Multiculturalism and the Monkeysphere

The Monkeysphere is the group of people who each of us, using our monkeyish brains, are able to conceptualize as people. If the monkey scientists are monkey right, it’s physically impossible for this to be a number much larger than 150…

we all have limits to our sphere of monkey concern. It’s the way our brains are built. We each have a certain circle of people who we think of as people, usually our own friends and family and neighbors, and then maybe some classmates or coworkers…

Those who exist outside that core group of a few dozen people are not people to us. They’re sort of one-dimensional bit characters.
David Wong, What is the Monkeysphere?

Whenever I hear people argue that multiculturalism is dead I always think of Dunbar’s number and the Monkeysphere. Robin Dunbar – an anthropologist – researched monkey brains and found that the number of social group members a primate can track appears to be limited by the volume of the neocortex region of their brain. He then studied a human brain and estimated (based on the volume of the neocortex) that human beings also suffer from a similar limit (albeit slightly larger than a monkey) and theorized that the average human being can maintain a stable social relationship with a maximum of around 150 people.

As the above quotation suggests, anyone outside of this sphere of understanding essentially becomes a caricature, a one dimensional stereotype that is simply not a real human being to us. It is for this reason that we can be extremely upset when a loved one has a bad day at work, but can remain surprisingly unperturbed when a busload of schoolkids plunges over a cliff in Chile. We simply do not have the mental capacity to visualise them as human beings. Some people argue that this limited number serves an evolutionary purpose, for why should we concern ourselves with the lives of those that we cannot possibly influence? 24 hour rolling global news can be a terribly depressing affair, given that all of the events take place outside our monkeysphere and we have virtually no chance of having a positive impact or influence on any of the awful events we witness. We’re selfish creatures able to enjoy buying clothes that we know are made by kids in sweatshops because our brains don’t force us to see them as being like the children that reside in our monkeysphere – they exist only fleetingly in an uncaring periphery.

Given the high rate of depression in developed nations it appears that stepping outside of our limited social sphere is not good for us and that in many ways, ignorance is bliss. This brings me back to this idea – so loved by politicians, the media and nationalist groups – that a national culture really exists and that we must somehow all engage with defending it. David Cameron’s recent declaration that ‘Multiculturalism has failed’ just doesn’t stand up to the merest whiff of scrutiny. Culture isn’t a racial thing, it isn’t something that divides people of different skin colours, it is something that divides all of us. Just as I have absolutely nothing in common with a stereotypical EDL member and would never envisage socialising with one, David Cameron would never dream of socialising – or even having anything in common with – 95% of the UK. Likewise, I can never imagine socialising with the elite into which Cameron and most of the elected cabinet of our government were born: culturally we are divided by an impassable chasm.

For David Cameron to imply that Britain has some kind of culture that immigrants should be assimilated into is quite ridiculous, because the people of Britain are not an homogeneous blob. We all live in our own little Monkeyspheres which are full of people just like us. We don’t really know anyone outside of this sphere and what’s more we don’t have the capacity to really know anyone outside of this sphere (nor necessarily the desire). David Cameron and his elitist monkey-chums don’t know anybody who doesn’t have inherited wealth, he’s not necessarily taking any pleasure in the cuts that his government is pushing through, he just simply doesn’t understand the concerns of those who live outside of his monkeysphere. He doesn’t know anyone who has ever had to rely on the government for support, or anyone to whom money is an issue. He can only appreciate the needs of those inside his tiny sphere, hence why he cannot see any problem with combining savage cuts to the not-human-in-his-eyes masses with tax breaks for his friends in the banks. He’s just looking after his own interests in the same way that the person shopping in a high-street fashion store does when they buy stuff they know has been made using slave-labour.

We’re never all going to get along; it’s physically and mentally impossible. The sooner we realise this, the quicker we can stop thinking about the world in such simple terms. Being British by birth can only mean that I share the same place of birth with other British people. It does not mean I share a common bond or culture. Chances are I will never even get close to interacting with a fraction of 1% of my fellow birth-buddies. I have good relationships with the people I work closely with, I have a professional passing recognition of others outside of that small group. I have a couple of friends from university that I keep in contact with, and a few close friends from various jobs I’ve had down the years. I commute to work in my car, I get home, get inside and spend most evenings with my wife. I speak to my neighbours occasionally, not because I consider myself anti-social, but because they’re just not part of my monkeysphere – just as I am not part of theirs.

I enjoy my life but I live in the knowledge that I will spend the vast majority of my adult life in work, not socialising. Our ability to form and maintain close social bonds is limited by how much time we have to participate in such behaviour (Dunbar even argues that language was developed as an easy way of performing social grooming). And for those of you thinking that social networking sites are going to change all of this, think again:

Dr Marlow found that the average number of “friends” in a Facebook network is 120, consistent with Dr Dunbar’s hypothesis, and that women tend to have somewhat more than men. But the range is large, and some people have networks numbering more than 500, so the hypothesis cannot yet be regarded as proven.

What also struck Dr Marlow, however, was that the number of people on an individual’s friend list with whom he (or she) frequently interacts is remarkably small and stable. The more “active” or intimate the interaction, the smaller and more stable the group.

Thus an average man—one with 120 friends—generally responds to the postings of only seven of those friends by leaving comments on the posting individual’s photos, status messages or “wall”. An average woman is slightly more sociable, responding to ten. When it comes to two-way communication such as e-mails or chats, the average man interacts with only four people and the average woman with six. Among those Facebook users with 500 friends, these numbers are somewhat higher, but not hugely so. Men leave comments for 17 friends, women for 26. Men communicate with ten, women with 16.

What mainly goes up, therefore, is not the core network but the number of casual contacts that people track more passively. This corroborates Dr Marsden’s ideas about core networks, since even those Facebook users with the most friends communicate only with a relatively small number of them.

The truth is we all exist in tiny bubbles which will always encourage us to act in the best interest of those within our particular bubble. We can certainly acknowledge that we live in a world much bigger than this bubble by creating basic expectations to nullify as much as possible our selfish instincts – this is why we have laws, the Human Rights Act, equality and diversity policies in work and so forth. It is to try to ensure that when we step outside our monkeyspheres we are able to treat those strange beings around us as humans, even if we cannot truly visualise them as such.

What is dangerous with this assumption that somehow other cultural groups cannot also abide by these basic tenets of civilisation and that they must therefore abandon anything that might signify that they are outwardly different to the majority is that it feeds our natural instinct to dehumanise any outgroup. How can we possibly say because a group of around 20 Muslims protested against British soldiers serving in Iraq and 4 individuals bombed London in suicide attacks that somehow multiculturalism has failed? The 2001 census recorded 1,591,000 Muslims living in the UK – making 24 a minute percentage,  whilst a survey conducted in 2009 of attitudes of British Muslims suggested that they ‘were found to identify more strongly with the UK than the rest of the population, and have a much higher regard for the country’s institutions’.

Yet because of our monkey brains we have the EDL demanding that all ‘Muzzies’ or ‘Muzz rats’ be thrown out or worse because of the actions of an utterly insignificant few. We never demand the slaughter of all men whenever a male paedophile is convicted. It is no less insane to treat all Muslims in they way that some people are now.

Repeated experiments across cultures show that when human beings are put into groups – even in the most arbitrary way, such as at the toss of a coin – they will always display ingroup bias and a desire to maintain distinctiveness from other groups. Media narratives about Muslims or any other group that exists outside of our Monkeysphere play into this irrational desire to negatively perceive those outside of our immediate groups – whilst maintaining a positive bias to those in our own groups. Arguing that somehow all his could be resolved if massive cultural groups – which are in themselves split into near infinite amounts of vastly different spheres – were somehow assimilated into what is seen as the dominant cultural norm is ludicrous.

All we can do as individuals is realise that we don’t normally process people outside of our tiny social groups as being real human beings. This is why a loving, doting son is able to mug someone else’s mother and we need laws with significant punishments to suppress such actions. We are hard-wired to stereotype outgroups, homogenising millions of people into one simple schema. But we have conscious thought, we can take a step back and challenge our default cognitive processes so that we can force ourselves to realise that Muslims are individual human beings and they cannot possibly be judged by the actions of an insignificant minority who happen to share the same religious belief.

Multiculturalism hasn’t failed, it’s not even a real concept when we consider how our brains function and that we only really share a common goal with the select few inside our Monkeysphere.

8 Comments

  • Neil says:

    One of the most thoughtful, intelligent and eloquent defences of common sense I have read. It’s very frustrating to see reality constantly distorted and condensed into soundbites that are used simply to target a market of a paper’s own creation. I found it very interesting to read that the UK has a proportion concerned with immigration many times the size of other European countries. The Mail is at different times both insidious and direct in its narrative, while the Express and Star lack whatever shred of subtlety even the Mail can manage.
    The constant bombardment of these messages makes it nigh on impossible to engage people in debate without them using one as a crutch for their ignorance.
    I just wish there was a way to get people to think for themselves, but I suspect that for most MonkeySpheres, what’s safe is what’s familiar. Perversely for adherents to the more right-wing papers, fear and mistrust is now a safe and familiar feeling.

  • Mr Larrington says:

    Cameron’s blathering about the failure of multiculturalism seems merely to be parrotting what Angela Merkel said last October. A German chap on the dead interesting R4 prog “Europe: Driving On The Right” reckoned it would be more accurate to say that multiculturalism has not yet succeeded. Said prog has me rather worried – there appear to be a large number of political parties across Europe playing the “We’re not racist but…” card.

  • Alex says:

    Thanks, that was a great article, one of my favourites I’ve read here. Obviously well written and well researched – quite contrary to a certain newspaper we all know.

    Bravo!

  • Claire says:

    This is so good. Thanks!

  • Z A says:

    I think that this is a great article which is very thought-provoking and insightful. I’ve just got a comment on what I see as ‘science-based pessimism’ running through it, although I’m not sure if you’d disagree with what I’m saying.

    “We only really share a common goal with the select few inside our Monkeysphere.” I think this is misleading; as you mention earlier, we construct things like our legal system (and everything that comes with it: our education system, public services and so on) and surely as we do so we are deciding on ‘common goals’ and common ways of implementing these all the time. Once we have political institutions in place, it seems this is quite inescapable.

    Does the science show that we can’t do this in a way that treats everyone equally, or at least fairly in some way? Does it show that “We’re never all going to get along; it’s physically and mentally impossible.” No. The science doesn’t show this at all; it simply shows that there is a limit to the number of individuals we *can*, theoretically, and *do*, as a matter of fact consider as ‘people’ in some full sense similar to how we consider our friends. This has nothing to do with whether we can “all get on” or have “common goals”.

    It is misleading to dichotomise all our social considerations into ‘those concerning 150 people in my monkeysphere’ and ‘those concerning other human-shaped things’.
    Granted, Cameron’s view of Britain doesn’t fit either of these considerations, and you have explained very well why Cameron’s idea of a Big British Society (one big culture) is dire. But does this show that, despite our monkeysphere-biased brains, we can’t get on?

  • Lois says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article. Really well put together. One of the most interesting and thought provoking features I have read in a very long time.

  • Neil W says:

    I think you’re taking the Monkeysphere idea to an extreme. We don’t live in bubbles of 100-200 people that are separate to other people. My friends live in different spheres with different if overlapping groups of people. These network together in a surprisingly efficient manner*. Or to put it another way, there is a continuum of shared experiences and values between our various spheres. In this view, culture emerges from consistent ideas and agreements across large parts of the network.

    Which is not to disagree with your main points. People do work for the benefit of their own sphere. If that’s done poorly it can have effects outside the sphere that will feedback through the network and have effects that were unexpected (racism for example). Done well, it can benefit both the sphere and everyone else (laws, etc.)

    I’m rambling a bit so I’ll stop here.

    * Much as I hate it I will use the phrase “Six degrees of separation” to illustrate this.

  • xen says:

    And if you are lucky enough to have people UNlike you in your monkysphere (maybe a work collegue or school friend from a different culture), and better still in that close ‘core’ of freinds and family, it becomes a whole lot easier to humanise people like them, and gets you a bit closer to viewing other people unlike yourself as humans too… which all brings us back to the whole multiculturalism idea…

    And if you ignore (most?) mass media for a while, there are some really good examples of films, documentaries, journalism, books etc that help us learn to see the humanism of ‘others’. There’s a whole lot of good examples on the curriculum at my kids school. It doesn’t sell papers as fast as scandal or sex, but it is out there if you want to look

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