There is recent a video posted on Slate that summarizes a recent study claiming to give support to the anthropological position that “hierarchical organization of human society is deeply nested in human psychology.” As I sat and watched the video, I thought surely this is a problem of science reporting and the research does not make such claims. Alas, the video is quite accurate in describing the research.
That research, by Benedikt Fuchs, Didier Sornette, and Stefan Thurner (none of whom are anthropologists as far as I can tell) and published in Physics and Society (definitely not an anthropology journal), claims that its conclusions support “the anthropological literature”; yet, there is hardly any anthropological literature cited in the study. In fact, judging by the bibliography, it seems entirely based on the work of only a couple of anthropologists.
The main piece of evidence the research uses is this thing called Dunbar’s number, which is an idea proposed back in the 1990s by anthropologist Robin Dunbar that individual human beings cannot comfortably maintain more than 150 stable relationships. Dunbar arrived at this number not by examining how humans actually interact, nor by averaging numbers found in the anthropological literature, but by looking at data on how various social non-human primates interact. He arrived at that number by taking the ratio of non-human primate social group size to their neocortex volume and then extrapolating the value to an average human neocortex volume. This number led to the development of “the social brain hypothesis,” which says that there is an upper cognitive limit on the number of personal relationships an individual can reliably maintain. Dunbar then searched the ethnographic and historical literature for this number and, lo’ and behold, he found it everywhere, from anthropological reconstructions of Pleistocene groups to ancient Rome. It is important to note that other anthropologists have come up with different numbers, though this concept is not highly utilized in anthropological studies of human social organization.
Frankly, from my perspective, this is not even a particularly interesting way of thinking about human social organization and interaction in anthropology. And needless to say that’s a highly problematic way of drawing conclusions about human social interactions.
Another premise of the study is the application of the Horton-Strahler number to human social organization. The Strahler number originated in studies of hydrological systems and has been used in the analysis of other hierarchical systems, including biological systems. And this is where I find it troublesome to apply it to human social organization. From the video:
It’s used in mathematics as a way to measure the hierarchies of biological structures, like people and the way they interact in groups, and social structures.
But the way people interact in groups is not a biological structure, it’s a sociocultural structure. Society is not an organism; that idea fell out of use in anthropology many decades ago, and it’s annoying to find it still being espoused in public arenas. Later in the video, the narrator makes this claim:
When the researchers applied the Horton-Strahler stream [to the groups in the video game world], they found a branching hierarchy with the same scaling ratio that anthropologists have documented in society as a whole.
The problem here is that anthropologists have not documented this scaling ratio; one particular anthropologist (Dunbar) and some other researchers (based on Dunbar’s work) came up with the ratio and combed the ethnographic and historical record looking for the ratio. But that’s not even the most egregious problem with the above statement. Anthropologists have not documented anything about “society as a whole.” There is not one “society as a whole”; in fact, there are many societies. No anthropologist would ever describe human social organization as being one whole society.
Anyway, the video summarizes the research this way:
Anthropologists track the way humans interact and the hierarchies they create. And what they found are patterns consistent throughout history all the way back to hunter-gatherer groups. Even at the onset of civilization, human groupings have always been highly structured.
This is simply not true. The research the video is describing relies on the work of Dunbar rather than a robust review of the literature. When we look at what anthropologists actually say about foragers (hunter-gatherers), it becomes clear that it’s more complicated and complex.
What we think we know of the social structure of Pleinstocene foraging groups is often based on the highly problematic practice of using contemporary foragers as analogs for the past. But they are not primitive versions of us. They are living peoples with particular cultural histories that are deeply entangled with processes of globalization. They are not living artifacts of a bygone Stone Age frozen in time for us to use to make sense of our own particular histories or support our mythologized narratives of human nature. And even if that was an acceptable way of interpreting the past, there are only a few dozen true (nomadic) foraging groups left in the world today (many contemporary foraging groups also rely on animal herding and/or horticulture), so it is hard to imagine how it could be okay to make claims about 99% of human existence with such a small sample.
Further, I think it’s important to ask what “highly structured” is supposed to mean here. We know that many forager groups are egalitarian in their structure (there are, of course, exceptions). And while they do make distinctions in social organization, most often around age and gender, they do not necessarily place these distinctions into a hierarchy. Is a group that organizes itself only around age and gender without any strict hierarchy a “highly structured” group? I’d say no, but it depends on what “highly structured” is supposed to mean.
I do think it is interesting to look at human social organization and be able to utilize various mathematical formulas to highlight interesting patterns that emerge. But I do not think it is wise to use such formulas and the research of a couple of anthropologists to make universal claims about human nature. The claims in this research, while cool to think about, should be taken with a large grain of salt. Particularly when videos like the one on Slate frame this as an anthropological study. It’s not—it’s a mathematical study published in a physics journal.
In spite of what this video says, anthropologists today generally do not look at societies in the way outlined in this research, using mathematical modeling to make sweeping claims about the entire history of Homo sapiens sapiens. We are much less interested in making (and are, in fact, quite skeptical of) universal claims about human nature than we are about looking at how particular cultural histories create diverse human societies.