to come into right relationship with our own pain
August 17, 2019 1:30 PM   Subscribe

"'You're not a thing at all,' or 'The political implications of Dunbar's Number.'" is a sermon that Doug Muder (the Weekly Sift guy) presented on May 12, 2019. It's about cooperation, stories, parts we play and expect, Tolstoy, Disney, gender, inadequate and obsolete scripts, and the ideal of the perfect rulebook. "We want to belong, but we also want to be individuals .... I think we need to recognize that no matter how necessary it might be to simplify our experience somehow, there's always going to be an injustice in putting people into categories and dealing with them through roles and scripts. That's an injustice that we both suffer and inflict on others."

(This is a sermon from a Unitarian Universalist Church service. It is primarily about individual attitudes and actions, humility, love, and empathy, rather than about electoral politics, but does mention US politics by way of illustration.)
posted by brainwane (8 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
this is an excellent sermon. there’s lots of big great things going on with it, but i want to point to one little good thing:

a unitarian minister. reclaimed. ts eliot.

yeah that’s right bucko. you can spend your life trying to be a fussy old conservative englishman following a fussy old conservative version of religion... but no matter what you do, the unitarians will still accept you and still see the best in you.

i bet somewhere up on the heaviside layer or whatever he’s so mad right now.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 1:48 PM on August 17, 2019 [13 favorites]

A humorous, somewhat rambling discussion on Dunbar’s Number and its implications for explaining human behavior came out 12 years ago from Cracked’s David Wong, titled ”What Is The Monkeysphere?”
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 6:25 PM on August 17, 2019 [5 favorites]

Dunbar's number ought to be stricken from the scientific record. It is nonsense, and it pollutes the scientific discourse. Here (self link) is a detailed account of why.
posted by stonepharisee at 3:19 AM on August 18, 2019 [9 favorites]

that's a pretty nice sermon. when the scripts stop working indeed... so many nice points in there.
re" dunbar and monkeysphere" i don't know if the 'science' part about brain size and group size is actually correct but at least in my own experience, it's very real that i can't keep track of thousands or millions.
and that part feels as correct and repeatable as gravity. very experiential on a daily level. there indeed is a comfort to go off script with a small select number and then there are many others with whom breaking the script is truly terrifying.
posted by danjo at 4:53 AM on August 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

The reason there's never going to be a complete and perfect set of categories is that the categories themselves don't come from Nature. They come from the limitations of our human brains. Fundamentally, categories and roles and scripts are a kluge. They're a trick by which culture shoehorns a 7-billion-person global society into brains that evolved to handle 150-person tribes.

We may tell ourselves that "the Lord God created the races", [...] But that's all a myth. God didn't create these categories. Human beings did, because we just don't have brain enough to cope with 7 billion individuals. That's never, ever going to come out right.
This is so well put.

I was recently trying to say something like this...

As an optical physicist, I can say with some authority that color is socially constructed! Wavelength is empirically measurable. But it's a continuous spectrum, a bunch of real numbers along a number line with no gaps between them. When we bin those wavengths into colors, the boundaries of those bins are pretty arbitrary. How many colors are there in the rainbow? Six? Seven? A different number? Where is the cutoff between blue and purple? Is "indigo" a color distinct from either? Depends on your cultural context.

Is the sea "wine dark"? Is this shirt blue or black? Heck, was That Dress blue and black or white and gold? Can you perceive a difference between magenta and fuschia? If a color blind person says there's no difference between red and green are they more wrong that the average person who insists to a tetrochromat that the difference the tetrochromat perceives between yellow displayed on a monitor and yellow in real life doesn't exist?

Color definitions are arbitrary, culturally dependent, variable in time, and even vary person to person subject to perceptual differences. The same is true of racial definitions.

Genetic variation is real, just like wavelengths are real.

But with "race" as with color, there are continuous spectra of variation on which we impose these quantized and we should keep in mind that those boundaries are of our own making, and that other people make different distinctions.

Various traits may correlate with race as we currently define it, but no measurable trait defines someone's race, and consequently we can't predict anything else about a person with certainly from being told their race.

"Socially constructed" does not mean "pretend" because social constructs can have real physical consequences. Since we have collectively decided that this wavelength range means go and this wavelength range means stop, light of different wavelengths can cause traffic to move differently in empirically measurable ways. But there's nothing INHERENT in those wavelengths which makes cars move or stop. It works because of the meaning we have, in our culture, assigned.

Or... what Doug Muder said, in fewer words. And he points out how much broader this phenomenon is...
posted by OnceUponATime at 7:57 AM on August 18, 2019 [9 favorites]

None of us is precisely who we appear to be. None of us is exactly what society wants us to be. None of us fits perfectly into the box where we've been placed.

What this leaves out is that our understanding of who we are isn't some secret absolute that lives underneath our learned roles. We understand who we are, in part, by imagining ourselves as seen from the outside. Since language itself is a cultural phenomenon and there's no such thing as a one-person private language (says Wittgenstein) there is no other way to understand verbally who we are. But words are like roles and our outside view of ourselves is role-bound as well.

Let us always remember that when we meet someone who is struggling to get out of a box they feel trapped in. If we do, then maybe we can find it in ourselves to extend them the grace of being seen as individuals.

And we need to be kind to our box-bound selves as well.
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:04 PM on August 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

It sure seems possible to question basic issues of correlation and data over-fitting without coming off like a dick, which is sure what Cummins does.

Is there a way to measure what we might call social relationships and classify them in some useful way along a continuum from "can recognize" to "would die for"? Seems like yes.

Can those relationships be counted in any meaningful way? Since each of us can do it right now subjectively and from memory I'd say yes.

Can they be counted in a way that is scientifically useful? Sure because observations can be normalized with self reported data over a large N, and historical measurements made and compared.

Is there an upper limit to that number? Hard to prove but easy to measure maximum memory capacity even for topics where we have specifically evolved specialized face detecting hardware. It's probably more than ten and less than a million. I'd even bet less than a thousand for baseline homosapiens.

Is the number 150? Who cares. There's a number of people we spent the first eleven months of our evolutionary year rarely exceeding and only within the last few centuries are we exposed to at least an order of magnitude more individuals with whom we might become familiar or develop a relationship.

Has a number in the low-hundreds shown up independent of Dunbar's research in many otherwise flexible organizing principles? Definitely.

Is that number showing up the worst kind of selection bias? Maybe.

Is extrapolating from other primates anatomical sizes a shallow and facile way to come up with a number? Sure, but does that mean there is no number or capacity threshold?

So, it sure seems like there is a number somewhere above which most humans readily acknowledge they're going to stop individuation and engage generalization.

Sure seems like the thesis of the sermon stands regardless of some questionable methods for the social science in play.

So it also seems a smidgeon intellectually dishonest to write up such a take-down without engaging any of the above topics. Was it pristine capital-S Science? Nah. Is that possible in this context? Walking away from that analysis you might think not, but it sure would have been valuable to do the basic analysis above and come to some useful point.

Believe me, I'm surprised to find myself on this side of an accuracy in science research question, but Christ, why be an aashole?
posted by abulafa at 1:57 PM on August 18, 2019 [6 favorites]

One of the difficulties involved with the concepts being discussed can be seen in the cartoon mentioned in the sermon. The Flying Mouse, as described by Muder is boiled down to a message of "stay in your place", a sensible enough take away for a Disney product, where Muder asks us to essentially place ourselves in the position of the mouse who wants wings. That fits the basic way we approach narratives, imagining ourselves aligned with or in the position of the protagonist, so we see the world as they would have it. The mouse wants wings, gets them, and is shunned for their difference. It's indeed an ugly analogy when taken from the mouse's point of view and maintains that ugliness when matches to many different individual characteristics we might choose to associate with the winged mouse, like race or gender identity.

At the same time though, from the perspective of the other characters involved, the message might also be taken as "don't forget where you come from". This too finds frequent echo in many works of fiction, particularly about those who gain a windfall fortune and seek to move away from those they once knew. This narrative construction is of the individual believing they are now better than others for their fortune and can leave their roots behind and become someone else without cost. They, in this vision, want to be both mouse and bird, not losing anything, just gaining even as they abandon their home to take on some new life. In that way if you think of the wings as being more like wealth, the rejection of the mouse by the birds and bats and fear of the mouse by the other mice in his family makes a different kind of sense as it can be seen as seeking to deny one's heritage for a "better" more desired life.

Certain changes can create separation and distrust for allowing those that receive them a life that no longer holds the same limitations as those left behind, but also may serve to render suspect the one rewarded to those they would seek to join for not being a part of that community or knowing its norms. When the mouse gets his wings he waves goodbye to his family and tries to join with the birds. The mouse doesn't make an introduction or seek to get to know the social rules of the birds, the mouse just inserts itself into their activities as if having wings gives the mouse the right to do what it wants without need for the birds acceptance. That comes close to echoing a message of appropriation, where copying the culture of another is expected to be rewarded on equal or better terms.

The mouse isn't content being a mouse but doesn't identify with being a bat, when they first see the mouse as such. The mouse wants to be with the birds or with the bats but also still be a mouse. This renders him suspect to all the communities for not wanting their identity but to have it all on his own terms. When the mouse tries to go home, its shadow, looking like a bat, scares the other mice in its family and drives them indoors to hide. This carries something of the suggestion of leaving one's heritage behind to join an oppressive class but not wanting to be judged as different for that by those who can't change or don't want to.

None of these ways of reading the situation is an absolute one in the sense it should define an analogy because the relationship between self identity and group identity is complex, measured by both the small group and the larger social forces that define that groups relationship to the culture as a whole. One can identify with the mouse who gets wings and see the injustice in being denied their sense of self, but one could also identify with the other mice or birds for seeing someone who doesn't want to fit in to their culture or wishes to leave it behind for their own selfish desire. The issue is as much how we want to understand narrative through are own view and don't necessarily think about how that narrative might read to another. That's as much an issue with how stories are presented as one of acceptance, which doesn't argue against the points the sermon makes so much as just suggest why the framing of values is so important.

The sermon itself uses the individual perspective to them switch to a social/group perspective to argue for acceptance of perceived difference as the perception itself is often based on faulty knowledge or understanding. That is unarguably true and the sermon's point to that end is worth acknowledging, it just isn't the entirety of the issue as it be understood from other angles if one doesn't favor a protagonist base alone for the individual concerns. The ideas stressed by the sermon are invaluable, but the reasons they are hard to live by are a bit more complex than given for how trust is formed and who it is that is being asked to provide it.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:13 PM on August 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

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