesting consequences. One unfortunate example is that of stereotypes, when we reduce an entire demographic to a set of “known” characteristics, so they take up less space in our heads. Getting to know individuals within those demographics can humanize them and help us overcome that stereotype mindset, which is why it is important to maintain a diverse group of friends and loved ones.

In modern America, the most obvious example of toxic tribalism is the divide between conservatives and progressives. Neither side of the American political aisle seems capable of regarding members of its opposite number as human beings, and you can see this in every political argument on social media. An individual can go from “loved one” to “varelse” with a single Facebook post. Even the language we use to describe those we disagree with is dehumanizing and borders on childish. There’s no dialog, people just talk past one another, and attempts to educate are regarded as attacks, no matter who they come from. It is possible for different tribes to coexist in peace. We can learn to recognize foreigners as human, no matter how strange they may be in appearance and custom, and therefore allies. If we can also learn to recognize our enemies as human, we will be on our way to civilization. As Bertrand Russell put it: “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.” We must all cooperate to build a better world, one that includes everyone and truly treats all with equal dignity.

Do you recognize your own Dunbar levels and how many individuals you have in each level? Do you think you could recognize somebody with a completely different viewpoint as still human, or do they become Varelse to you?


Reverend CJ Carlin






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