Sunday, December 30, 2018

Disintegration

Many leaders in the entertainment, sports, religious, or political industries claim millions of devotees. Followers, fans, groupies, sycophants. After the Great War, Benito Mussolini, the leader of Italy, portrayed himself as the embodiment of mankind's aspirations, a titan of masculinity, with supreme athletic and musical abilities. Millions bought into this myth and became fans, including statesmen, writers, and religious leaders. Although his portrait still hangs in some households, his body was last seen hanging upside down outside a gasoline station in Milan.  
It would be difficult to maintain one million friendships, anyhow. There is a limit to human cognition, memory, and time, all of which limit human ability to maintain stable relationships. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested that the limit is about 150 relationships (Dunbar 1993). Some have cited the similar size of prehistoric communities, modern-day communes, business structures, and other social groupings as evidence supporting this number. This indicates that only visitors from other worlds could rightly claim one million friendships and that any making this claim should be held for observation immediately. This also indicates that when one acquires a new stable friendship, one has to be cast off, tossed into a pile, like those high school yearbooks in the attic. Knowing this can give one great pleasure at those moments when one has been expelled from a social circle; it is the happy news that your friend just got a new friend! Hold those congratulations, however, they will not be able to comprehend it.
Yet, animals will group in the millions. Herds, flocks, schools. We return to the story of the American bison. In 1839, Thomas Farnham described a bison herd he encountered along the Santa Fe Trail in western Kansas, about 160 miles east of Bent's Trading Post:

The buffalo during the last three days had covered the whole country so completely, that it appeared oftentimes extremely dangerous even for the immense cavalcade of the Santa Fe traders to attempt to break its way through them. We travelled at the rate of fifteen miles a day. The length of sight on either side of the trail, 15 miles; on both sides, 30 miles: - 15x3=45x30=1,350 square miles of country so thickly covered with these noble animals, that when viewed from a height, it scarcely afforded a sight of a square league [4428 acres] of its surface.

Skeleton crew. 
That herd was larger than Rhode Island. Now, if we compare that to the herd seen by Nathaniel Langford in 1862 near the Red River in North Dakota, we may get an idea of how many bison were in the Santa Fe Trail herd. Langford estimated the herd he saw covered 60 square miles and numbered one million bison. The Santa Fe Trail herd was 23 times that size. If Langford's estimates were accurate and scalable, then the Santa Fe Trail herd may have numbered in the tens of millions.
However, these are not meaningful relationships; it is well beyond bison cognition to befriend 23 million bison. One study suggests that the primary function of groups is group and ecosystem stability: "Social groups rather than individuals are the basic building blocks around which predator-prey interactions should be modelled and that group formation may provide the underlying stability of many ecosystems" (Fryxell 2007). Animal groupings, both predator and prey, serve for long-term stabilization of populations and ecosystems. They may also serve for mating opportunities and raising young.
Home range of animals has been defined as the area an individual occupies on a regular basis, but a more recent study defined it as "that part of an animal's cognitive map of its environment that it chooses to keep updated" (Powell 2012). Cognition again. This physical range is matched by the bounds of its cognition.
"I want to thank each and every one of you for coming"
Unfortunately, it appears that humans don't follow these rules. We have a mismatch between cognition and range and group size. We have a regrettable history of large group behavior. Our groups have quickly devolved into labor riots, ethnic purges, soccer melees, partisan rallies, traffic jams, rock concerts for aged rock musicians, and world wars. Riot police inevitably follow. Thus, it is possible to infer a human group of unsustainable and unmanageable size from the smell of tear gas. Some may reason that tear gas defines the edge of the natural human home range.
Thus, if our social limit is less than 200 individuals, then the exaggerated grouping function seen in humans must be other than social. Studies claim that an initial cause of large grouping in humans was food security. The change from a subsistence, hunter-gatherer existence to an agricultural collective resulted in a dramatic improvement in food storage capacity and harvest stability. Security.
Today, the excessive grouping may be partly due to crowding. Just commuting to work one is in an overextended group. Couple that with expanded home range and the problem multiplies. Imagine if you had the task of fitting as many third-graders into a school bus as you could. It would be far easier to do this if they were all sedated rather than hepped up on corn syrup solids and red dye number eleven. A bouncing atom takes more space than a motionless atom. This is why air bubbles rise in water, heat rises, thunderstorms build, insulation is deeper in attics than beneath floors, and angry people shout from balconies instead of cellars. So too with larger humans. When alive, we are like a sleeping bag released from a stuff sack; we require many times the space as a non-living human. Unfortunately, the task today is fitting 7.67 billion humans into a shrinking planet, a species hepped up on 9.5 million tons of coffee per year, corn syrup solids, and red dye number whatever. On average, our space requirements exceed that from decades ago; in the past 42 years, the average area of American housing has increased by 62% while the household size has decreased by 16%. Make that 7.68 billion.
In any event, the material and psychic damages of congestion in the urban zone are well documented. Archeologists digging in Neolithic sites in the Near East have estimated that the mean population in the earliest settlements was less than one hundred. As the centuries passed, the population numbers increased to the thousands. As the numbers increased, so did the complexity of the buildings, with the development of segmentation and multiple stories. After 2000 years, these villages were abandoned. Cause of abandonment may have been deteriorating sanitation, loss of privacy, interpersonal tensions, reduced ability to process information, reduced mobility, loss of economic homeostasis, social segmentation and differentiation, hierarchical social divisions, divisions of labor, and restricted diet.
They summarize: "Under conditions of population aggregation, animals and humans respond negatively to a number of features in their environment: congestion, loss of control, loss of privacy and information load" (Kuijt 2000). In other words, the exaggerated structure of civilized society caused the demise of civilized society. 
They disintegrated. Perhaps they all split up into groups of 150 and went their separate ways. 
Wish they would have said something. We passed 150 long ago. One million followers? Technology may make it possible for everyone to have 7.68, no, make that 7.69 billion followers. There isn't much open ground in that herd and it would take about 240 years to pass this spot. Put up another story, build another cubicle. As humans devolve into larger groups, integrating everything, expanding beyond our cognitive abilities, a less ordered, less fit society results. The smell of tear gas is in the air. 


Dunbar, R. I. M. 1992. Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution. 22 (6): 469–493.
Farnham, Thomas J. 1841. Travels in the Great Western Prairies, the Anahuac and Rocky Mountains, and in the Oregon Territory. Killey & Lossing, Poughkeepsie, N. Y.
Fryxell, John M., Anna Mosser, Anthony R. E. Sinclair, and Craig Packer. 2007. Group formation stabilizes predator–prey dynamics. Nature, Vol 449
Kuijt, Ian. 2000. People and Space in Early Agricultural Villages: Exploring Daily Lives, Community Size, and Architecture in the Late Pre-Pottery Neolithic. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 19, 75–102
Langford, Nathaniel P. 1890. Vigilante Days and Ways. J. G. Cupples Co., Boston. 
Powell, Roger A. and Michael S. Mitchell. 2012. What is a home range? Journal of Mammalogy, Volume 93, Issue 4, 14 September 2012, Pages 948–958,

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